Illustration: Shyam G Menon

This is an article by invitation. Bhasker Desai, 68, is a Mumbai-based businessman and amateur runner. He has been in the US since mid-March 2020. Amid COVID-19, states there have had varying degrees of lockdown. In California, where Bhasker is at present, there is a shutdown; not a complete lockdown. At this blog’s request, Bhasker wrote in of running’s new normal as experienced there; he also applied his mind to imagining how the new normal may play out in Mumbai.

I am currently in San Bernardino County, southern California. This state has a shutdown but not a complete lockdown. One can venture out any time for a walk / run apart from drive down to pharmacies and grocery stores. Wearing mask and keeping safe distance of six feet is mandatory when out to pick essentials. But there are no such specific guidelines for runners who have access to trails, roads, sidewalks and parks, which they share with walkers and cyclists.

I go out for a run, twice a week; each session lasts 45 minutes to an hour. I run solo for I have no runner friends here. I see very few runners out and about. When I do find someone, it is usually another solo runner. There are walkers too, out for fresh air. They are typically seen in pairs, group of friends and quite often, a family of adults and children. Most of them wear masks. Where I live, I have yet to see runners wearing masks. I suspect they must feel uncomfortable wearing a mask and running. The mask gets wet from breath and sweat; breathing becomes tad difficult.

May 10, 2020: an empty street in San Bernardino County, southern California (Photo: Bhasker Desai)

In general, people wear masks when out. So I am unsure how welcome to others, the sight of runners not choosing to wear one is. After all, we do huff and puff more than them and that does not help alleviate the concerns of these times. However, every time I see passersby, I make sure I am more than ten feet away. I even jump to the edge of already empty roads (very few cars are out), let people go by and only then, get back on to the path. Some people wave to greet or show approval. When you are greeted so, for a moment it feels like old times! It reminds you of times when people joined you to enjoy the camaraderie; an unexpected running partner had for a short distance. But alas times have changed. For now it is only a smile and we move on safely, away from one another. The new normal sucks but it is a reality we must accept and not flout till this phase gets over…hopefully soon.

I think of Mumbai. The city is home to a big number of recreational runners. Personally I don’t see much social inequality in the sport. The running spirit encompasses all kinds of runners, slow, fast, young, old, rich and poor. That should be good news to start with as and when Mumbai opens up again for runners. Even the comparatively disadvantaged runners, we take them along with us to run side by side and support them in different ways. Till such time as COVID-19 becomes a thing of the past and there is a vaccine that cures, maintaining physical distancing (ten feet?) should be number one priority. So, when Mumbai reopens and permits resumption of running, remember to stay apart from each other. No rocket science there, it is the obvious thing to do for safety of self and others.

Solo running or running with a few friends you know are healthy – that may be your new normal. Make it mandatory not to touch one another. No hugs or handshakes to greet (namaste should work) and always, that physical distance. I agree it feels terrible. But self-preservation and precaution are essential in this new order. Seniors (I would say, those above 55 years) should be even more cautious, they should ideally run solo. They are a higher risk group and so should feel nothing bad at being isolated.

January 5, 2020: the old normal; runners from various parts of the city after their Sunday run at Marine Drive, Mumbai (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

Mumbai is a thickly populated concrete jungle. That is its biggest challenge. Its community of runners too has grown rapidly. There are few free spaces to tread. There are only few green zones and limited sea fronts for runners to breathe fresh air and feel healthy. And with many people walking side by side, it adds to the crowding. Social distancing for runners in most cities in the US is not such a big challenge. North America has less people, more accessible free space, plenty of parks, running trails, sidewalks and special zones for extracurricular activities. There is no dearth of space to run freely and at the same time, keep physical distance from each other. Mumbai in comparison is no runner’s paradise. I suspect, similar challenges will be felt as regards the new normal in other Indian metros like Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai and Kolkata.

Good behavior by runners in Mumbai’s limited free space will be crucial if we are to check the spread of this lethal virus. Life style changes are on the anvil. Get ready to accept that you will not be running free spirited like before in the new normal. We runners are very gregarious and love to chat as we run. We won’t be able to continue that. It’s another change we need to accept to restrict spread of droplets. It means we have to count that much more on self-discipline and resilience to fall in line with the new normal, which Mumbai too must accept. Runners need to keep their ethics and spirits high, stay strong and united. They should not become weak and resort to protest (for space). Good behavior and sportsmanship are required if we are to thrive in the new normal. Where this doesn’t happen, government regulations and dos and don’ts may be imposed with potential penalty to defaulters. Is that the solution? I hope we don’t come to that stage. I hope we shoulder our responsibilities and make the things that provide us joy, happen, so that we live in peace and harmony. Perhaps team leaders, running gurus and running clubs like Mumbai Road Runners (MRR) can lead the way to formulate runners’ ethics and influence right behavior through proper guidelines. Runners have to learn to coexist and yet stay distanced. Notwithstanding what others can suggest, in the end, it will be the individual’s inner calling. So, this compliance is something we have to generate from within.

