Indian athletes scheduled to compete in sporting events in South Africa are in a state of limbo as a new omicron variant of COVID-19 has raised fears worldwide.
The Junior Women's Hockey World Cup has been postponed, with doubts over the participation of Indian wrestlers at the Commonwealth Championships also arising. Olympic champion Neeraj Chopra's training camp also looks less feasible.
The FIH on Saturday, announced that the Junior Women's Hockey World Cup, scheduled to be held in Potchefstroom from December 5th to 16th, has been put on hold. Meanwhile, the Women's Cricket World Cup qualifiers to be held in neighbouring Zimbabwe have been cancelled. "The safety of everyone involved in the FIH events is an absolute priority. Additionally, many countries, including from some of the participating teams, have now strongly increased their travel restrictions with South Africa, including halting flights. Therefore, it simply isn't possible to maintain this event as planned," FIH CEO Thierry Weil said in a statement.
It's a disappointing outcome, given the importance of an FIH Junior World Cup in the development of young players. The tournament would have been the first competition for a few of India's women hockey players since the Tokyo Olympics, where they had had a fairytale run before eventually finishing fourth. Forward Lalremsiami, who was a part that team, was to lead the country's 18-member junior squad at the tournament in South Africa.
There is further uncertainty over the fate of 60 wrestlers who were expected to take part in the Commonwealth Wrestling Championships that were to be held in Pretoria between 30th November and 7th December. "We've spoken to the organisers in South Africa and they have said that there were no immediate plans to call off the tournament. However, we might face issues later, as we have learned that several flights from South Africa [to India] have been cancelled," said Vinod Tomar, secretary of the wrestling federation of India.
The UK announced on Thursday that all flights to and from South Africa and five neighbouring countries would be banned from Friday, following an announcement that the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 had been detected in South Africa. The Indian government meanwhile, announced on Friday that airlines will be allowed to operate 50 per cent of their scheduled passenger flights between India and South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana from December 15.
However, there have been calls to further restrict travel between the two nations. India does not have an air bubble arrangement -- which allows special passenger flights between two countries amid COVID-related restrictions -- with South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana. Also, these three countries are classified under the "at-risk" category by India's Ministry of Health.
Should the wrestlers travel to South Africa, that might result in issues when they return to India "We don't know if there will be restrictions on passengers returning from South Africa in the coming days. We will likely take a call on Monday (29th November)," said Tomar.
It isn't just competitors who face issues. Several Indian athletes train in South Africa over the winter since the weather is more suitable for practice at this time of the year. Olympic javelin champion Neeraj Chopra was also scheduled to train in South Africa but it is learned that that plan is being reconsidered as well.
Chopra had trained in South Africa in the end of 2019 as he looked to make a comeback from elbow surgery. At the end of that stint, he competed at a meet in Potchefstroom, from where he eventually qualified for the Olympics.