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A new age in the new normal when sports restart

Avishek Roy | HT

New Delhi

Empty stadiums, antibody tests, not using locker rooms, showering only when they get home, no sharing of equipment, no running in the slipstream of others—these are just some things that may become the new normal for athletes as they return to training in the Covid-19 environment.

The Australian Institute of Sports (AIS), the country’s famed high-performance centre, has come out with a comprehensive framework for “rebooting sports” that may well become the model for other countries to follow.

The Indian sports fraternity is in fact looking for guidelines as they gear up to resume training activities when the nationwide lockdown is lifted on May 17.

Athletes have been either training at home, or in isolation in their quarters at Sports Authority of India centres for more than six weeks now. At the National Institute of Sport, Patiala, for example more than 60 athletes—including javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra and members of the national 4x400m relay team—have been cooped up since March 24 with no access to training facilities, despite the centre not allowing any outsiders to come in.

On Tuesday, the Indian Olympic Association chief Narinder Batra asked all national sports federations for detailed inputs on how and when they would like to resume training.

“We have requested the government to allow the players to train outdoors,” Batra had said earlier in the week.

The AIS guidelines back this move. “International evidence to date is suggestive that outdoor activities are a lower risk setting for COVID-19 transmission,” the document says. It goes on to list exhaustive general as well as sport-specific guidelines, for example, by asking athletes not to use common locker room facilities, but to arrive for training fully kitted, and to shower only when back home. Sharing equipment, towels, water bottles, and communal meals are also to be avoided.

“Some of these things our athletes generally do,” said India’s chief badminton coach Pullela Gopichand. “They go back home and shower, so there is less use of bathrooms in training centers. As far as equipment sharing is concerned, shuttlers are in a better space because it is not a team sport and individually we can isolate.”

3-level guideline

The AIS guidelines are divided into phases, with level A being the most restrictive, and level C a return to full use of training facilities. “The timing of progression between levels will be influenced by any evidence of transmission within the sporting cohort,” the guidelines say.

Contact sports

For a contact sport like boxing, the same level permits only shadow sparring and non-contact technical work with coaches using bag, pads, shields etc. The AIS protocol recommends that recovery sessions be done at home, and team meetings be done online.

“We have to adapt to the situation. We have been discussing all these things,” said Santiago Nieva, Indian boxing’s high performance director. “The first two weeks we will not do sparring. We will start with smaller groups in the boxing hall. Our boxers have their own equipment – gloves, headgears, gum shields. If we do weight training, we will have to work in groups of four of five maybe and then disinfect everything, give some time, and go on to the next group,” he said.

The AIS guidelines also detail the medical assessment process before resumption of training, depending on athlete and sport-specific risk factors (low for non-contact solo sports, high for contact and team sports), including PCR and antibody testing.

Not anytime soon

The Wrestling Federation of India (WFI), sees little chance of beginning training any time soon.

“It might take 3-4 months or more since the situation is very scary,” said Vinod Tomar, assistant secretary of WFI. “Wrestling is a combat sport, training wouldn’t be possible if wrestlers are scared of their training partners. We have apprised the IOA about the problem earlier and firmly stick to it. We don’t want to rush back to training.”

The step after return-to-training will be even harder: the resumption of competition. Here, Gopichand believes, sporting administrators will have to be ‘smart, aggressive and radical.’

Even during these testing times, the coach said, some live sports will make a big difference.

“For all of us who are locked up at home, live sport is refreshing,” Gopichand said. “We can’t be watching the same television channels forever. Every day if there is an IPL or a badminton match there will be something to look forward to.”

But sports will have to move away from its traditional structure—for example, in the way elite sports moves around the world in a touring format—at least in the near future. “Badminton and tennis can have a relook at their programmes because of the way we are travelling,” he said. “The entourage is just moving from place to place to a new country and that is a cause of concern. Instead we can have a league and get the top players, isolate them for two months in a hotel which is quarantined, and then play tournaments for successive weeks in a stadium which is quarantined…no spectators.”

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