“To be honest, I am not thinking about the Olympics right now. At the moment, we have to be careful from the virus. That doesn’t mean I have stopped training. I have been training everyday but simultaneously, it’s important to take care of our health too.” – Bajrang Punia, wrestler
Being confined to the basement of a Sonepat high-rise building, working out in a small, under-lit area and then preparing a meal for his roommates – even as a distraction – was not quite how Bajrang Punia imagined marking the 125-day countdown for the Tokyo Olympics.
The plan, originally, was to be in Russia; sparring with some of the elite grapplers in wrestling-crazy Dagestan, applying finishing touches to a four-year slog that made him a favourite to medal in Tokyo. Instead, he is now locked in his apartment, flipping through news channels and tapping on the screen of his phone to get the latest on Covid-19.
The outbreak of the pandemic and its impact on lives globally has put into perspective the current scenario for Bajrang: most of all, he has realised that sport can take a backseat in such times. Not too long ago, just a week back, in fact, he couldn’t wait to touchdown in Tokyo and step on the mat inside the Makuhari Messe Hall. Now, he wants the Olympics to wait.
“The way things are going on right now, it will be better if the Olympics are postponed. It will be beneficial not just for us, but for athletes from all countries. This is a difficult moment for everyone,” Bajrang tells The Indian Express. “If they (IOC) go ahead as scheduled and other countries go, then we will also have to go. But it will be better if they wait for two-four months, or till the situation gets better. Zindagi rahi toh hi Olympics khel payenge (We will be able to compete at the Olympics only if we stay alive). But if you lose your life, then what’s the point of the Olympics?”
The International Olympic Committee (IOC), which has come under severe pressure to defer the Games as the virus brings lives across the world to a grinding halt, is considering ‘different scenarios’ according to its president Thomas Bach. But any talk of a postponement or cancellation have been played down, for now, although some kind of a decision is likely to be taken in the coming few days.
Bajrang has waited for long to be at the Games. He had a chance to be at Rio 2016, but sacrificed it so that his mentor Yogeshwar Dutt, a bronze medalist at the 2012 Olympics, could go. Both wrestlers competed in the same weight class.
In the following four-year cycle, leading up to Tokyo, Bajrang consolidated his position among the world’s best and is the favourite for a podium finish. But all that, the glamour of the Games and the glitter of a medal, can wait, he feels. “To be honest, I am not thinking about the Olympics right now. At the moment, we have to be careful from the virus. That doesn’t mean I have stopped training. I have been training everyday but simultaneously, it’s important to take care of our health too,” he says. “Olympics will come again in 2024.”
.@BajrangPunia always sets the bar higher and higher, and then conquers it effortlessly! 🙏🏼
— JSW Sports (@jswsports) March 18, 2020
As has been the case with athletes across the world, the training programmes of several Indians has been disrupted in the last two weeks. Vinesh Phogat, for instance, had to cut short her training stint in Norway and return. She is now practising at an akhara near her home, while her coach Woller Akos sends her a daily plan on WhatsApp. Javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra has been in self-isolation after returning from Turkey while the boxers and shooters will not be training at least till the end of this month.
Bajrang’s plan was to leave on March 6 for Dagestan, a popular training destination for some of the top wrestlers of the world. But he cancelled his plan after the coronavirus outbreak and decided to stay put in Sonepat. For around 10 days, he continued training at the Sports Authority of India centre there. Once the situation in India too got serious, he stopped that as well. “These are tough times for everyone. People in the USA, China, Russia, Iran, Italy… not just for us Indians. Even the Russian and Iranian wrestlers are training at home right now,” he says.
On Sunday, his personal coach Shako Bentinidis returned home to Georgia. “So nowadays, I just do some physical training. There’s a basement in my apartment, a small area, but I jog there for some time to warm up, then do around 500 to 700 sit-ups and a few stretching exercises,” Bajrang says. “I have a sparring partner (Jitender Kumar) but we don’t have a mat so there is no chance of mat practice.”
The other reason not to spar is to make sure there’s physical distancing between him and his training partners. Given that wrestling requires intimate contact between the two competitors, Bajrang is avoiding any risk. He and his training partners have virtually locked themselves up in their apartment, leaving only when unavoidable.
He knows athletes are not immune from catching this disease. “We are humans as well. So it’s not like we won’t get affected by this. This disease, as they say, spreads from human contact. And wrestling is a contact sport. So we have to be extra careful.”
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