SEBASTIAN COE: CURRENT SITUATION CAN BE AN OPPORTUNITY TO REIMAGINE SPORT

Sebastian Coe, President, World Athletics (this photo was downloaded from the World Athletics [then IAAF] website in February 2019. It is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

“ We should work with governments to re-establish sport in schools, rebuild club structures, incentivise people to exercise and get fit. This should and could be the new normal.’’

Sebastian Coe, President, World Athletics, has said that the predicament the world currently finds itself in can be an opportunity to look at sports differently.

In an open letter to the athletics community, dated March 27, 2020, available on the website of World Athletics, Coe said, “ in sport we have a unique opportunity not to tip toe around things and tweak at the edges. We have the chance to think bigger, to rip up the blueprints and banish the ` that’s the way we’ve always done it’ mentality.’’ He felt that while the current priority is to tackle the pandemic, stay healthy and stay at home, in the long run, social distancing may actually bring the world closer as a community and sport can be right at its center.

“ The situation the world finds itself in today is a huge wake up call for all of us – as human beings, as businesses and as sport. We should capitalise on this and work out new ways of delivering events, create and plan new events that embrace the many as well as the few. We can use this time to innovate and extend our sport across the year. Rather than just focusing on one-day meetings and one-day road races at one end of the spectrum and 10-day extravaganzas at the other end, we should look at weekend festivals of running, jumping and throwing that take advantage of the Southern and Northern Hemisphere seasons. We should work with governments to re-establish sport in schools, rebuild club structures, incentivise people to exercise and get fit (I rather fancy more people are exercising this week – doing 15-minute exercise routines in their homes or going out for a daily walk – than they have probably done in the last month). This should and could be the new normal. We don’t have to do things the same way,’’ Coe said.

According to him the recent announcement by the Japanese Government and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) postponing the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games was what athletes wanted. “ The focus of us all must be on the health and well being of ourselves, our families and our communities. And hard as this is for us in sport to say, sometimes sport needs to take a back seat,’’ Coe said.

The new dates for the Tokyo Olympics haven’t been announced yet. Once that is available, “ we will look at what, if any, impact that decision has on our World Athletics Championships Oregon 21,’’ he said. World Athletics, Coe noted, is currently focused on four priorities. First, it would like to get athletes back into competition as soon as possible, once it is safe to do so. “ We will continue to do whatever we can to preserve and create an outdoor season of one-day meetings in 2020, starting and ending later than usual, so athletes, when they are able and it is safe, will have access to competitions in every region. Diamond League events have been postponed up until June at this stage, as have Continental Tour Gold meetings, but we are mindful that our athletes need to compete at some point this year so they can benchmark their performances and adjust their training accordingly for an Olympic Games in 2021,’’ he said in the letter.

Second, World Athletics plans to expedite it’s review of the Olympic qualification process “ and release any changes to the process as soon as possible so athletes know where they stand. Last week all sports agreed to the IOC’s proposal that all athletes currently qualified for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games will remain qualified for next year’s event. In athletics the primary qualification avenue is by meeting the entry standards set out in March 2019. Once those places are allocated, the remaining athletes are drawn from the World Ranking list. As of today, all athletes who have met the entry standards for their event will remain qualified for the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021. This is approximately 50% of the places. What is important now is that we develop a clear and fair process for the remaining athletes to qualify, given many events have been postponed. We will work with our Athletes’ Commission, our Council and the IOC to do this. We are also looking at how we can preserve an outdoor competition season this year with a series of one-day meetings on each continent that may begin as late as August and run to early October, so our athletes can get back in to competition as quickly as possible when it is safe to do so,’’ he said.

Third, there is the need to reorganize the global calendar of events, not just for the next two years which will see some major disruptions, but for the long term. We are committed to working with all sports to sort out the sporting calendar in 2021 and 2022 and this will take some time and compromises all round. We started a review of our own sport’s global calendar in February, bringing together a team from different aspects of our sport and from different parts of the world to review the range of events that happen every year on a national, regional and global level, ‘’ Coe said. According to him, World Athletics is looking to expand its one-day meetings and deliver high quality events in all parts of the world so that athletes do not have to travel across the world to compete and earn a living but can do so on their own continents and in their own countries.

Fourth, World Athletics has teams that are planning a new kids athletics programme; new events and competition formats, new partnerships to help get the world moving, new collaborations around sustainability, air quality and health and the use of new technology to highlight the talents of athletes and bring it home to millions of fans around the world.

The priority for all right now is to contain the pandemic, stay healthy and stay home. “ But where we can continue to drive our sport forward, we must,’’ Coe said, adding, “ the world will not be the same after this pandemic. It will be different and that could be a good thing. Going back to core human values, back to basics of what is important, redefining our purpose, is something we can all do on a human, business and sporting scale. We have heard a lot in the past week from governments, health care professionals, Prime Ministers and Presidents about social distancing and we are all practising it. But as I said at the beginning, although we may be separated physically during this period, my instinct is that ultimately this will draw us closer together, not further apart.’’

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

TAKE HOME THE EXPERIENCE

This image was downloaded from the film’s Facebook page. It is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

When ` The Aeronauts’ released, there were those who disapproved of how the film mixed fact with fiction.

The 2019 film tells the story of a balloon ascent by scientist James Glaisher and pilot, Amelia Wren. They reach nearly 37,000 feet up in the sky, an altitude never before touched by human beings. The year is 1862, more than 90 years before the first ascent of Everest (29,028 feet), perhaps the nearest elevation one can compare in terms of exposure to low-oxygen environment and pretty cold temperature. The balloon’s occupants don’t have the benefit of enclosed chamber, electronic communication to stay in touch with those on the ground; they don’t even have clothing appropriate for those heights.

