Dutee Chand back on track; other athletes wait for clearer picture

Athlete Dutee Chand resumed training in Odisha on Monday. NOAH SEELAM/AFP via Getty Images

At 6 am on Monday morning, Dutee Chand brought her hand down to the sprinting track, touched it, and then touched it to her head. It had been a ritual she always practiced before stepping on the track. It had also been nearly two months since she had got an opportunity to do so.

Since March 24, all sports facilities in the country had been shut as part of a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus. On Sunday, the Ministry of Home affairs (MHA), however, had issued guidelines that eased the restrictions on sport, allowing sports complexes and sport to open, even while extending the lockdown.

While Dutee was grateful to get back to training, the two-month long layoff clearly had an impact. "I normally begin my training with a 1 km warm-up run. It usually takes me 5 minutes to complete, but this time, it took me over seven minutes. It was as if someone was pulling me from behind. My muscles had become so tight that my body wasn't ready," she says. "Bahut fitness down ho gaya hai (My fitness has reduced a lot). It will take me at least 10 days for the running to feel natural again. But I am just happy I can start training again."

Dutee is one of the lucky ones; most top Indian athletes, especially those who are part of national camps, are still stuck in their rooms and unable to train outdoors. The Home Ministry's clearance on Sunday night for reopening of stadiums and sports complexes -- backed by Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju's tweet -- will take several days, at the least, to be carried out at the ground level. A combination of the usual red tape surrounding Indian sport and the complexities brought on by coronavirus, where local administrations have been allowed to decide on the details of the re-start, is slowing down the process even when most boxes seem to be ticked.

And so, athletes are held back owing to no official order coming from the Sports Authority of India (SAI), whose facilities they train in, or because their state government lockdown orders contradict the Home Ministry guidelines.

Take Dutee's compatriots in the Indian 400m relay team, who are currently stuck in their rooms at the National Institute of Sports (NIS), Patiala. "The guidelines are one thing, but we need a official written order from Sports Authority of India," says Adille Sumariwalla, President of the Athletics Federation of India. "We are training in SAI premises. Without an order, there's no way we can train. They are saying it will come soon. They have given a set of standard operation protocols to the federations, but they have to issue an official order to NIS Patiala that these athletes can start training and give a copy to us. No one will allow us to train without an official order," he says.

The lack of clarity is not only restricted to athletes in the national camps, but is echoed by others too. "We haven't got any update yet. To be honest, forget about our camps. In Delhi, the state guidelines guidelines too permit sport complexes to open but when I asked the DDA sports complex officials if they are open or not they said, 'We don't have any instructions, ask in two days time'. Everyone is expecting further instructions. I'm getting so many calls from people asking if stadiums are open and we can only say we don't know," says RK Sacheti, the Executive Director of the Boxing Federation of India.

If there is a lack of clarity for some, for others, the answer to whether they can start training is a clear no. "MHA might have issued guidelines, but the advisory of the state governments says the other thing. The Telangana government has issued their own advisory and it them, you can't operate stadiums, gyms or sport facilities until the 31st. So that means the Gopichand Academy where our top shuttlers train also have to stay shut," says Ajay Kumar Singhania, General Secretary of the Badminton Association of India.

There are other issues as well. Take the boxing team, for instance. With the exception of High Performace Director Santiago Nieva, none of the boxers or other coaches are in NIS Patiala. "We are all at our homes across the country. We have planned for a smaller team of specifically the boxers, who have qualified for the Olympics or who are expected to qualify, to get back to training eventually. But it won't be possible for the team to get back together unless some sort of transport facility is arranged. We are not expecting to begin training until June," says a coach who didn't want to be named.

Others are unwilling to train, even if the camp or facilities open. "There are still so many cases of coronavirus and the disease is still spreading. There are even some cases in my district. I'm not comfortable training as long as the disease is spreading," says Pooja Rani, who qualified for the Olympics in the women's 75kg boxing category.

In Dutee's case, what has helped is that she is training at an Odisha state government facility, and that with few cases in her state, she's more confident to step out of her home. This meant that she learnt very early on whether she could begin training. "I called up the Odisha state sports department on Sunday and they told me I could come to the stadium. I followed all the procedures. I had to wash my hands with Dettol before I got on the track. I had to make sure that I was the only one on the track when I was training. My coach was on a Whatsapp call with me and my physios were also available on video call," she says.

With her compatriots still stuck in their hostel rooms, Dutee is aware of how lucky she is. "My coach Ramesh sir told me to make the most of my opportunity. Ramesh sir said, 'You have a chance to train, think you still have the Olympics.' But I can't push myself too much," she says. "If I get injured, I won't have a phsyio to help me on the track."