Her feet submerged in muddy water, boxer Lovlina Borgohain is sowing paddy in Assam’s Golaghat. In Chandigarh, shooter Anjum Moudgil has swapped her air rifle for a paintbrush. Swimmer Srihari Nataraj is strumming a guitar in Bengaluru. And in Andhra’s Amalapuram, shuttler Satwiksairaj Rankireddy is busy — not with a racquet, but a mosquito-swatter to keep malaria away.
If all had been well, all of them would have strutted out at the National Stadium in Tokyo on Friday, for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games.
But then, all is not well.
Instead of being a part of the 100-odd member Indian contingent at the biggest sporting event in the world — the goal of a lifetime — they are at home, leading ordinary lives, resigned to an excruciating wait.
Four months ago, for the first time ever, the International Olympic Committee and organisers in Tokyo postponed the Olympics following the Covid outbreak. The Games will now begin on July 23, 2021.
Moudgil, who has been selling her paintings to help those financially affected by the pandemic, finds comfort in the thought that “the Olympics will at least take place”. “Our first match would have been on Saturday. When I thought about it on Wednesday, I started to feel nervous,” she says. “I have mixed feelings about the wait… we can have a go at it next year.”
Moudgil was one of the first Indians to qualify. And she could also have been among the first to finish on the podium on Day One, with an unprecedented seven Indians in medal contention in four events. The others? Pistol shooters Saurabh Chaudhary and Abhishek Verma, Moudgil’s teammate and rifle shooter Apurvi Chandela, weightlifter Mirabai Chanu and the archers in a mixed team event.
Verma, a lawyer by qualification, received his licence from the Bar Council of India last Monday and is hoping to start practice. “The Olympics are a year away and there are no competitions this year. So after daily training, I hope to start my practice simultaneously,” he says, adding that Constitutional law and cybercrime are his areas of interest.
His 18-year-old teammate Chaudhary, world No. 4, is training in the cowshed-shooting range at his home in UP’s Kalina.
Chanu, who won the World Championship gold in 2017, has resumed training after spending nearly three months in her hostel room at the National Institute of Sport in Patiala. “Corona has killed all our emotions,” says Chanu’s coach Vijay Sharma. “We are just praying for normalcy to return.”
Even the veterans are struggling to cope. “I have spent the last four months watching TV, doing yoga, cooking and mopping the floor,” says archer Deepika Kumari, a two-time Olympian. “I miss the buzz of the Olympic Games, the stress, nervousness and excitement. It’s a mundane life right now.”
For some others, too, mundane is the new normal. Shuttler Rankireddy says he has been training but also busy swatting mosquitoes in the evenings. “They are a big problem in this season and we don’t want to take the risk of falling ill and going to hospital. At home, we have to shut all windows and doors by 6 pm or the malarial mosquitoes become dangerous,” he says.
For Nataraj, the lockdown meant no haircut — his curls are now up to shoulder length. Swimmers prefer to keep their hair trimmed to minimise resistance in the water. But Nataraj’s new avatar is complete with funky, Olympic rings-shaped glasses, and a guitar around his shoulder. “Some people still have long hair, but I’ll cut it before a big meet. I got those goggles at the Youth Olympics. My brother had left the guitar at home, I’m learning how to play it,” he says.
The 18-year-old national record holder in 100m backstroke is hoping to secure qualification for the Games when the events resume. So far, 74 Indian athletes in seven sports have made the cut, with more expected to seal their spots at the qualification events in the first half of 2021.
As for 2020, the government and sports federations have decided that no athlete will be allowed to travel abroad for training for safety reasons — and, barring a few sports like badminton and wrestling, there are no international tournaments likely to be conducted.
For boxer Borgohain, however, all of this has come as a blessing in disguise. After work at the paddy field, she rushes home to cook for her bed-ridden mother. In the evening, she straps on her gloves and practises alone in a tiny room with a boxing bag and treadmill.
“My mother has been unwell and was hospitalised. Now, I can take care of her without worrying about anything else.”
(With Shahid Judge, Shashank Nair & Shivani Naik)
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