Wrestlers on edge as Coronavirus casts shadow over Asian Championships

Tourists wear protective facemasks near India Gate in New Delhi on February 13, 2020. Getty Images

Dr. Kohei Nakajima, a member of the United World Wrestling's medical committee, was watching the Japanese wrestling team practice at New Delhi's Indira Gandhi Stadium on the eve of the Asian Wrestling Championships, when a notification buzzed on his phone.

It wasn't pleasant news.

"That's not good. They've just cancelled the Tokyo marathon," he remarked.

While the marathon had not been cancelled entirely - just the amateur section open to public participation - it was just the latest sporting event that had been affected by the Novel Coronavirus that originated in China early this year and has affected over 65000 people, at the time of publishing, in that country alone. Among other events, the women's Olympic football qualifying event, World Athletics Indoor Championships, F1 Grand Prix in Shanghai and Asia/Oceania Olympic Boxing Qualifiers have also been either cancelled or rescheduled.

The Asian Championships, too, have been affected. On Monday, it was confirmed that China - and their 40-member team that comprise four current and former world champions in just the women's section -- wouldn't be participating in the tournament.

"We have got to know that the government has not granted visas to the Chinese contingent and so they are not taking part in the championships," Vinod Tomar, assistant secretary of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI), said. North Korea and Turkmenistan had earlier pulled out of the tournament as well. To date, no player has been diagnosed with the virus.

For the players who have shown up in New Delhi, the shadow of the virus isn't far from their minds.

"Before we came to India, I just checked how many cases had been confirmed in India. It's only three but we are trying to take all precautions," says Nakajima.

"Before we came to India, we had to fill out a form stating none of our players travelled to China over the past two months. We are also taking the temperatures of the players daily. You just want to be safe in these situations."

The safety-first approach extended to the practice hall as well. Following their training session, the Japanese contingent wiped their hands with handwash. Air filter masks were worn by athletes from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan before and after their sessions.

"There's a lot of concern about this virus. It's a serious issue in East Asia," said Ji Heong, coach of the South Korean team. "If you go around Seoul these days, you will see most people are wearing masks. It's challenging for wrestlers because we are in very close contact with others.

"It's more concerning in a closed environment where everyone is breathing the same air-conditioned air. It's not possible to wear the mask while practicing but we put it on once the training ends."

Heong says the South Korean team doctor has advised them further precautions even once they get back to their hotel rooms: "We are being advised to wash our hands constantly. Each time they come in or out from their rooms, we are being told to wash our hands."

Nakajima, for his part, is hopeful that such concerns of health and safety won't have to become the norm. "Of course there are so many sports events that are affected and forced to be rescheduled by this illness but even as a doctor I'm hoping this virus can be brought under control soon," he said.