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India conduct nationals for Para athletes despite hiccups

'Our main aim in proceeding with these Nationals was to ensure the athletes are not starved of an event of this magnitude' 09 Apr 2021
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PCI 2021 Nationals
CHAMPIONS ALL: Haryana state team pose with tophy after winning the overall title in the National Para Athletics Championships. Paralympic Committee of India President Deepa Malik (L) awarded the winners.
ⒸParalympic Committee of India
By Arjun Ganesh / Shrikant Bhagvatula | For the IPC

Organising a sporting event is never easy, and it only gets harder considering the global pandemic. While the Paralympic Committee of India (PCI) had originally scheduled the National Para Athletics Championships at Chennai in the state of Tamil Nadu, COVID-19 pandemic surge forced them to find an alternate venue.

Towards mid-March, the PCI was made aware, courtesy a court ruling, that it could not hold the Championships in Chennai, after which the city of Bengaluru, in the state of Karnataka, was chosen as a viable destination owing to its proximity.

It has been all but smooth sailing for the Championships with the throw events on the opening day, being held under mobile phone torches, a false start for the organising committee.

PCI President, Deepa Malik, divulged the challenges her team had to face in rescheduling at the eleventh hour and sought to put paid to any negativity surrounding the tournament.

"By February, we declared that the nationals were going to be held after getting all the permissions from the Governor and Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. It was just unfortunate that the pandemic changed the entire situation. Our permissions were withdrawn on March 15 and we are still contesting the decision in court.

"Our main aim in proceeding with these nationals was to ensure the athletes are not starved of an event of this magnitude. Since most of them had their tickets booked to Chennai, Bengaluru was the next best option since it is just a four-and-a-half-hour journey," she added.

Throwing light on the unfortunate events from the opening day, Malik said all processes were given the go ahead only after careful consultation with the relevant authorities and the players themselves. With darkness descending, the athletes were given an option to either continue and conclude or complete the event the next day.

"With the incident (mobile phone torches used), we gave the athletes the option of redoing the event but it was their decision to conclude it at that given moment considering they were participating at another venue the next day. The ones who chose not to compete then had been given the option to finish their attempts the next day. All of this was also executed in full view of the sports authorities."  

There are no doubts that the last minute venue change caused a certain level of discomfort and organisational confusion, but day two of the Championships were eventful and processes were in place from then on.

With this being the first event for Indian Para athletes since the lockdown in early 2020, athletes were itching to compete and there was no doubt that these Championships came as a real blessing.

Paralympic Committee of India secretary general Gursharan Singh (L) during the inauguration of the nationals.

WEEKLY COVID-19 TESTS PLANNED FOR PARALYMPIC PROBABLES

With the surge in number of COVID-19 cases starting to disrupt sports activities in the country again, sportspersons in India are worried that this may disrupt their training and competitions ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games in August.

However, the PCI and the Sports Authority of India (SAI), the apex body set up by government to support sports in the country, have taken measures to ensure the Paralympics-bound sportspersons can prepare for the Games without fear about their health and safety.

Indian sportspersons who have qualified for the Paralympic Games and are part of the national camps that are held across the country, will have to undergo precautionary COVID-19 tests (RT-PCR) every week, so as to continue their preparations without hassles.

Staff at the various SAI-run National Centres of Excellence will also have to undergo weekly COVID tests and have been directed to ensure strict quarantine of sportspersons going out of the bio-bubble at these centres and set staggered timings for training.

These guidelines have been included in the revised Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) issued by SAI to curb spread of COVID-19 on its campuses and National Centres of Excellence.

“All precautions and norms will be implemented keeping the Olympic and Paralympic probable athletes in mind, so that their training does not suffer, with special schedules and staggered timings being drawn up so that there is no interruption in training,” SAI said in a statement.

“We have no concerns over our safety as all efforts are being taken to ensure there is no disruption to our training,” said Devendra Jhajharia, two-time gold medallist in Paralympic Games.

The javelin thrower, who is training at SAI’s regional headquarters in Gandhi Nagar, Gujarat, said they have received the new instructions which will come into force from the second week of April.

Despite these efforts by PCI and SAI, sportspersons can’t avoid worrying about the safety of their families, who are outside the bubble. “Of course, we are worried about the health and safety of our family members as the number of cases are rising all over the country,” said Jhajharia.

However, while steps are being taken to ensure health and safety of sportspersons at the national camps, those outside this framework are struggling to keep their training going as each state has issued new set of rules, impacting training.

Like in case of rifle shooter Swaroop Mahavir Unhalkar, who has qualified for the Paralympics and is currently on a break from the national camp after participating in a competition, and is with his family in Pune, in the state of Maharashtra. The state government has ordered a complete lockdown of grounds and training facilities due to the surge in cases.

“I can’t train on my own as the shooting range at Pune has been closed. I am planning to speak to the commissioner, sports, as I have qualified for the Paralympic Games and even SAI allows Olympics-bound sportspersons to train,” Unhalkar said.

In case, he does not get permission to train in Pune, Unhalkar is planning to shift to Hyderabad so that he can use the facilities at the Gun for Glory Academy of Olympic bronze medallist Gagan Narang. The training-cum-competitions camp is expected to start in the capital New Delhi at the end of April and will continue till the contingent head for the Paralympic Games.

Till the camp starts, Unhalkar and other shooters will have to fend for themselves as many states have closed down training academies and facilities.

Para athletes who are not yet part of the national camp but are hoping to qualify for the Paralympic Games through the various qualification events to be held over the next few months, are also looking for options to keep training.