The Polish immigration officials wanted an approval from the Poland Border Security Force Authority for his entry into the country. That had never happened before with Sathiyan. Blame it on Covid.
Seeing sport get back on its feet is a delight, but what the athletes continue to endure to make their return to action possible is a story waiting to be told.
The life of a travelling athlete is usually a lonely one. Bio-bubbles, quarantine, et al, have made it lonelier. The sword of ‘accept and endure, or get replaced’ has made the sports world tougher. There’s no second choice. The added pressure is unimaginable.
The athletes world over nowadays, perhaps, embody the Albert Camus philosophy: “Real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present.” The great man wrote.
Rani, captain of the Indian women’s hockey team, for instance, has stopped counting the number of Covid tests she has been put through in camps and since travelling resumed.
Sathiyan can put a number to it, “I think around 30 in six months”, but he too has moved on. “I can’t blame anyone. The entire world is running like that,” the paddler told TimesofIndia.com.
Arrived in Poland😁😁#sathiyantt #tabletennis #sports #polishsuperliga https://t.co/co2ne1IUQa
— Sathiyan Gnanasekaran (@sathiyantt) 1602773771000
But still, enduring the entire gamut of Covid restrictions is unprecedented and tough.
“It’s not easy, nobody has ever done all that in normal life. Athletes especially are not used to it. But it has to be done,” Rani said talking to TimesofIndia.com.
Not long ago, in January this year, pictures of Kidambi Srikanth’s bloody nose due to repeated COVID tests moved many.
The shuttler was tested four times in Bangkok ahead of the Thailand Open, and what he went through as an after-effect didn’t make for a pretty sight.
“We take care of ourselves for the match, not to come and shed blood for THIS. However, I gave 4 tests after I arrived and I can’t say any of them have been pleasant. Unacceptable,” Srikanth had tweeted along with images of blood dripping from his nose.
We take care of ourselves for the match not to come and shed blood for THIS . However , I gave 4 tests after I have… https://t.co/aVeFkL6dIZ
— Kidambi Srikanth (@srikidambi) 1610442640000
Sathiyan can imagine what Srikanth must have gone through.
“I have undergone so many tests; but still, every time I almost start crying. It takes like 5-10 minutes to be normal again,” Sathiyan told TimesofIndia.com.
On top of all this is the fear of ‘what if’. A positive test this close to the Olympics could be game, set and match to the coronavirus.
“Every RT-PCR test is a bit of a risk, and a bit of a worry,” says Hungarian rifle shooting ace Istvan Peni. “What if it’s positive and I can’t compete and get into a hospital or quarantine?” Peni asked while talking to TimesofIndia.com.
The Indian boxers were at the receiving end of that eventuality.
At the Boxam International tournament in Spain this March, three Indian men had to withdraw from the finals. Ashish Kumar tested positive and had to pull out. He was sharing the room with teammates Mohammed Hussamuddin and Sumit Sangwan. They were in the final as well, but were forced to withdraw since they had come in contact with Ashish.
It’s a new sports world where your actions aren’t just responsible for your own health, but also for that of your compatriots and opponents.
On the testing front, Peni and athletes like him who have received the vaccine are a touch relaxed compared to athletes, including Indians, who are yet to receive the shots.
But vaccination doesn’t give athletes the licence to puncture a shared bio-bubble, like Peni did in Delhi recently for the ongoing ISSF World Cup.
He went sight-seeing, and it raised a storm.
Quarantine can certainly bring depressive moments in solitude. That’s the other big test for travelling athletes in the Covid area – the mental health aspect.
“It is the worst part of travelling,” says Sathiyan. “It really hampers your progress. It tests you mentally. Not only that, it directly affects your game and preparation.
“Even though playing matches is fun, the sacrifice you make is you need to undergo mandatory quarantines, especially in Asian countries, including here in India, even here [in Doha],” says Sathiyan, who returned from Qatar having secured his Olympic qualification.
Of the six months since Sathiyan resumed travelling, he has spent one and a half months in quarantine — twice for 14 days each in Chennai and once for 14 days in Japan.
“It’s been very hard. It’s a lot of stop-start. That is the sacrifice you make, of hampering your training and playing matches,” says the 28-year-old Chennai paddler.
Boxer Manish Kaushik brings up a point that most would not really think about – travel time. With fewer international flights operating, it can take longer to reach your destination.
To quote an instance as latest as this week, it took tennis ace Ashleigh Barty more than two days (around 50 hours in flights and at airports) to reach Florida for the Miami Open. It’s not a surprise that she felt “jarred”.
“It feels weird, even though getting through check-in and security is quicker with airports almost empty,” Kaushik told TimesofIndia.com.
