Ever since COVID cases started rising in China’s most populous city of Shanghai some two months back, there have been a lot of whispers going around about ‘how could the Asian Games in the capital of Zhejiang province, about 175 kilometres southwest of Shanghai, go ahead amid this fear?’
The inevitable finally happened when the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) made an announcement on Friday last week that this year’s Asian Games in China are being postponed because of concerns about the spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19.
It came less than three months after Beijing hosted the Winter Olympics and Paralympics. The OCA said it had not picked new dates but would announce them soon after talks with the Chinese Olympic Committee. However, all indications of rescheduling point to the Asian Games 2022 being moved to 2023.
It has been made clear that the local organizers were very well prepared to deliver the Games on time despite the global challenges, but the decision was taken by all the stakeholders (participating countries) after carefully considering the pandemic situation and the size of the Games.
It is also important to mention here that the ruling Communist Party of China is holding a major meeting in the second half of this year, and that’s why it doesn’t want any criticism because of its ill handling of the COVID-related issue.
The Asian Games were to take place from 10 to 25 September, involving more than 11,000 athletes – more than the typical Summer Olympic Games. The Indonesian city of Jakarta held the last edition in 2018.
The World University Games (WUG), another major multi-sport event, has also been postponed for a second time. Not to forget, that WUG was originally scheduled for 2021 but was rescheduled for 26 June to 7 July this year in the western city of Chengdu. About 6,000 athletes were expected to attend this meet.
The Switzerland-based International University Sports Federation, which runs the games, said they would be held in 2023 but gave no specific date or details.
Indian athletes in disarray
The OCA announcement has left every Indian athlete, especially the track and field athletes, in a state of shock.
India had won 16 gold medals in Jakarta, and eight of them were won in track and field events. They also bagged nine silver and three bronze medals. Going by the training schedule of almost all the disciplines, athletes were expected to reach their peak at the time of the Asiad.
The Athletics Federation of India has currently regulated three national camps in Patiala, Trivandrum and Bengaluru. Javelin throwers, shot putters and racewalkers have been training in Patiala. Trivandrum in Kerala has been hosting a camp for 400m and 100m athletes, while horizontal jumpers and mid-and long-distance runners have been training in Bengaluru.
Olympic javelin gold medallist Neeraj Chopra has been training in Antalya, Turkey since March. Barring Neeraj and a select few elite athletes, who are also preparing for the tougher Commonwealth Games (CWG) and World Athletics Championships, the remaining squad has only been aiming for the Asiad.
The Birmingham CWG is slated to be held a month and a half ahead of the Asian Games (28 July to 8 August 8) and will continue as per schedule.
The latest development has, in fact, left many athletes with no other choice but to halt their preparations at the eleventh hour. This also means that there is a wastage of government money and resources as most of the games’ federations will have to host the camps and trails again next year as and when the new dates are announced. Only athletes who were scheduled to compete in long-distance races at both the CWG and the Asiad will be relieved.
“For long-distance runners, especially marathon runners, this is good news because both the tournaments are scheduled so close to each other that it won’t be possible for them to run at CWG and recover and peak in time for Asiad,” India’s 3000m steeplechase national record holder Avinash Sable’s coach Amrish Kumar said.
Not every Indian athlete is complaining about the postponement. For someone like badminton star Saina Nehwal, the news has come as a big relief.
Saina, who is now out of the top 15 in the world rankings, skipped the selection trials for the CWG and the Asiad as she wanted to take it easy with her comeback schedule. Now that the CWG and Asian Games will have some time between them, it would give her a chance to get back into the Indian squad and earn another shot at winning an Asian Games medal.
However, it may not be good news for top women’s tennis star, Sania Mirza, who has already announced her retirement after the 2022 season. The 35-year-old now has to sit down and chalk out a fresh strategy in case she wants to go out on a high note. In that case, Sania will have to stretch her career by a few more months.
India’s weightlifting head coach Vijay Sharma is also left disappointed at the news. With Mirabai Chanu winning silver at the Tokyo Games, it was expected that she would be a strong contender for gold at the Asian Games. An Asian Games medal is the only major silverware missing from Mirabai’s cabinet.
India’s last medal in weightlifting at the Asiad was won by Karnam Malleshwari, a silver at the 1998 Games.
“We have to change all the plans now as we were focusing on the Asian Games in particular. We were hoping for a good show, but now we need to revisit our planning and strategy,” said Sharma. Mirabai will compete in the 49kg category at the event instead of the 55kg category at the CWG.
Veteran male archer Tarundeep Rai is also in a fix as he has also announced his retirement after Asiad. “I feel I am reaching the peak in my career again after the bad Olympic dream last year. I recently won the World Cup mixed gold for the first time (with Ridhi Phor) at Antalya and everything was going as per the plans,” the 38-year-old archer said.
However, India’s star women archer Deepika Kumari must be thanking her stars after hearing about the postponement. Having failed to make it to the Asian Games squad, Deepika has been lying low for some time. “No doubt it’s good news for both of us (husband Atanu Das, who also could not clear the trials). We have got a new lifeline and can start all over again”, an elated Deepika said.
The story of women’s squash champion Dipika Pallikal is different from others. Having been out of the sport after giving birth to twins, Pallikal recently won the World Doubles Championship alongside Joshna Chinappa and was training hard for the CWG and Asiad.
With squash not yet a part of the Olympic journey, the players eagerly wait for the CWG and Asiad to earn some name and fame. Pallikal and other Indian squash players can now focus entirely on CWG and thus have more time to prepare for the Asian Games.
Athletes participating in games like Sepak Takraw, Wushu, Kurash, and newly-introduced Esports have been left completely disoriented with the news of postponement, as the Asian Games are the only opportunity for them to come into the limelight once every four years.
The athletes still remain hopeful and eagerly await the news of the next dates for the Asian Games. But, with no signs of a complete cure for the pandemic, nothing can guarantee against another postponement or, worse, cancellation!