You keep warm wearing oil skins and in the film, Glaisher is shown to have traded his skins for bringing aboard more scientific equipment. At height, the scientist slowly starts to lose his head to oxygen deprivation. He pushes for greater and greater elevation even as the dangers in doing so are evident to the pilot. Eventually he passes out, leaving Amelia Wren alone to make sure that the still rising balloon is somehow forced into descent mode. This she achieves by climbing atop the balloon and opening its gas valves, something she was unable to do from within the safety of the passenger basket because the balloon’s mechanisms got frozen at altitude.

The depiction of these aerial scenes is marvelous and edge-of-the-seat. The actors have done a good job. Felicity Jones lives her role as Amelia. Eddie Redmayne as scientist-adventurer appears an unorthodox choice at first. Going by cinematic tradition, such roles are usually played by the physically dominant, tough-looking sort. But it works beautifully – and there is probably a message for stereotyping in there – for Redmayne is quite convincing in his role bridging the nerdy and the adventurous. It is the early days of meteorology. In the film, Glaisher goes up doubted by his peers; his belief that the weather can be predicted is laughed at. He returns from the balloon flight with knowledge that the atmosphere isn’t one homogeneous layer, it is composed of various strata, each different from the other. Additionally, the two aeronauts have a flight record to their credit – the highest altitude yet reached.

The problem is – a similar flight actually happened. James Glaisher existed in real life. Amelia Wren is fiction. Going by information about the film available on the Internet, the film makers created the character (ingredients drawn from real life female aeronauts) to address gender imbalance in the scientific fraternity and also connect the film to a contemporary audience. But doing so, they did injustice to the person who was actually there on that flight with Glaisher. That person was Henry Coxwell, an aeronaut and writer on ballooning. On the ascent Glaisher lost consciousness (as shown in the film); the last reading reported on his barometer was 29,000 feet. It was up to Coxwell then to engineer their descent. Having lost sensation in his hands due to the extreme cold, he is said to have opened the gas valve by pulling the relevant chord with his teeth. Both men lived to tell the tale. As do Glaisher and Amelia in the movie, except that on celluloid, there is no Coxwell. Replacing him is the lovable, adventurous woman played by Felicity Jones. The critics have a point.

If you can be alright with the above mentioned flaw (call it artistic license), then ` The Aeronauts’ is an enjoyable film. It is not even-paced. Given the private backdrops of the main protagonists unfolds as the story goes along, there is plenty of back and forth between distinctly different worlds. The world of flight is clear; it is a set of situations and protocols to follow. On ground, life lost to social rituals rolls along at a pace betraying no similar urgency or direction. The back and forth hops can tire. After a brief life in theaters, where according to Wikipedia it grossed $ 3.3 million against production budget of $ 40 million, the film shifted to streaming on Amazon. That’s where I saw it in March 2020. I watched it over several days, partly due to the uneven pace of the movie and partly due to my poor attention span as resident of world with multiple distractions. But if you ask me what I thought of this film, I would say: wonderful.

This image was downloaded from the film’s Facebook page. It is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

Towards the end of ` The Aeronauts’ you hear Amelia say, “ you don’t change the world simply by looking at it. You change it through the way you choose to live in it.’’ What made this film attractive to me is how it leveraged modern technology to bring alive the challenges and hardships felt by pioneers. Flying is so common nowadays that very few among us pause to imagine what the sensation may have been like for early entrants in the field. None of us possibly think of how it may have been for balloonists. They didn’t dash around at speed like those in planes. But moving at a slower pace, they touched some fantastic altitudes. (remember India’s Dr Vijaypat Singhania, who reached 69,852 feet above sea level in a hot air balloon in 2005? He took off from Mumbai’s Mahalaxmi Race Course; the landing was near Nashik). It is estimated that the Glaisher-Coxwell flight may have touched 35,000-37,000 feet; that is several thousand feet higher than Everest. Today we look back at the first ascent of Everest in 1953 and applaud Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary for managing the task with what equipment they had. The plot of ` The Aeronauts’ is 90 years before Everest was successfully climbed. Discount the flaw critics zeroed in on, take home the experience. Not to mention – a character called Amelia Wren.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)          

“ THE IMMUNE SYSTEM IS VERY RESPONSIVE TO EXERCISE’’

Dr Pravin Gaikwad (this photo was downloaded from the doctor’s Facebook page)

Dr Pravin Gaikwad is a well-known pediatrician in Navi Mumbai. He and his wife Arati, also a doctor, have been running a clinic in the Navi Mumbai suburb of Nerul for the past several years. The two are longstanding distance runners and triathletes. They have been frequent podium finishers in their age category at various events. In addition to being a doctor, Pravin heads coaching and mentoring at Lifepacers, a Navi Mumbai-based fitness group composed mostly of runners. On March 6, 2020, this blog spoke to Pravin on the importance of exercise and balanced lifestyle in maintaining good health, central to which is a strong immune system.

Is it possible to strengthen our immune system naturally? What should we do for that?

Very simply put, immunity is your defence against invading bacteria and toxins. It is the system involved in defending your body. There is still much to be known in this regard. The main organs involved include thymus, spleen, liver, lymph nodes, bone marrow; cells include T-cells, B-cells, some cytokine proteins, phygocytes – they are like scavenger cells, then those that are anti-inflammatory in function – there are so many things involved. Even the bacteria in the gut – microbiota – they help in immunity to a great extent. So, from a bird’s eye view, a lot of things are involved.