January 5, 2020: the old normal; runners from various parts of the city after their Sunday run at Marine Drive, Mumbai (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

The other challenge in India will be for organizers of running events. Big ticket events like Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM), Airtel Delhi Half Marathon – may have to take a back seat as participation in numbers like 30,000 and 40,000 can break down physical distancing and be a threat to human safety. Besides, till such time as they develop a runner-friendly mask, wearing a mask and running more than five kilometers may be irritating; you end up with a sweaty, smelly face cover.  Forget big events, even small ones with 500 to 1000 runners may prove unacceptable unless some solution like split timings for start or large enough space to run (we can’t imagine such luxuries in Mumbai) or some such impractical unfriendly way of going about organizing a race is evolved. Nothing comes to my mind except that for some time, let running events be on the back burner in big cities. In smaller places, far flung semi metros and towns, local small events can be a reality with just a few runners. In the end, running for us amateur runners is about health and happiness. So no world lost if for some time we don’t race and get another PB! I hope and pray that vaccine comes earlier than projected; a vaccine that cures and allows us once again to breathe next to our fellow runner.

(The author, Bhasker Desai, is a Mumbai-based businessman currently in the US. The write-up was edited by Shyam G Menon.)


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Tokyo Games may have to be cancelled if it can’t be held next summer

President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach has indicated that the rescheduled 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games may have to be cancelled if the new dates of next summer cannot be met owing to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Speaking on the situation, he told BBC Sport that neither can the Games organizers keep their staff permanently employed nor can athletes remain in uncertainty.

According to the report dated May 20, 2020, available on the BBC website, Bach also said that the event would be focused on essentials and while holding it behind closed doors isn’t his preference, he requires more time to consider the option.

Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe has said that staging the rescheduled Games would be difficult if the country does not contain the virus in time. Top medical officials in Japan have also pointed to the relevance of a vaccine in this regard. BBC said that when asked of this angle, Bach responded the IOC was counting on advice from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Recent news reports have pointed out that while there are several vaccine candidates in various stages of study, not only will they take between 12-18 months to be properly approved but top scientists have also cautioned, a successful vaccine may not emerge anytime soon.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games was originally slated for July 24-August 9, 2020. It was rescheduled to July 23-August 8, 2021 (retaining 2020 in the event name) following the outbreak of COVID-19 and its spread worldwide.

Sports Ministry approves resumption of training at its sports complexes and stadiums

The Sports Ministry has given its go ahead to the resumption of training at its complexes and stadiums after the government permitted their reopening in the fourth phase of the lockdown caused by COVID-19, Press Trust of India (PTI) reported, May 15, 2020.

According to the report published in national media, India’s sports minister Kiren Rijiju said activities will be conducted in sports complexes and stadiums strictly in accordance with guidelines issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). “ I’m happy to inform sportspersons and all concerned that sports activities will be conducted in sports complexes and stadia strictly in accordance with MHA guidelines and that of the States in which they are situated,” Rijiju tweeted. The minister however reminded that the use of gyms and swimming pools are still prohibited.

2020 Comrades Marathon cancelled

The 2020 Comrades Marathon, which was postponed earlier due to concerns over COVID-19, has now been officially cancelled.

An official statement available on the website of the event said, “ Following long discussion with the Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) Board and KwaZulu-Natal Athletics (KZNA), Athletics South Africa has announced the cancellation of the 2020 Comrades Marathon.’’

It quoted CMA Chairperson Cheryl Winn as saying, “ It is with profound sadness and regret that the CMA Board, in conjunction with ASA and KZNA, had to make this decision. We do so with the knowledge that it will come as a great disappointment to thousands of Comrades runners, who together with us at CMA, have been holding out hope that the race would somehow proceed.

“ We had hoped to postpone The Ultimate Human Race to a date not later than end of September (owing to climatic conditions), but alas with the Covid-19 pandemic showing no signs of abating and anticipated to peak in the coming months, there is no telling what is yet to come. As CMA, it is incumbent upon us to prioritise the health, safety and well-being of our athletes, volunteers and stakeholders and therefore lamentably we will not be staging this year’s edition of the country’s leading road running event.”

According to the statement, exactly 80 years ago, Comrades Marathon organizers had faced a similar dilemma in deciding whether to stage the 20th Comrades Marathon some eight months into the conflagration of World War II.  At the last moment it was decided to go ahead with just 23 starters, following the withdrawal of many runners who had been mobilized for the war effort.  Only ten runners completed the 1940 Comrades Marathon.  The following year the race was cancelled and remained so for the duration of the war (1941 – 1945), as the organizers, runners and supporters stood in solidarity with all those who suffered the horrors and atrocities of war, similar to that of the World War 1 which had inspired the Comrades Marathon’s humble beginnings.

