Initial confusion over the government’s order and then going through the rigmarole of state-level implementation of guidelines have delayed athletes’ return to training, despite the Centre declaring sports complexes and stadia open on Sunday. To add to it, the death of a Sports Authority of India (SAI) employee in Bengaluru, who tested positive for Covid-19, has only complicated the resumption of activities for the country’s elite sportspersons.
The revised lockdown guidelines released by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on Sunday gave more than a hundred athletes, who have been confined to their rooms at the SAI Centres in Patiala and Bangalore since March 25, a glimmer of hope. That has now gradually given way to anxiety. “We are still indoors and waiting for orders from SAI before our training can resume,” national weightlifting coach Vijay Sharma said. The order, however, might still be some time away.
It is learnt that since the time the MHA released its advisory, SAI and the sports ministry have been in the process of obtaining multiple clearances and clarifications before firming up their reopening strategy. According to a federation official, there was uncertainty at the beginning on whether the guidelines were applicable to SAI centres since NIS, Patiala also doubles up as an educational institute.
“Point number 2.5 of the MHA guidelines states that sports complexes and stadia can open. However, point 2.3 says education institutes should remain closed,” the official, who is the federation president of one of the priority sports, said. “So at first, that was one of the confusing parts.”
A SAI official said another problem was the interpretation of the guidelines. “While the guidelines gave us the green signal to open our complexes,” the official said, “in the very next point, the MHA said all sports events and gatherings were prohibited. So, there we had to be clear in our interpretation of the advisory since the two points seemed to be contradicting each other.”
Then, there were some routine bureaucratic delays: SAI waited for the sports ministry to clear the confusion, while the latter said since the MHA had spelt out the directives, they had no role to play. By Monday evening, these issues were clarified and sports minister Kiren Rijiju, too, declared the complexes and stadia open for athletes to restart training.
However, while those who were at non-SAI centres – sprinter Dutee Chand, for example, who is training in Odisha, or the trainees at the PT Usha Academy in Kozhikode – returned to the track in the subsequent days, those stuck inside the Patiala and Bengaluru campuses have still not been able to do so.
The reason, according to a sports ministry official, is that SAI first has to get clearances from the respective state governments. “In the latest advisory, the states have been given the ultimate power to decide what activities to allow. So without their clearance, and without checking the zone in which a particular facility falls, we can’t open,” the official said. “The decision has to be taken in collaboration with the state government and only then practice can resume.” The state governments of Punjab and Karnataka have allowed sports complexes to open, in line with the centre’s advisory.
SAI director general Sandip Pradhan did not respond to calls and messages seeking his views on the delay. Another official from the organisation said they are expecting the sports ministry to approve their Standard Operating Procedure on Thursday, after which the process to reopen the facilities could move forward swiftly. The official, however, did not commit to a timeframe.
“There are a lot of precautionary measures that have to be taken before we allow activities to resume. First, we have to sanitise the entire facility, especially the training areas, and then bring in more staff to deal with the increase in workload. So that process takes time,” the official said.
The incident involving a SAI cook in Bengaluru, who died from a heart attack and then tested positive for coronavirus, has also given the officials cold feet. According to SAI, the cook had visited the centre to attend a meeting to discuss the resumption of kitchen activities, given that the training of the women’s and men’s hockey teams was likely to resume this week. Now, that plan is put on hold and the senior staff of the centre has been quarantined.
“There is no decision taken so far on whether this will impact the resumption of activities in Bengaluru. The incident has shown that it is risky to start training. In both those centres, there will be a thorough process followed before any kind of activity will begin,” an official said.–