In Marathi, there is a saying: sainya pothavar chalta; it means an army runs on food. Similarly, the easiest way to strengthen immunity is nutritious food, naturally cooked and visually having a range of colors. There are of course more detailed technical specifications but the typical balanced diet we were all taught in school – in India we are fortunate that our ancestors have been following it for ages – if you follow that, the immune system will be good. Along with good nutrition, sleep is an important thing. If you compromise on sleep, you risk compromising your immunity due to factors like hormonal imbalance; so sleep and rest are vital. Third, physical activity is important for maintaining a healthy immune system. Stress is capable of compromising immunity and therefore ability to withstand stress – which physical activity can contribute to – helps strengthen immunity. Among things to avoid: smoking definitely impacts immunity. Alcohol beyond a limit also has the same effect. These habits have to be cut. Smoking is a big no; alcohol only in moderation if somebody wishes to have it. To my mind, these would be the natural ways of maintaining a healthy immune system – nutritious food, adequate rest and sleep, developing ways to withstand stress and avoiding bad habits.

Can you explain how regular exercise helps to fortify the immune system?

The immune system is very responsive to exercise.

The initial perception was that exercise causes problems in immunity. That view was based on studies of endurance athletes; it was found that their immunity can be a bit low. Later, it was found that immunity was better in these people while performing acute short term exercises. Research and data showed that generally less than 90 minutes of endurance activity a day, is definitely helpful. More than 90 minutes could also be useful but there are other angles to consider. Next would be the number of days. There is no mention that you should do this all days of a week. If you refer the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO) for maintaining a healthy lifestyle, what they say is: 150 minutes in a week plus two strength training sessions. That last recommendation – the strength training sessions – is something most of us neglect. My view of this is: the 150 minutes typically ends up as moderate physical activity because it will include warm-up and cool down. So the real overall time for exercise will exceed 150 minutes per week, I feel. You cannot increase your heart rate to 80 per cent of your maximum heart rate just like that. It has to be gradual. Otherwise there will be repercussions of not warming up properly. So to sum up, regular physical activity genuinely helps in strengthening immunity. It serves as adjuvant (a substance that strengthens the body’s immune response) to strengthening the immune system.

When there is earlier mentioned physical activity of less than 90 minutes the count of anti-inflammatory proteins, cytokines, neutrophils, phygocytes, NK (natural killer) cells, cytotoxic T-cells, immature B-cells – all this goes up. After a certain time, it comes back to normal. But what is important is that a summation effect occurs (summation effect in medicine is described as the process by which a sequence of stimuli that are individually inadequate to produce a response are cumulatively able to induce a nerve impulse). Over a period of time, immunity is found to be better.

The basic concept of any disease is inflammation. Acute inflammation is useful to the body; chronic inflammation is not. Inflammation can be caused by three things. First is trauma, second is infection and third is allergy. Chronic inflammation is caused by stress. Acute inflammation is caused by acute exercise; that is beneficial, over a period of time it develop the ability of the body to withstand the stresses properly. The body becomes stronger. Ultimately, that is immunity. Then, there are different patho-physiologies. One is that thanks to the summation effect, the immune systems itself becomes more active and capable of adapting better. Another thing to mention here is the microbiota. One third of these beneficial bacteria are the same in you and me. Two thirds is different. Initially it was learnt that the more diverse the bacterial flora, the better is our immunity. Then it was found that athletes have more diverse bacterial flora. One reason for this is that once you are into regular physical activity you tend to address your nutrition intake better. Besides diverse bacterial flora, good diet also leads to optimum vitamin levels.

One of the effects of regular exercise is that it helps reduce instances of obesity. In obesity, the fat cells can contribute to chronic inflammation and chronic inflammation can compromise immunity. Another angle is that of ageing; with age, immunity reduces. The process is called immunosenescence. When you age, the immune system gets progressively dysregulated. It raises susceptibility to various diseases. When there is regular exercise, there is delayed immunosenescence through improved regulation of the immune system. There is something called telomeres in our chromosomes. With ageing its length reduces. However in the case of those with regular physical activity, their telomere length has a better chance of staying normal. That is part of the anti-ageing effects of regular physical activity.

If you exercise or you run – especially run – everything else falls into place. You automatically give up smoking; limit your alcohol intake, take care of your nutrition, sleep and body composition. Just being into fitness, puts the other components into place. Having a goal catalyzes it.

Dr Pravin Gaikwad (photo: courtesy Pravin)

You mentioned about the WHO prescribed norms for exercise. You have rich personal experience as swimmer, runner and triathlete. What would you say is the apt quantity and quality of exercise for an average individual?

I would definitely insist on strength training sessions; at least twice a week. As we age our growth hormone levels decline. Testosterone level declines. Your muscle mass is going to decline. The fat mass will increase. Ultimately, the muscle is a furnace. This means that with the same diet, the same exercise – aerobic without strengthening – you still gain weight. When you strengthen your muscles, not only do you get the popularly known advantages like reduced chances of injury, improved balance and improved bone density; you also slow down the growth hormone decline. Talking of growth hormone, sleep and growth hormone is related. When you have good sleep, there is good growth hormone secretion. All this gives you that anti-ageing effect, more energy and combined with better muscle mass, the potential for a higher level of activity. So do strength training at least two days a week. It should be for the whole body. It can’t be that you are a runner and therefore you strengthen only your legs. Aerobic physical activity can be anything – running, swimming, cycling. I think, 30-40 minutes of such activity – as WHO says, moderate physical activity – with warm-up and cool down and with heart rate rising to 80-85 per cent of maximum heart rate, is good enough.

Now, there are those who wish to challenge themselves. Let’s take the marathon as example. One study showed there was 2-18 per cent increase in sickness level – particularly respiratory tract infections – was found in marathon runners two months before a race and 15 days after a race. We are subjecting ourselves to multiple stresses during those months leading to a race. After running a marathon, there are a lot of chronic inflammatory changes which occur in the body. In my own case, after a marathon I usually do HSCRP (Highly Sensitive C-Reactive Protein) test. The figures are usually high. Then it settles down. I generally run only one full marathon a year. I rarely run half marathons but I do quite a few 10-kilometer runs. It is those speed runs that are more important from a health point of view. Fast for one minute, then slow for one minute – like that some 6-8 times in one particular run, that will be enough exercise. Running for two hours, three hours – that is not really required; it can cause chronic inflammation. Studies show that when you start exercising, in the initial stage, you are contributing to improving your immunity. As you elevate exercise, the risk increases. In heavy exercise, the risk can go up by two to six-folds.