Registration opens for professional athletes facing funds crunch due to pandemic

Professional athletes who are experiencing financial hardship due to the coronavirus pandemic will be able to register for a one-off welfare grant from the welfare fund set up by World Athletics and International Athletics Foundation (IAF). The registration window is from May 15 until May 31, an official statement dated May 15, 2020, available on the website of World Athletics said.

It was two weeks ago that the two organizations announced that a US$ 500,000 welfare fund had been created to support professional athletes who have lost a substantial part of their income due to the suspension of international competition this year. A working group was formed to oversee the distribution of the funds and it has now finalized the eligibility criteria and application process.

World Athletics president Sebastian Coe, who chairs the working group, said it had been a challenging and complicated task to define the eligibility criteria to ensure that grants from the fund were delivered to the athletes most in need.

According to the statement, the fund will support athletes who have met the Tokyo Olympic Games entry standard and will provide welfare grants to be used to cover basic living expenses. The level of grant will be dependent on the number of approved applications and up to a maximum of US$4000. It is anticipated that the grants will be distributed directly to athletes from June. Only athletes who have been impacted financially to the extent that they are unable to maintain their basic standard of living should apply. All applicants must meet the following eligibility criteria:

  • Must be qualified (by meeting the entry standard) for selection for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
  • Must have never had an anti-doping rule violation
  • Must be able to demonstrate a justifiable welfare need through significant loss of income in 2020 compared to 2019.

To help ensure the fund goes to those most in need, the following athletes will not be eligible to apply:

  • Those ranked in the Top 6 in their event in the World Athletics World Rankings
  • Those who have finished in the Top 6 positions of any Gold Label Road Race in 2019
  • Those who have earned more than USD 6,000 in prize money from the Diamond League in 2019

Athletes who, throughout the covid-19 pandemic, continue to receive an annual grant from their government, national olympic committee, member federation or sponsors are not expected to apply unless they can demonstrate a justifiable welfare need as detailed above.

The first phase of the application process is for the IAF to assess eligibility and for athletes to describe the need for grant support and their proposed use of the grant. More detailed financial information will be requested in the second phase prior to confirmation of any grant award, the statement said.

Sports Authority of India to prepare SOP for resuming training post lockdown

The Sports Authority of India (SAI) has formed a committee to prepare a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for phased resumption of training across sporting disciplines at all its centers once the lockdown due to COVID-19 is lifted.

According to a report from the Press Trust of India (PTI), published in the media on May 10, 2020, the six-member panel will be headed by SAI secretary Rohit Bharadwaj and will have as members, CEO Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) Rajesh Rajagopalan, Executive Director (Operations) SS Roy, SS Sarla, Col BK Nayak and Assistant Director TOPS Sachin K. All training had been suspended across SAI centers in view of the on-going pandemic.

The proposed SOP will describe protocols and preventive measures to be observed by all stakeholders, including trainees, coaches, technical and non-technical support staff, NSFs, administrators, mess and hostel staff and visitors, once training resumes.

It will include the guidelines to be followed on entry norms, sanitization and precautions to be taken in common areas and by athletes while travelling to and from the center. A separate committee has been formed to prepare a SOP for swimming, since the sport requires athletes to train in water and may have a different set of health risks to address. The committee for swimming will be headed by Executive Director, TEAMS Division of SAI, Radhica Sreeman, and will include Monal Choksi, secretary general of the Swimming Federation of India, senior coaches and doctors, the PTI report said.

The recommendations of the committees are being made in consultation with respective National Sporting Federations and other stakeholders and will be sent to the Sports Ministry for final approval.

IOC foresees costs of up to $ 800 million as its share in organizing Tokyo Olympics

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) anticipates that it will have to bear costs of up to USD 800 million for its share of responsibilities in organizing the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, its own extended operations and the support for the wider Olympic Movement. This amount will be covered by the IOC itself, including any funding from the Olympic Foundation, an official statement dated May 14, 2020, available on the IOC website said.

This number includes the cost for the organization of the postponed Games of up to USD 650 million for the IOC and an aid package of up to USD 150 million for the Olympic Movement, including the International Federations (IFs), the National Olympic Committees (NOCs) and the IOC-Recognized Organizations, to enable them to continue their sports, their activities and their support to their athletes. Today, the IOC Executive Board (EB) approved this financial plan.

“ At the moment, the IOC is undergoing a deep analysis process to evaluate and assess the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on all of its operations. This is a complex exercise because of the constantly changing factors which have to be considered in the current environment,’’ the statement said.

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