The pandemic shifts the spotlight from the Olympics, which could be good news for Indian athletes

There used to be a general theme for the “100 days to the Olympics” countdowns. It is believed that a few weeks have passed since the Olympic torch was lit in this slightly absurd ceremony in Greece which aims to connect the ancient games to its modern version. Meanwhile, public enthusiasm generally grows in the host country around this time, as the Olympic torch is carried by cheerful runners amid a population that plans to be on the world stage in a matter of months. There is some mutual hindsight between the organizers on how this particular edition of the games will be very special.

In India, although the contingent will end up struggling to win too much, there is also a new sense of optimism at home that maybe this edition will be different. You can count on at least a few functions, apparently to honor athletes, but which largely serve as a hallmark exercise for sponsors, government, and other official bodies. Not that it’s not special for athletes. For many of them, participating in the Olympics will be the culmination of a lifelong struggle. With just over three months to go, they can finally see the finish line and prepare for the final push.

As the daily Tokyo Games countdown plunges to double digits on Wednesday, it’s obvious things are very different this time around. The Olympics are not really high on the priority list at the moment as the world battles the coronavirus pandemic. The Olympic flame, lit in 2020, went to Japan, where it remained in place for a year. On Monday, the Olympic torch passed through the empty streets of Osaka Park. Polls will tell you that about 70% of Japanese people don’t even want the Games to take place. Dying at the thought of any celebratory function in India, which is facing a second wave of the virus. In what is a sign of the times, the government will mark the countdown with a Zoom meeting with reporters.

For athletes, some struggles have not changed, although the pandemic has provided some excuses. There are familiar stories of official ineptitude – it was only a few days since the women’s wrestling team arrived for the Asian Olympic qualifiers on their match day. Vaccination delays have led several coaches and athletes qualified at the Olympics to test positive in the track and field contingent.

But there is some relief. Last year, there were exactly 120 days left when the IOC and the Japanese government postponed the games due to the coronavirus pandemic. For them, the postponement had been a blow. They had pushed themselves to the limit, hoping against all hope that they could still compete. Just as the target appeared, it had been taken away from them. A year and a little later, they would be more confident. Even if the rituals we associate with the Olympics are lacking, at least the competition itself is open.

There may be a silver lining in this cloud. For almost all living memory, the Olympics were seen, from an Indian perspective, as an insurmountable challenge. India might do well at continental championships, world cups or even world championships, but the Olympics were another thing in themselves – as the country’s grim medal tally suggests. There is something to this.

For many sports, the Olympics are the only tournament that really matters and it only takes place once every four years – five years for this edition. The payoff for a medal is huge – win and you could enjoy media attention and win huge financial rewards. Finish the podium and you can languish out of the limelight for another four years, at the very least. Of course, there is more than a little pressure on the competing athletes. A lot of Indian athletes say they don’t believe in something like Olympic pressure, but that’s not really true. This will become harder and harder to believe as they get closer to the Olympics and the scale of the obstacle they face will become more and more evident with each passing day.

But this time the pressure may not be so oppressive. It’s not just because there are so many potential medalists in the Indian contingent that the pressure is dissipating. It is also just the fact that the Olympic Games, apart from a small cocoon of sports fans, are not yet really part of the news cycle. Even just a few short years ago, the Olympics were perhaps considered the most important event in an athletic career, but perhaps experiencing a pandemic could have given some perspective. Some athletes have recovered from the disease on their own. Weighed against a global scourge, the fact that one pistol shooter has hit enough internal tens feels less like a matter of life and death.

As the countdown draws near and even as athletes put the finishing touches on their Olympic preparations, the pandemic is unlikely to go away, although it is hoped that it will. Even in 100 days, the Olympics might not be the center of attention. And maybe that’s for the best. Maybe this time the Indian athletes could finally treat it like another tournament.

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