How do you decide severity of exercise? If you take any of the amateur athletes who are pushing themselves, how can they know if they are exercising beyond acceptable limit or not?

Let us talk of the elite athletes. They do severe exercise. But their bodies have adapted gradually to that level of exercise. This is what amateur runners often miss. Good coaches don’t increase mileage by more than 10-20 per cent a week. Every fourth week, you try to incorporate a cutback-week. Follow these routine things. Let me give you the example of Comrades Marathon. I did Comrades in 2018; myself and my wife, Arati. We did not do Comrades back-to-back. I might do it once more when I turn 60. Given Comrades entails lengthy training of 4-5 months, if you are doing it regularly, you may be erring on the side of greater inflammation. Overtraining may also not give you enough sleep. So to return to your question of what qualifies to be severe: if you are not getting up fresh, if you are not sleeping well, if you don’t have enough energy for the day, if your appetite is less, if you are falling ill, if your immunity is declining – those are all signals from the body telling you to cut down. A new runner, for three years at least, he should not run a full marathon. Also remember – running is a muscle-shortening exercise. With age and with constant running – it’s going to affect your speed. Some of the elite runners in the later part of their life, become triathletes. Swimming has the ability to restore muscles to their original length. Plus it involves a different muscle fiber; it also improves breathing.

I think, accepting your declining pace helps you sustain the act of running and enjoy it for more years. Throw off your watches and measuring devices and run. Go with the flow. Except when training for a race, I don’t resort to these gadgets. The longevity of physical activity and fitness is more important than results delivered by great pace. Unfortunately we are fascinated by that pace.

You spoke of the importance of mixing fast and slow running for meaningful work out. There are many people who prefer not to run and are instead into walking. Can they too leverage this blend?

It can be done. In terms of evolution, we are born to run. Once we get used to a certain level of activity, it is normal for the body to learn to use less calories to deliver the same outcome. You do a particular activity, you get some benefits. But later, you don’t. I have been running for years in Navi Mumbai. In that time I have seen many people walking religiously in the morning. But some of them are also gaining weight. That’s because their bodies have got adapted to the routine. They are no longer getting the benefit of walking. You can get the benefit by challenging yourself. There are simple things you can do. For example, you can change the time of your walk; sometimes walk in the morning, sometimes walk in the evening. That way, the body gets a bit shocked. Second, change the terrain. Go to the hills for a change; the body gets challenged in a different way. You can try brisk walking. People try aerobic walking too; you walk like you run. Normal walking burns 4-5 calories per minute. Aerobic walking will burn 8-10 calories per minute. You can introduce the Fartlek concept in walking. Or keep an app that collects data about your walking, if data is a source of motivation for you. Anything that can be measured can be improved upon. I feel somebody who can walk for 30 minutes should be able to run. And if you have been running regularly for three months, you can become a runner. The point is – whatever physical activity you are engaged in, you should challenge yourself a bit. Plus, don’t forget strength training. That helps you walk faster too.

What kind of effect does stress have on the immune system?

Stress impacts the immune system. Stress is of two types. There is the psychological type. Then there is the physico-chemical type which encompasses environmental stress, food, toxins we inhale etc. The body has a tenacious ability to adjust to the challenges in the environment. But if your immune system is compromised or you are under so much duress that the resultant stress is beyond your capacity to cope with, then it can manifest as disease. It can give rise to chronic infections, auto-immune diseases, inflammations and even cancer. I remember a study on anti-depressants used in the treatment of cancer. They don’t address the cancer per se; they address the stress factor. Beta blockers are medicines used to tackle the higher levels of hormones like adrenalin that can be triggered by stress. Prolonged chronic stress can result in more pro-inflammatory cytokines and health conditions thereof.

Dr Pravin Gaikwad (Photo: courtesy Pravin)

How important is rest and recovery in the scheme of things?

Seven to nine hours of sleep will maintain your growth hormones properly. Memory consolidation also happens during sleep. This is important for children. There was a time when school used to be from seven in the morning till twelve noon. You come home and sleep. That consolidates memory. Evening you play. Then you study, eat and sleep. You find something similar in elite runners. They train twice a day. For them, their sleep consolidates their training. Amateur runners, who hold down jobs and pursue their passion, are probably at a disadvantage here. If you can catch a nap some time in between, it helps. It should also be mentioned in this context that use of alcohol and excessive use of mobiles disturbs sleep pattern. If you want good performance, eventually it is about TNR – Training, Nutrition and Recovery. Recovery is where our muscles actually get trained. Then they perform better. On partially trained muscles if you exert, they will be prone to injury. Rest and recovery are the same things. It is very important. I can give you an instance from personal experience. My personal best in the marathon is three hours 38 minutes, which I got at the 2017 Mumbai Marathon. Some days before the event I developed pain in my left calf muscle. So I stopped everything. After 15 days of rest, a Thursday night, I ran around six kilometers to see how the leg held. On Sunday, I got my PB. That forced rest of 15 days helped. The body always gives you a signal of how it is feeling. You just have to listen to it. I also strongly believe in the seasonality of endurance activities. We were typically expected to peak in the winter months because that is when most of the events were held. But now there is an event every weekend. People participate. I feel we should not. Constant racing is not going to improve your performance. You have to give your body time to recover.

Herein, on the nutrition front, one study found that 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour for a marathon or any activity beyond 90 minutes, helps reduce the post-race inflammation. Polyphenols – found in fruits – also help similarly. Banana and good carbohydrate intake is thus good for your recovery.

