Winning medals, but at what cost?
Here are some trivia for Indian sports fans. Before last month’s IBA World Championships in Istanbul, how many international matches has boxer Lovlina Borgohain competed in after her podium finish at the Tokyo Olympics last year?
Between his gold medal in the Japanese capital and last week’s national record at the Paavo Nurmi Games in Turku, Finland, how many events has Indian athletics poster Neeraj Chopra done? he participates ?
The answer to both is, wait, zero!
A small break is not out of place after such monumental accomplishments that leave athletes overwhelmed. Medals are the result of years of hard work and training. You want to live in the moment, soaking up the attention and relishing in the adulation. But going without a big competition for nearly a year, while most of your rivals are competing and keeping fit, doesn’t make a whole lot of sporting sense. Was it the athletes fault or did they have no choice but to stay away from the competition? Again, the answer to both is a resounding “yes”.
Shortly after Chopra crowned India’s greatest medal haul ever at the Olympics by throwing the javelin towards the gold medal, the entire country erupted in euphoria. From the Prime Minister to the head of a village panchayat in Haryana and officials from the Indian Olympic Association to heads of state bodies, everyone wanted a piece of the medalists, everyone was desperate to share the featured with the latest Indian superstars. Receptions and congratulations followed each other incessantly, and as a result the athletes fell ill or were exhausted.
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Chopra, who attended more than a dozen events in nine days, including open jeep parades in scorching heat, had to be hospitalized after falling ill during one of those functions. While the second wave of Covid-19 was still far from waning, he and other athletes were exposed to large crowds without masks. While he tested negative for Covid-19, the relentless stream of off-pitch events took a toll on his health. And with that, his plans to participate in back-to-back Diamond League meetings in Lausanne (August 26, 2021) and Paris (August 28, 2021) fell through due to a lack of training.
Chopra then flagged the issue in an interview with a national daily, saying, “Attention is indeed important, but there is a Diamond League at the end of the month. I had planned to participate, but my training completely stopped once I returned from the Olympics due to the constant number of functions.
“That’s why I feel like my fitness is not there now. I can’t compete properly. That’s why I have to skip the event. I had planned to compete in at least two or three events” , he said.
More than 10 months after Chopra raised the topic, Lovlina reiterated the downside of supported commendation features and programs in the immediacy of an international achievement.
Shortly after qualifying for the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham last week, the boxer spoke at length about how attending events, where she was recognized and rewarded for her bronze medal with barely a break to resting or training, affected her preparations, ultimately forcing her to be undercooked at the boxing world championships held recently
It was the Assam boxer’s first international encounter after the Tokyo Games and her campaign in the 70kg category ended in the pre-quarter-finals.
“The main thing was that at the World Championship I was not so strong mentally,” Lovlina stressed. “I was not able to concentrate properly. I worked on it.
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“My goal was to win gold in Tokyo, but I couldn’t. After that, in my head, I kept thinking, “I have to train and pass the next competition”. But that didn’t happen. After Tokyo, people started expecting a lot. I also had to attend several receptions and you can’t say no because they will think “after winning a medal she developed an ego”.
Rewards and rewards are vital for athletes, but they should not be extended to the point where athletes begin to dread them.
Training without distraction is what gets them to this point and if that’s sacrificed on the altar of kudos, it would be losing sight of the main goal. Arguably, athletes can put their foot down and say enough is enough, but how many will risk hurting the giant egos of the powers that be?
“There are times when you can’t do anything and you have to miss your training. It affects us. A player needs to have space to focus on the game. I didn’t think any of this would affect my performance, but somehow it did,” added Lovlina. It’s not just ministers and federation officials that athletes have to worry about; they must also respect the commitments of their respective sponsors, whether it concerns media or meeting and welcoming fans. This requires setting aside considerable time for your routine and traveling to various cities which can be physically taxing.
As professionals, athletes too need to be aware of what is in their best interest. By his own admission, Chopra, after missing a few events due to illness, slacked off a bit. He had no control over his diet and his training took a back seat. Instead of adding yards to his throws, he added mass to his once chiseled frame. That meant more time away from the competition.
“When I came back from the Olympics, I didn’t put any restrictions on my diet,” Chopra admitted after returning to training in December in the United States. “I had been in control of my eating habits for a very long time, thinking that I had to hold back until I succeeded in Tokyo. After the Olympics, I gained 12-13 kilos. I lost five kilos and I Reached my normal off-season weight.It’s been about 20 days since resuming training and I’ve reduced a lot.
“It was really difficult at the beginning. My body was hurting and I had to put in extra effort for everything. I was physically exhausted earlier than usual, but I pushed myself mentally.
Of course, India as a sporting nation is a work in progress and it will take some time to come out of this feudal mindset. But top athletes who openly express their concerns might just speed up this process.