However, Bajrang jumped the queue and the state health officials obliged. The grappler had become frustrated with constant RT-PCR testing he was being subjected to in the USA and Italy in the absence of vaccine shots. “I thought it to be the best to get myself vaccinated. This way I can feel safe and travel for training and competitions with a free mind, without bothering about contracting the virus,” he said.
Bajrang’s fear was genuine. With the country’s vaccination drive for Tokyo-bound athletes making little headway in the absence of any concerted effort, several Olympic hopefuls have either been vaccinated by their employers falling in the eligible category or have made their own arrangements to get the Covid jab. The Army, which has been accorded priority in the countrywide vaccination drive, went ahead with vaccinating Indian archers and rowers training at its two different facilities in Pune.
As many as 35 rowers received their second dose of Covid-19 vaccine at the Army Rowing Node on Saturday, making them the first batch of athletes in the country to complete their vaccination course. Similarly, archers who are part of the national camp received their first Covid shot in early March at the Army Sports Institute (ASI) and will receive their second dose this week before travelling for the World Cup stage 1 in Guatemala City.
India’s 15-member shooting contingent could be the next as the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) is contemplating vaccinating its athletes and coaching support staff during the proposed national camp at the KSSR here.
However, these were among the handful of athletes who had the luxury to receive their vaccination shots. Rest of the Tokyo-bound and hopefuls are still waiting to hear from the sports ministry and the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) about their mass vaccination drive.
“It would be great to have vaccines administered to the Olympic-bound contingent at the earliest. That way, we can all feel safe and concentrate on our preparations freely,” Manu Bhaker, one of India’s biggest medal hopes in shooting at the Summer Games, had told this correspondent on the sidelines of the shooting World Cup.
The Olympic-bound athletes’ fear largely stems from the recent scary development at the National Sports Institute (NIS) in Patiala, where 26 athletes and coaching staff tested positive for the coronavirus infection. Presently, four boxers and one boxing coach are undergoing Covid treatment at a hospital in Patiala. India has been witnessing an exponential rise in the number of Covid-19 infections on a daily basis, with the country reporting its biggest-ever single-day hike of 1,03,558 new cases on Sunday since the outbreak of the pandemic. Punjab (NIS Patiala) and Karnataka (SAI Bengaluru) – two of the SAI’s main training hubs – are among the worst-affected cities.
With no Olympic sports events happening in the country, several athletes have been approaching the SAI with requests to train abroad. Then, there are international competitions as well. A seven-member weightlifting team, including Olympic probables Mirabai Chanu and Jeremy Lalrinnunga, will be participating at the senior Asian Championships in Tashkent, Uzbekistan; elite women boxers will be flying out to Serbia and then to an invitational tournament in Prague, Czech Republic and their male pugilists have tentative plans to train in the USA before joining the rest of the squad in Prague. All these athletes are waiting for vaccination shots to avoid the inconvenience of getting tested multiple times.
Several foreign countries have accommodated their sportspersons in the priority group namely Singapore, Hungary, Israel, France and Belgium. Some of them have even completed the vaccination course for their Tokyo-bound athletes. However, when it comes to India, there’s no clarity and it has been best left to the health ministry officials to decide about the vaccination drive for athletes. Twice sports minister Kiren Rijiju and IOA secretary general Rajeev Mehta have separately written to the health department with a request to vaccinate the Olympic contingent, but nothing has so far been achieved. On Monday, Mehta wrote to health minister Harsh Vardhan and AIIMS director Randeep Guleria with a request to immediately administer Covid vaccines to the Olympic-bound athletes. He has also apprised World Anti-Doping Agency’s (Wada) Director General Olivier Niggli about the proposed vaccination drive.
With the Tokyo Olympics little more than three months away, Mehta reminded the health minister of IOA’s request originally made on February 3. “…since there are very few months left for the Games and the safety of the participants are utmost important to ensure all of them are vaccinated for Covid-19 prior to travel to Tokyo. Therefore, we once again request your good office to consider the request and issue necessary directions,” Mehta wrote in his letter.
In his communication to Guleria, Mehta wrote: “Approximately, 158 athletes from India are expected to participate in almost 17 sports. Since there are few months left for the commencement of the Tokyo Olympic Games, two dosage of vaccination for the athletes and officials representing India is required consideration on priority. We request your good office to consider vaccination of Covid-19 for the Indian athletes and officials, who will represent India at the Tokyo Olympics.”
Mehta informed Wada DG Niggli about the two vaccines available in the country, seeking the global anti-doping watchdog’s approval for the drive ahead of the Olympics. “There are two vaccines already available in India, namely Covishield by Serum Institute and Covaxin by Bharat Biotech. The Government has permitted these two vaccines for its citizens and the vaccination is going on in India. So we would like to request the Wada for its direction and approval to vaccinate the Indian athletes and officials participating in the Tokyo Games.”