There is the observation that you are good in-season depending on how well you trained off-season. What do you recommend for the off-season?

Mileage has to be less. I would put emphasis on agility, strength training, nutrition and making sure your weight does not increase too much. Don’t compromise on sleep. One hour of physical activity in this period is good enough.

In terms of the quality of running you do in the off-season: take it easy – would that be correct?

Take it easy. But then don’t run easy every time. Do simple things like – open up your strides for 20 seconds, recover for a minute and then open up again. Do that six to eight times. Cool down. Or you can do Fartlek with your friends around; that is enjoyable. Keep long runs fewer in number than when you are training for a race. Similarly reserve tempo runs for the time you are training towards a race.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

2020 TOKYO OLYMPICS POSTPONED

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

2021 World Athletics Championships may be rescheduled to accommodate new dates of Olympics. 2021 World Aquatics Championships too exploring similar options.

Please see update at the end of the article as well; new dates have been announced. 

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It has been “ rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021,’’ an official statement dated March 24, available on the website of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), said.

According to the statement, the decision followed a conference call between Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan and Thomas Bach, President, IOC. They were joined by Mori Yoshiro, the President of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee; the Olympic Minister, Hashimoto Seiko; the Governor of Tokyo, Koike Yuriko; the Chair of the IOC Coordination Commission, John Coates; IOC Director General Christophe De Kepper; and the IOC Olympic Games Executive Director, Christophe Dubi.

“ In the present circumstances and based on the information provided by the WHO today, the IOC President and the Prime Minister of Japan have concluded that the Games of the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo must be rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021, to safeguard the health of the athletes, everybody involved in the Olympic Games and the international community,’’ the statement said.

It was agreed that the Olympic flame will stay in Japan. It was also agreed that the Games will keep the name Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.

Speculation about the 2020 Olympics – whether it will be held on schedule or postponed – had been in the air for a while. While the IOC maintained that the Games would be held on schedule with indication of rethink emanating only recently, some sports bodies and athletes clearly said that prevailing conditions were not ideal. Further, Australia and Canada announced that they will not be sending their squads to the Games if it was to take place over July 24-August 9 as scheduled earlier.

News reports on the postponement of the Games pointed out that the two major disciplines of swimming and athletics will be having their respective world championships in 2021. The 2021 World Aquatics Championships is expected to be held in Fukuoka, Japan from July 16 to August 1 while the 2021 World Athletics Championships is due in Eugene, Oregon, USA from August 6-15.

In a separate statement dated March 24, 2020, available on their website, World Athletics, while welcoming the decision to postpone the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, informed that they have been in talks with the organizers of the 2021 World Athletics Championships to reschedule the event if required.

“ World Athletics welcomes the decision of the IOC and the Japanese Government to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games to 2021. It is what athletes want and we believe this decision will give all athletes, technical officials and volunteers some respite and certainty in these unprecedented and uncertain times, ‘’ the statement said. It added that World Athletics will “ continue to do whatever it can to preserve and create an outdoor season of one-day meetings in 2020, starting and ending later than usual, so athletes, when they are able and it is safe to, will have access to competitions in every region. This will help them benchmark their performances and adjust their training accordingly for an Olympic Games in 2021. In light of this announcement, we will also expedite our current review of the Olympic qualification system, in cooperation with the IOC, and release any changes to the process as soon as possible so athletes know where they stand.

“ World Athletics stands ready to work with the IOC and all sport on an alternative date for the Olympic Games in 2021 and has already been in discussion with the Organizing Committee of the World Athletics Championships Oregon 21 regarding the possibility of moving the dates of this highly popular worldwide event. They have assured us that they will work with all of their partners and stakeholders to ensure that Oregon is able to host the World Athletics Championships on alternative dates, including dates in 2022.’’

FINA, the international governing body for swimming, has also said it will explore flexibility regarding the dates of the 2021 World Aquatics Championships. In a statement dated March 24, available on FINA’s website, the organization said that following the joint announcement by the IOC and the organizers of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, concerning the postponement of the Games to 2021, FINA will work closely with the host organizing committee of the 2021 FINA World Championships in Fukuoka, the Japan Swimming Federation and Japanese public authorities, to “ determine flexibility around the dates of the competition, “ if necessary and in agreement with the IOC.”

Update: New dates have been announced for the 2020 Olympic Games, recently shifted to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Tokyo Olympic Games will now be held over July 23-August 8, 2021 and the Paralympic Games from August 24 to September 5, 2021. This is as per a statement dated March 30, 2020, available on the website of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

A PHASE OF UNCERTAINTY

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

In mid-February 2020, the organizers of the Tokyo Marathon announced that the event would be restricted to elite athletes. This followed the outbreak of COVID-19 and its spread to multiple nations including Japan. Some days later, news appeared of the 2020 Seoul Marathon being cancelled.

At a press briefing of March 11, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic. At the time of writing, the number of cases was over 220,000 worldwide. Nearly 9000 people had died. Among precautionary measures recommended has been restricting mass participation events. Contributing their bit to contain the disease outbreak, organizers of major marathons started announcing cancellation or postponement of events.

In the second week of March, the organizers of the Boston Marathon announced postponement of the event to September 14. Soon afterwards, London Marathon made a similar announcement, postponing the race to early October. Both these World Marathon Majors are usually held in April. Other major cancellations included the 56-kilometer Two Oceans Marathon in South Africa, Athens Half Marathon, New York Half Marathon. Several other marathons in Europe and the US have also been rescheduled. On March 16, the organizers of Swimathon Goa, an open water swimming race, decided to cancel the event. It was originally scheduled to be held over March 28-29.We spoke to some of those who had planned to attend the above said events; we also spoke to some currently training amid lack of clarity on what may happen to the event they are due to go for.

