Focus, attitude key for Indians on unpredictable road to Tokyo Olympics

Santiago Nieva believes Mary Kom's track record is proof that this delay won't have much effect on her preparation. Cameraworxpix

On Tuesday evening, following the IOC's decision to postpone the Olympics by a year, 2016 Olympic pole vault champion Katerina Stefanidi tried to see the bright side of the situation. "Yesterday my breakfast was egg and oatmeal. Today it was cheesecake," she tweeted. "I bought a six pack of coke and a gooey chocolate cake. Can't wait to tuck in," World 100m champion Dina Asher Smith replied. Where athletes would once have been sharpening their skills and shaping up to peak in about four months' time, they have now learned they will have to take a step back. Eventually, they will get back to their training routines, but right now, a comforting slice of cheesecake doesn't seem like such a bad idea.

Cheesecake is not on the menu for Indian shooter Manu Bhaker, though. The 18-year old, a seven-time gold medallist at the ISSF World Cup, was one of India's best medal hopes at the Tokyo Olympics. All this week, though, she's been at home in Jhajjhar, Haryana, as India entered a three-week lockdown amid the COVID-19 pandemic. "I'm eating just regular food. We are trying to save resources, trying to make them last," she says.

As Indian athletes look to prepare once more for next year's Games, they have to surmount other challenges. Across the country, camps have been called off and athletes sent home. Players have traded wrestling mats for hastily rolled out carpets, synthetic running tracks for a backyard garden. Yet this period is critical, says sports physiotherapist Dr. Nikhil Latey. "How they prepare right now is crucial for their prospects next year," he says. "How athletes do depends on three factors: What sports you are in, what facilities you have, and your attitude."

The silver lining

What's common to all athletes is that there is little chance of training at the same intensity as they used to, which isn't an entirely bad situation. "Since there are no major competitions on the horizon, there's no need to be training at 100 percent. It takes a lot out of you physically, emotionally and mentally to be pushing yourself at that level over a prolonged period. Athletes can consider this a kind of off-season and that's an absolute necessity in training. Lighter loads mean injuries,have a chance to heal up and you have a chance to recover physically and mentally," says Latey.

An off-season doesn't mean absolute rest, though. "Most athletes are going to take an enforced break. But in sport, that is the hardest to do. (Australian hockey player) Jamie Dwyer once told me the only way he'd been able to play as long as he did was to avoid long breaks. It's a rest period, but that doesn't mean you sit in front of the TV and snack all day. Especially in a physical sport - you can lose fitness in 10 days and if the coach pushes you a little too hard, too soon when you return, you will get injured," says former Indian captain Viren Rasquinha.

"After my finishing my MBA, I tried to play hockey at the same intensity and pulled my hamstring right away. The body doesn't respond and that's especially true after you are about 27 or 28 years old," says Rasquinha.

Indian coaches are well aware of this. "I've told the boxers, 'You are at home, so relax and have fun with your family. But make sure to take out at least an hour of your day to work out. Make sure you are stretching before every workout. You have one year before the Olympics and you can't afford to get injured,'" says Chotey Lal Yadav, personal coach of 38-year-old MC Mary Kom.

Sport-wise constraints

While it's important to keep ticking over, there are limits to what can be achieved, especially when athletes are training away from proper sports facilities. Instead of the world class, multi-lane Karni Singh Shooting Range in New Delhi, where the Indian team usually sets up camp, Bhaker has to train at a makeshift facility at home. It's actually just a balcony that was covered from one side and jerry-rigged with an old-fashioned, mechanically-operated device that loads paper targets. "It's like shooting in a single lane. It's a lot slower and I can't shoot as much as at the camp because it takes time between rounds to manually load the target, but it's fine," says Bhaker.

Bhaker counts herself grateful to at least have some shooting facility at home. That isn't an option for most others. "Most boxers who are at home don't have great facilities. So I send them a plan keeping this in mind. They have to train in a limited space. If you can train in a room, then you do that. If you can train on your roof, you do that. Mostly they have to do bodyweight exercises or skipping," says Chotey Lal.

Skipping and push-ups only take you so far. "What you are looking at is staying at about 40-50 percent of your readiness at best. It doesn't matter how much you skip or do pad work. Unless you have high-quality human opposition pushing you or hitting back at you, you can't get beyond that," says Latey. Some sports will clearly be harder. "In contact sports, you could be at 50 percent. If it's a team sport, it's going to be even harder because you won't have any match practice. The coordination between team members will be missing," says Latey.

The challenge is especially true for athletes in sports with weight-based categories. "Wrestlers and boxers, especially in the lighter weight categories, have to be careful to control their weight. Someone like Ravi Dahiya competes in the 57kg division, to which he cuts down from about 60kg. But if he puts on even two or three kilos more, he would have to lose something like 10 percent of his bodyweight when he does return to compete. That can cause further health issues," says Rasquinha.

"In weight-based sports, you have to find a way to maintain weight. Since the intensity of your workout will lower, you have to reduce your food as well. Otherwise, instead of having a one-month preseason camp, you are looking at something like two months," says Latey.

"I've been hearing for the last four years that Mary Kom is getting too old to compete. Each year, she goes and proves everyone wrong." Santiago Nieva

The importance of attitude

To be successful next year, most athletes will have to find a way to adapt and improvise. Whether they manage to do so, says Latey, depends on their attitude. "It's okay to be disappointed. But if they have a defeatist attitude, they will struggle. Some older athletes have wondered whether they will be able to maintain the physical conditioning required to compete at an elite level. It is a legitimate concern, especially since many Indian sportspersons in their late thirties are at the absolute end of their professional career."

As someone who has supported multiple athletes as CEO of Olympic Gold Quest, Rasquinha, however, says it is actually the younger athletes he's worried about. "Especially if they've never had to deal with injury, this period is probably the first time that many of them have been forced into a period where they haven't been able to train as much as before. Older athletes have gone through many situations like this in their career. They have a lot more experience in how to handle them," he says.

The case study for dealing with such adversity has to be six-time World Champion Mary Kom, who qualified for her second Olympics just two weeks before the lockdown in India. When asked about whether the year's delay might prove devastating, Santiago Nieva, the boxing team's high-performance director, dismissed the notion almost instantly. "I've been hearing for the last four years that Mary Kom is getting too old to compete. Each year, she goes and proves everyone wrong. I really don't think this delay will do much to stop her," he says.

Latey, who has worked extensively with Kom, agrees. "In her career, she's overcome so many things that would have ended anyone else's career. She's had two separate pregnancies, the second of which was in her thirties. She's someone who, if you put in a 10 foot by 10 foot room, will find a way to stay motivated and on track," he says.

The unpredictable

Of course, despite every athlete's best efforts, there could be further curveballs to dodge. "An athlete could do everything right but there is a caveat. An athlete can maintain a 40 or 50 percent level for a couple of months. But what if the lockdown extends further? Beyond a point of time, the signs of de-training will become steadily more apparent. If any athlete picks up an injury, it will get harder to treat. The longer this situation lasts, the more of a mental game this becomes," says Latey.

Bhaker, in particular, will be hoping it doesn't get to that. She's dealing with pain in her shooting shoulder and arm but because there's no way to be treated by a physiotherapist, she's coping as best she can. Stuck at home, she's sticking as close to her regular training routine as possible. "The Olympics have been delayed, they haven't been cancelled. I'm still completely focused on the Olympics. I do what I can indoors. I maintain my regular sleep cycle get up at 630 every day, do yoga and also shoot for five hours each day," she says.

There's no cheat days or cake, either. "That can wait until after the Olympics," she says.