The in-flight restrictions have eased a little now compared to when travel resumed in September-October last year. But when Sathiyan stepped out to catch his flight to Poland last year for a stint with his Polish Superliga club Sokolow SA Jarsoslaw, the Indian was in for a rude shock.
“In a long flight, we had to wear PPE kits, face mask at all times. The food was also not served normally, like there was no service kind of thing,” Sathiyan recalled while talking to TimesofIndia.com.
“They would give some packed food in the beginning and then just serve one other meal. Then you can’t order anything. The air hostess wasn’t going to come at the push of a button. That was not there. If you need water, you need to go and take yourself.” Sathiyan further said.
Rani’s experience during her team’s tour of Argentina sounds similar, if not as testing.
“So many formalities during travelling, fill this form, that form. While entering you have to do this, then that. Sometimes I would think travel has become so difficult,” the hockey star told TimesofIndia.com.
Long travel effect 🙈#travelistiring #coldweather #paris #lifeisbeautiful #godisgood #RR28 https://t.co/jNihgjGr0z
— Rani Rampal (@imranirampal) 1609701257000
Germany’s hockey veteran Martin Haner is a doctor by profession. Back in September, when Germany returned to the hockey pitch for the Pro League, Haner was coming out of the toughest phase in his job when the virus was at its peak in Europe. The furrows on his face caused by hours of wearing a face-mask inside the emergency room were still visible.
Haner’s bullet-point reply tells a lot more about the tough pandemic-era life of an athlete. This was when the Germany team got together in September 2020.
“RT-PCR test before arrival.
If you arrive before contacting other players, there is a corona quick test.
Always eat with the same people, with a maximum of four.
Mask compulsory permanently outside the hockey field, medical mask or FFP2.
Corona rapid test again after five days.
Before the Pro League play, another PCR test [maximum 48 hours before], then corona quick test on match day.
Meetings for a maximum of 30 minutes, with masks, then ventilation breaks.” Haner said while responding to TimesofIndia.com’s query.
The worst thought though that makes a home for itself in the mind, despite all this, is that it still may not be enough and you may still end up getting infected. On top of it, the requirements and protocols keep changing and the list keeps growing.
Soaking in the sun, overlooking the sea! 🌊 #QuarantineSchedule #Doha #Qatar https://t.co/WJizvLk1Fm
— Sharath Kamal OLY (@sharathkamal1) 1614315046000
An athlete may adapt to one life for a month, and then suddenly a few adjustments are needed. To keep operating at the top of your fitness and game while all this goes around requires a skill that athletes have never had to develop before.
Now, there is a sudden need for that.
“The most annoying and the most disturbing thing is rules change every minute. Today there is one rule, then there is quarantine, then no quarantine. Today travel is open, then lockdown, then they would say you need a test. There is a lot of uncertainty,” says Sathiyan.
Boxer Kaushi made an additional and very important point.
“Both in [National Institute of Sports] Patiala and [Army Sports Institute] Pune, we are not allowed to go out. In Pune, since it is a big army centre, they have a military canteen in the premises. So we get things of daily use there. But here (in Patiala), we can’t go out,” Kaushik, who is a Subedar in the Indian Army told TimesofIndia.com.
“For example, if the team or a player has gone for some competition, then we ask them to bring stuff or we get things couriered. But even those courier packets are given to us 24 hours after it is delivered; they have to sanitize it. So some of the eatables you can’t even get couriered, as we are given that on the next day. Ab to aadat pad gayi hai [it has become a habit now].”
Many congratulations to #TOPSAthlete @iboxermanish for winning the gold medal in men’s 63 kg at the #BoxamElite tou… https://t.co/O5zciSgunE
— SAIMedia (@Media_SAI) 1615051503000
The other day, captain of the Indian cricket team, Virat Kohli, hit the nail on the head.
Amid cut-throat competition in sports globally, the Covid era has added an altogether different meaning to the adage ‘survival of the fittest’.
You need to not just be fit physically but mentally as well, to be able to handle an uncertain environment, altered playing conditions and still perform.
“Otherwise, it’s going to be a case of whoever can last through difficult times like these, plays,” says Kohli. “If not, you know, move away and someone else replaces that player.”
Rani adds to Kohli’s thoughts.
“It is tough, but then we think ‘thankfully we are getting to play’. We train to play matches. Until we get that, it’s difficult. By doing just training, you can’t judge your level,” Rani said.
What both Kohli and Rani perhaps mean to underline is that overthinking won’t help, adapting will.
Camus had put that to a nicety: “No matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”
Athletes continue to fight while hoping and praying that the ‘old normal’ is not very far away.