Deepti Karthik (Photo: courtesy Deepti)

Bengaluru-based Deepti Karthik was scheduled to run the Tokyo Marathon of March 1, 2020. Mid-February, the World Marathon Major, announced that it was restricting the race to elite athletes. Recreational runners were informed that their registration would be carried forward to the next year. Post 2020 Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) Deepti had stepped up her mileage in training aiming to go for the Tokyo Marathon. Notwithstanding the financial loss due to arrangements already made for travel and stay in Tokyo, once news of the cancellation sank in, Deepti decided to take a short break from her training.

She shifted her attention to the 2020 Boston Marathon. “ I was putting in a lot of mileage. I was running 80-85 km each week,” she said. But then, Boston got postponed. Forced to refocus her efforts and recalibrate her training schedule, she has now in her sights the TCS 10 K, slated for May 17, 2020 in Bengaluru. But past that event she is staring at a small pile-up on her plate. Deepti had also signed up for the 2020 Berlin Marathon. With the postponement of Boston Marathon, Deepti will now have to do two World Marathon Majors in two weeks.  Boston Marathon has been rescheduled to September 14 and Berlin Marathon is set for September 27.

Col Muthukrishnan Jayaraman (Photo: courtesy Muthukrishnan Jayaraman)

“ I have no choice but to run both the marathons. I guess I will take Boston Marathon as an easy run and go strong at Berlin. Boston has a tougher route while Berlin is flat,” she reasoned. If the situation does not worsen, Deepti hopes to resume her training for the two international marathons by early June. So far, she has completed three of the six World Marathon Majors – London, Chicago and New York City Marathon. This year a good number of recreational runners from India were slated to go for the Tokyo Marathon. The news of its cancellation came as a disappointment particularly because some of them were hoping to complete the World Major Marathon series in Tokyo.

Col Muthukrishnan Jayaraman, an endocrinologist with the Indian Army, was at the peak of his preparations for the Boston Marathon, when the year’s running calendar started to come apart. Now with news of the Boston Marathon being postponed to September, he is taking a break. “ I will go back to building my foundation and focus on strength training,” he said. “ My coach Ashok Nath has asked his mentees to do a self-assessment of their strong and weak points. Based on that we will have to work out our training plan,” he said. The army doctor hoped to resume his training in May and do one domestic marathon – either the Airtel Hyderabad Marathon or the AFMC Marathon in Pune, both scheduled to be held in August this year.

Apoorva Chaudhary is scheduled to run the 2020 24-hour Asia & Oceania Championships to be held in July in Bengaluru. Based in Delhi, Apoorva commenced her training sometime in mid-March. So far, thanks to the disease outbreak, her training has been muted. She plans to ramp it up from April though that would depend on how COVID-19 impacts the environment. “ I run solo and most of my training runs are done very early in the morning when there are few people on the road,” she said.

Anjali Saraogi (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

Kolkata-based Anjali Saraogi had qualified for the inaugural Abbott World Marathon Major Age Group Championships, which was to be held as part of London Marathon. She is also one of the runners representing India at the 2020 IAU 100 km World Championships to be held in the Netherlands on September 12, 2020. With London Marathon getting postponed to early October, Anjali has decided to give it a miss as her main event is the World Championships. At the 2019 IAU 100 km Asia & Oceania Championships, Anjali had set a new national best with her finish in 9:22 hours. “ I have decided to opt out of London Marathon as I will not be able to recover well after the World Championships and do justice to it,” she said. She plans to resume her training for the World Championships in April.

Sunil Chainani was in the midst of his training for Boston Marathon when the news of postponement came in. Now with the date of Boston Marathon moved to September 14, Sunil will have to participate in two marathons in a period of four weeks – Boston and Chicago. Chicago Marathon is slated for October 11, 2020. He has gone back to minimum essential training. “ I run for fun. Right now my focus is to stay fit,” Sunil, who lives in Bengaluru, said.

Zarir Baliwala (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

It was not long ago that Zarir Baliwala, Mumbai-based businessman and recreational endurance athlete, decided that he will focus on swimming for a change. He decided to temporarily stop running and cycling and get ready for the Goa Swimathon, scheduled over March 28-29. He had just made the decision in his mind when the Maharashtra government acting to contain spread of COVID-19, announced closure of Mumbai’s swimming pools till further notice. Zarir was forced to reassess. Subsequently, the organizers of Swimathon also announced the cancellation of the event in Goa. “ I will now go back to running and cycling,” Zarir said.

For many Indian runners and triathletes focusing on national events, the current phase represents the quieter part of the calendar. Major domestic events have concluded and the new season will commence in three months. However for runners attempting international events – especially events under the World Marathon Majors – the calendar has turned topsy turvy. Between September and November, there are now five World Marathon Majors: Boston Marathon, Berlin Marathon, London Marathon, Chicago Marathon and New York City Marathon.

Ashok Nath (Photo: courtesy Ashok Nath)

Bengaluru-based runner and coach, Ashok Nath had signed up for the 2020 Boston Marathon. Subsequently, he also qualified for the inaugural Abbott World Marathon Major Age Group World Championships to be held as part of the 2020 London Marathon. Having completed Boston Marathon multiple times, he opted to give its 2020 edition a miss and focus instead on the London Marathon. The new revised schedule has cast a fresh spin. He feels there is a manageable gap between Boston and London but the Berlin Marathon, given it is too close to the London event may have to be run another year – that is, for those planning to attempt more than one of these events.

“ The running season in India concludes by end-February and the focus shifts to rebuilding the basics until it is time to commence race specific training. The first major race on the new calendar is the TCS 10 K in Bengaluru, in May,” Ashok said. Following that, India’s season of long runs and the now revised schedule of international marathons will unfold. Depending on how the virus outbreak plays out it may cast a shadow on how you prepare for the year ahead. The critical word is immunity. In these times, training has to be within manageable limits so as not to compromise one’s immunity, Ashok said. “ Long runs will lower immunity. Is that the right thing to do in the current situation?” he asked.

