Some of India’s top javelin throwers, including Neeraj Chopra, and coaches have been put in quarantine rooms for 14 days at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala. The deputy chief coach of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) has isolated himself for a fortnight. At least two national campers were told by NIS officials to leave the premises on Thursday though the AFI had asked them to travel to Patiala from their respective training bases for the first leg of the Indian Grand Prix.
At a time when the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has resulted in either the cancellation or postponement of many sports event, including Olympic qualifiers, the AFI over the past week was adamant on its events calendar.
That was till Thursday when the sports ministry in a bid to stop federations like the AFI from conducting national competitions or selection trials issued more stringent restrictions.
All national sports federations were told not to conduct ‘tournaments and selection trials’ till April 15. Olympic-bound athletes are also to be isolated from anyone not a part of their training camp, the advisory stated.
The AFI informed coaches and athletes about the cancellation of the Indian GP. However, there was no official announcement of the event being called off.
The Federation Cup, a qualification event for the Tokyo Olympics, which was scheduled to be held from April 10 to 13 also stands cancelled.
When social isolation, self-quarantine and medical screening is being followed across the country and new cases of Coronavirus are being reported daily, the AFI had earlier this week announced that the first and second legs of the Indian Grand Prix series will be held in Patiala on March 20 and 25.
This decision was arrived at after taking internal feedback from coaches and officials. Spectators were barred though. The AFI accepted over 175 entries from athletes across the country — among them those who would have to take different modes of transport to reach NIS and compete in the same arena as the national campers.
The next day, better sense prevailed and the AFI restricted participation in the Indian GP to national campers and some of the events for men and women were culled. There was no talk of cancellation though.
A day later some of India’s top javelin throwers, including Neeraj Chopra, Shivpal Singh and Annu Rani returned from their respective training bases in Turkey and South Africa, along with foreign coaches, and headed to the NIS. In 24 hours, they were transferred to ‘quarantine rooms’.
Sprinter Dutee Chand, who is part of the national camp, left from Bhubaneshwar to Patiala to participate in the Indian GP. Another national camper too moved out of his training base in Kerala and arrived in Patiala. Both travelled only after checking with the federation if they should. Both athletes, stayed overnight at the NIS, but were told by officials to head back home on Thursday.
The Indian GP was scheduled to go ahead as planned by the AFI even while its deputy chief coach Radhakrishnan Nair has been in self-quarantine for a week at the NIS. Nair completed the round trip from Patiala-Chandigarh-Trivandrum but on return was suffering from a cough and cold. He is not the only one whose movements have been restricted. Bio-mechanics expert Dr. Klaus Bartonietz is also in self-quarantine.
For athletes like Dutee, who travelled to Patiala after checking with the AFI, the eleventh hour cancellation has been a nightmare.
On Thursday evening Dutee travelled from Patiala to Delhi by road, from where she will take a flight back to Bhubaneshwar on Friday morning. “Before leaving for Patiala on Wednesday, I had checked with AFI if it was advisable to travel. I was told the Indian GP would happen as per schedule. On arrival in Patiala, I was screened and I stayed in the hostel. But today (Thursday) I was told by NIS officials to leave the premises immediately. Now I have to head back all the way to Bhubaneshwar. I understand the current situation with the Coronavirus pandemic and was surprised that the Indian GP was being held in the first place,” Dutee said.
Another athlete who did not want to be quoted said: “The AFI’s argument is that the Olympics have not been canceled so the Indian GP should be held. But they should have been more sensitive to the issue. The Olympic qualification period is open till the end of June, so national events could have been conducted if and when the health situation in the country improved,” the athlete said.
According to an AFI official, the Federation Cup could be held in late May or early June if the Olympics are not cancelled by then.
The official also added that there was free movement at the NIS from outside with workers moving in and out of the campus where some of the country’s best athletes are staying.
Sports secretary Radhey Shyam Julaniya said the new instructions issued on Thursday was done to ensure that national federations cancelled selection trials. “In the earlier advisory, we had said a sporting event could be held without spectators. But since then, the situation has evolved and we have had to take new measures. Quite a few domestic tournaments and selection trials were being planned. So as a precaution, we have now issued a new advisory and advised that no sporting event be held till April 15,” Julaniya said.
AFI president Adille Sumariwalla said ‘our aim is to keep our athletes safe and also get athletes ready for the Olympic Games which are as of today on schedule.”