Indian athletes’ battle with COVID-19 and the path to Tokyo

From Vinesh Phogat to shooters and the hockey team, here are the Indian sporting stars who have dealt with the novel coronavirus over the past year.
By Naveen Peter

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every aspect of life. And the sporting world has been no different.

While it started with events being either cancelled or postponed, soon the ‘new normal’ saw competitions being held behind closed doors inside a biosecure bubble. 

But despite their best efforts, sporting stars across the globe too were not spared of the dreaded disease. Be it the tennis players at the Australian Open or footballers in the European leagues, COVID-19 left an impression on many lives.

The story has been no different in India. As the nation continues to deal with the deadly second wave of the coronavirus, here’s a look at some of the Indian sportspersons who have fought the virus so far.

Indian hockey team

Five members of the Indian men’s hockey team were the first high-profile cases from the Indian sporting world to test positive for COVID-19.

Returning to their training base in Bengaluru after a month-long break in August, Manpreet Singh, Krishan Pathak, Jaskaran Singh, Surender Kumar and Varun Kumar tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Indian hockey captain Manpreet Singh tested positive for COVID-19. Photo: Hockey India
Picture by WORLDSPORTPICS.COM/FFU

While they were soon moved to a nearby COVID-19 care facility, Mandeep Singh too joined the list a day later.

All six hockey players soon recovered and were back on the pitch, regaining full fitness ahead of the Olympic year.

Wrestling

One of India’s medal hopefuls at the Tokyo Olympics, Vinesh Phogat had her bout with COVID-19 during its first wave last year.

The Indian wrestler, who was conferred the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, had to miss the virtual ceremony after testing positive for the novel coronavirus a day before the event.

The 26-year-old Vinesh, however, returned to the mat in an emphatic manner to clinch three gold medals in as many events this year.

Vinesh Phogat began her Olympic year with a title win at the XXIV Outstanding Ukrainian Wrestlers and Coaches Memorial in Kyiv, Ukraine and then followed it up with a dominant run at the Matteo Pellicone Memorial ranking series in Rome.

She won her third gold medal at the recently concluded Asian Wrestling Championships.

Other wrestlers to test positive for COVID-19 include Narsingh Yadav, Gurpreet Singh and Divya Kakran, all of whom recovered and returned to action.

Shooting

Members of the Tokyo 2020-bound Indian shooting team, Rahi Sarnobat, Deepak Kumar and Saurabh Chaudhary, too tested positive for COVID-19 as the second wave wreaked havoc in India.

The Indian shooters competed at the ISSF World Cup in New Delhi in March and later were diagnosed with the novel coronavirus, forcing them to halt their Olympic preparations.

The shooters have recovered from their illness and will be looking forward to the ISSF World Cup in Baku, Azerbaijan in June. The second World Cup event scheduled for this month in Changwon, South Korea has been postponed due to the pandemic.

Boxing

Among the Indian boxers, the Olympic-bound Ashish Kumar, Simranjit Kaur and Lovlina Borgohain have had their bouts with COVID-19 so far.

Indian boxer Lovlina Borgohain was tested COVID positive after her trip to Assam.

While Ashish Kumar contracted the virus on the eve of the Boxam International final in Spain in March, Lovlina Borgohain returned a positive report for an RT-PCR test in October ahead of their tour of Europe. Both recovered and have since returned to action.

Simranjit Kaur is the latest to test positive for the novel coronavirus. The 25-year-old was diagnosed with COVID-19 in April during their camp at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi. This cut short the Olympic boxing camp for women.

Athletics

While the majority of the track and field athletes have stayed away from the COVID-19 wave, the Tokyo 2020-bound race walker Priyanka Goswami however tested positive for the virus. Priyanka has been at her training base, the SAI South Centre in Bengaluru.

Olympian Jinson Johnson, who is also at the SAI centre, too tested positive.

Judo

The Indian judo team had to return home from the Asia-Oceania Judo Championships, an Olympic ranking event, after two judokas tested positive for COVID-19. It forced the entire team into quarantine during the event.

Badminton

The surge in COVID-19 cases also saw a number of Indian badminton players testing positive for the virus over the last year.

Parupalli Kashyap, HS Prannoy, RMV Gurusai Dutt and Pranaav Jerry Chopra contracted the virus following Gurusai Dutt’s wedding reception in November last year. Saina Nehwal tested positive for the virus at the Thailand Open in January this year.

Meanwhile, doubles specialists Satwiksairaj Rankireddy had a bout with COVID-19 ahead of the National Sports Awards in August last year. The Telangana shuttler was conferred the Arjuna Award.

Football

The Indian football team captain Sunil Chhetri too had to deal with the novel coronavirus.

Chhetri tested positive for COVID-19 ahead of India’s friendly matches against Oman and UAE last month shortly after the conclusion of the Indian Super League.

Shadow over international events

The second wave of COVID-19 and the resultant restriction imposed by various countries on travellers from India has disrupted the Indian athletes’ preparations ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.

While the Indian javelin throwers including Neeraj Chopra and the quarter-milers’ trip to Turkey is in doubt, the shuttlers find themselves in a place of bother with the India Open, an event that had Olympic ranking points on offer, being pushed to a further date.

It even affected the archery team. The compound team was not allowed to travel to Guatemala for the Archery World Cup after a coach was found positive. The test however turned out to be false but the compound team was nevertheless held back as a precaution.