Samson Sequiera (left) with Poonam Bhatia (Photo: courtesy Samson)

The Comrades Marathon, the ultramarathon held annually in South Africa, is among major events in the running calendar. It has been steadily gathering a following in India. The organizers of the event are scheduled to review the situation on April 17, 2020, an official Comrades Marathon press note said. Indian runners attempting the 2020 edition of Comrades Marathon have been pressing ahead with their training. “ Training for Comrades is going on full steam so that we are not found lacking the training mileages required,” said coach Samson Sequiera, who heads a large Mumbai-based marathon training and fitness group called Run India Run.

Training for Comrades Marathon is strenuous. It includes three or four long runs spanning distance of 45 km, 55 km and 65 km. According to Samson, runners are practising self-restraint. They are taking care of their hydration and paying attention to rest given the current situation caused by COVID-19. A total of 35 runners from Run India Run have registered for Comrades Marathon (downhill version) this year. In all, approximately 330 runners from India have registered to run the 2020 Comrades Marathon. The race is scheduled to be held on June 15, 2020.

Satish Gujaran (Photo: courtesy Satish)

“ Runners slated to do Comrades are quite confused on how to take their training forward. Normally, April is the peak month of training for Comrades. We are scheduled to do the longest run of 65 km during the second week of April,” ultramarathon runner, Satish Gujaran, who completed Comrades for the tenth time in 2019, said. He felt, it would be better if the organizers announce their decision early so that runners can stop training and go back to basic fitness routine.  “ One option is to scale the training down now and pick it up after April 15 depending on what the situation is on the pandemic,” Satish said.

According to Ashok, it would be prudent to cancel all sporting events including those two months away such as the Comrades Marathon and TCS 10 K. Given the training for these events happen now, postponing or cancelling them will prompt amateur athletes to stop race-training and focus on fitness-based training.

Septuagenarian Kumar Rao was well into his training for the Boston Marathon, when COVID-19 began upsetting schedules.  He was aiming for a 3:50-3:52 hour finish, an improvement over 3:59, his time to finish last year in Boston. “ I was doing 85-90 km per week. Now, I have decided to scale back. This week I plan to do 35 km. I will eventually settle for 60 km per week,” he said.

Kumar Rao (Photo: courtesy Kumar Rao)

It also appeared practical; apt for these times. “ Considering my age, I think it is better for me to scale down. Initially, I was cavalier about this and continued training. I even did a glycogen-depleted training run,” Kumar said. Boston wasn’t the only major race overseas, on his plate. He had also registered for the New York City Marathon. “ I may have to go to the US twice; once for Boston Marathon in September and then again for NYCM in November. If my wife agrees to come with me, I may stay back in the US with my son for the period between these two marathons,” he pointed out.

Although he shuttles between India and the US, Kochi-based recreational runner Ramesh Kanjilimadhom hadn’t signed up for any major international event in 2020. He did think briefly of running in Paris but then didn’t pursue it. He felt that the shifting of major races to the September-October period could make for a crammed fall season calendar, particularly in the US. On the bright side, provided the disease outbreak tapers, the additional choices emergent for the fall season may prove interesting to runners.

For now, a whole planet of major events in sport is at the mercy of the virus.

(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)

PORTRAIT OF A MALE TRAP

From Jallikattu. This image was downloaded from the film’s Facebook page. It is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

“ Entheda nee cherayunnathu?’’

This question in the Malayalam language has long been a mystery to me.

Mystery would be wrong word; it is more – I know what it is but I find it hard to comprehend why it exists, several thousand years into the human species. In colloquial Malayalam, especially as spoken in southern Kerala where I grew up, the act indicates looking but not simply looking; it is looking at somebody in a manner that betrays sizing up an opponent. There is a hint of: I will show you who I am or don’t mess with me. Sometimes it establishes superiority and ends potential tussle right there. At other times, the look is challenged and the ensuing series of challenges leads to inevitable tussle for superiority. To be fair, it isn’t exclusively a Kerala phenomenon. It is there in all cultures, a sad reminder that civilization notwithstanding we are fundamentally predators.

For a long time, I avoided such predicaments because the capacity to challenge physically or counter a challenge was absent in me. Sometime in college, after my introduction to Desmond Morris and contests among humans got explained in easy to understand anthropological terms, the resultant social grid felt like a depressing jail. The rules of life seemed cast in stone. Then as the age of satellite television and Internet set in and documentaries on wildlife were easily accessed, the macho traits of human beings and its parallels in the animal world became not just clearer; they seemed amusing, even comical. Yet human society, which still respects the inherited, cares little for new insight gained by observing the world. The machismo and domination continue unquestioned as primer to cement one’s rank. Life resembles high drama. That’s why the following two Malayalam films engaged my attention.

Released in September 2019, Jallikattu is a creative tour de force. Its idiom is unforgiving in that it makes no effort to tell a story as dialogue and narrative. Its language is rooted in cinema – a procession of visuals and sounds with characters, dialogues and background score playing second fiddle to it. Threaded together they depict (rather than narrate) reflectively, the goings on when a buffalo meant for slaughter breaks free and runs amok. The beauty of this film is the shades of reflection on human behavior, it offers. Keralites, who have known for long that there is well entrenched patriarchy and mischievous matriarchy below the outer layer of modernity gracing their society, quickly grasp the scenes flashing by and the reflections embedded in them. But the real courage in Jallikattu has to be the film maker’s. Releasing a film cast in said idiom to the market is a major call. Herein, I refer not to the subject of the movie – toxic masculinity – but how it is structured. It is so unlike the regular Indian and Malayalam movie. And yet, you watch it, end to end. Sometimes, we don’t need to be told dialogue by dialogue. We just need to be reminded; shown life as it is. We get it. It is brevity Malayalam films have been consistently getting good at.

This image was downloaded from Facebook. It is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

Roughly five months later, in February 2020, the film Ayyappanum Koshiyum was released. Here, pretty much the same subject as was seen in Jallikattu – toxic masculinity, gets analyzed in a more viewer friendly manner with story, clear characters and good acting. It tells its story by pitting against each other two generic entities well known in Kerala for their machismo-worship – the rich, feudal, land owning patriarch (and his progeny) and the state’s traditional warrior class. But this opting for easily identifiable characters is only a vehicle for narration. The core content is compulsive masculinity (often deteriorating to toxic), the battles it spawns and the specter of bluster and buffoonery it inspires when viewed through contemporary lens. You also see women; those blended into this traditional patriarchy and those confronting it. As viewing experience, the film is imbalanced; after a relatively taut first half, the second half meanders into the known and typical, the ending being quite so.

Both films have a shared quality. They have characters who roar, seek an eye for an eye; they have scenes filled with action, scenes begging for action. They also never fail to put the machismo in context by rising above the immediate and gazing at it from the larger. Doing so, the endlessness of that aggression, the abject clownishness of it; all, surface. Not to mention, very unusually for Indian movies around dominant males, here, you smell the insecurity underlying the aggression. It is portrait of a male trap.

Films like these make lab monkeys of us.

Watching us from the outside, we begin to see.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)          

WHERE DO ALL THE BUFFALOES GO?

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Pioneers don’t have it easy. Followers do.

Anyone who has run long distance knows the habit of latching on to another so that you are pulled along.

It is a bit like the February 2020 story about the Indian construction worker participating in a buffalo race, who got compared to Usain Bolt. It was simple, tempting math: herding a pair of buffaloes in full trot, Srinivasa Gowda sprinted 142 meters in 13.42 seconds; Bolt’s world record in the 100 meters is 9.58 seconds. Gowda was more realized than media and ministers celebrating him. After all, nobody knows as well as the practitioner. A few days after the unexpected limelight, he infused reality saying – and I quote from a published article – “ I am as good as the buffaloes that run with me.’’

In races and in life, we pick buffaloes to lead us. We also get picked as somebody else’s buffalo. Unlike the animal which runs for its safety or when prodded to race by human, we have our race-buffalo lead us and then when we overtake him or her, we feel satisfied about milestone passed. Is that the end? No. Like virus seeking next host, we start looking for the next buffalo and so on, till a half marathon or marathon resembles a necklace of buffaloes preyed upon. At the finish line, we raise our arms for photo imitating marathon greats. We spare no thought for the buffaloes we should be grateful to. Officially sanctioned pace setters; they get thanked for delivering us coveted result. But the buffaloes we pick at random from our ranks; they are forgotten.

Pace setters are officially sanctioned prompts. You choose the flag displaying the timing you are seeking and trail it as a bus. Elite runners also use pace setters. When going for a record, the pace required to get the record is maintained by the pace setters, who slow down or drop off after hand-holding runner three fourths of the way. That last quarter is in many ways more crucial than the preceding ones because eventually greatness in athletic performance is the capacity to stretch one’s endurance over the whole distance. But sometimes, even without pace setters around, competition and strategy shape certain traits. I remember the commentary of a major marathon in which the commentator seeing visual of one or two runners hanging on opportunistically at the shoulder of lead athlete, quipped, “ well that’s a convenient place to be in, isn’t it?’’ You make a buffalo of the other but don’t wish to overtake and be target yourself. Instead, you stick around at striking distance like an annoying fly and at the right juncture in the race – or when buffalo begins to tire, whichever is first – you finish him off by going ahead.

In running, which is fast but not terribly fast, this specter is still only the stuff of buffalo. Like hound on race track chasing a mechanical rabbit, you are focused on prey measured in terms of distance to cover. That’s it. Cycling is a much faster sport than running. In cycling’s peloton, the habit exceeds buffalo setting pace, to courting aerodynamic efficiency. Tucked in behind the leader, a cyclist faces less wind resistance; it is called drafting. Here, the buffalo’s worth goes beyond accidental or intentional prey driving riders on, to actually making it easier for predator behind to catch up. Sort of like authoring its own doom except, as we know, in cycling’s peloton everybody has a role oriented toward ensuring that given team’s ace cyclist is set up for the final dash. But even the final dash between fierce competitors has its opportunistic moments. They weave, sway, look around; all of them worried who should risk becoming target for the one who makes the break will be hunted.

In all of the above – from chasing random buffalo to pace setter to peloton leader – the winner gets it all. The rest are generally forgotten.

Buffaloes also remind of pioneers. Pioneers ride head on into the wind. There is nobody shielding them; none in front soaking wind resistance. The draft they create is a nice place for the rest to tuck in. Eyes on pioneer, they learn to avoid the mistakes he makes. Some in the drafting lot don’t even wish to win. They just want it easy; getting the same credit or more for easier work done. Some others, latch on behind, hanging around pioneer’s shoulders waiting for the correct moment to unsheathe their knives and strike. In human history, many pioneers have faded to oblivion because they didn’t win. Some were too early for their time; some failed to attract capital because their adventurousness troubled conservative money, some failed because in having them fail we found endorsement for our herded existence. Little by little, the failures build a case till someone drafting and making a break finds a sudden ocean of applause. We shine the light on eventual winners without asking who their buffaloes were. We even make life easy for winners rewarding them with this and that.

No such recognition visits pioneers fueled by passion, who endure hardships. As life by network and business model gains, it is strategy and scheming that have come to matter, not passion. It is the rare follower, Gowda probably one, who acknowledges the debt.

I wonder where all the buffaloes go.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)