Not easy for athletes to hit peak form post Covid-19, say experts

Not easy for athletes to hit peak form post Covid-19, say experts

With a little over two months to go for the Tokyo Olympic Games, excitement and apprehension scramble for attention. The Corona virus and its different strains have the world – not just some sections of the world of sport – worried.

To be sure, if one were to go by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the local organising committee, Tokyo is gearing up for the opening ceremony on July 23. As per its latest communication to the media after its last coordination committee meeting, IOC is set to deliver the Summer Olympics in the best possible way in the current environment.

At the same time, activists in Japan and the world over believe that holding the Olympics in July-August will be ‘suicidal’. Day in and day out, one reads how doctors in Tokyo, NGOs and many groups are resisting the idea of staging the Olympic Games.

A scare is being created as if all athletes, officials, coaches and others in the Games Family will be Super-Spreaders of the virus. Given the strict guidelines which have been put in place by Tokyo and how often RTPCR testing of athletes and all those accredited for the Games will take place, one can be quite certain that this is the best possible way to hold the Games.

Doubting Thomases will continue to spread negativity. As of today, it does appear the Games will be held from July 23 to August 8 in a way never done before.

Meanwhile, even as D-Day approaches, Indian athletes across several sporting disciplines are preparing for the Olympic Games. Some have been lucky to be based abroad, like weightlifter Mirabhai Chanu in the USA and the Indian shooting squad in Croatia. Fencer Bhavani Devi is in Italy and wrestler Vinesh Phogat in Europe (Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary).

The majority are in India, training in three or four SAI Centres.  Rio silver medallist PV Sindhu is more than happy to be training at home in Hyderabad.

Looking specifically at a cross-section of Indian athletes who have dealt with Covid-19, doubts do creep in over their well-being, fitness and readiness for the Games. Some were hit by the virus in 2020 and many more have been laid low in the second wave this year.

There has been no official study as yet on the impact of Covid-19 on these athletes though names of those who have suffered are well known. When the men hockey players tested positive last year at the SAI camp in Bengaluru, there was a huge scare. Skipper Manpreet Singh and defender Surendra Kumar were among those who tested positive.

What happened after their recovery was even more worrying as Surendra, a good defender, developed clots (DVT) on his right arm, and he had to be treated with blood thinners after hospitalisation. Surendra’s was the first case to shake an active athlete. Subsequently, from Vinesh Phogat to Saina Nehwal, Avinash Sable to Sania Mirza, Rani Rampal to Jinson Johnson, athletes have been in quarantine and treated for Covid-19.

Worse, in shooting, apart from a well-known rifle coach, almost half of the 15-member Indian shooting team which will be going to Tokyo has faced the wrath of Covid-19.

Dr KT Bhowmik

Given the fact sports medicine in India is still not as advanced as in the western world, dealing with the virus and rehab has been experimental. This writer spoke to a few leading doctors and the unanimous view is one will not know to what extent athletes have been affected. Perhaps, after watching their performances in Tokyo, one can talk more about its impact.

Dr KT Bhowmik, Additional Director General in the DGHS, Union Ministry of Health, who is well versed with Indian sport, had plenty of insight to offer. As one who has worked with Indian sport before as well, including the 2010 Commonwealth Games, Bhowmik was frank in pointing out some key facts.

“Having been working right through the period from March 2020 till today, in the Ministry and Safdarjung Hospital, I have noticed many after-effects and side-effects in patients who were hit by Covid-19,” he said. “It is well known the patients have breathing issues. It includes the lungs as well as the cardio-vascular system. We have noticed how people struggle to come back to normal. The lung capacity does take a hit if the patient has suffered moderate Covid-19. This is something which will affect the athletes as well.”

He talked of how breath control and maintaining a lower heart rate is essential for shooters. “The virus is bound to affect the shooters, as we have seen in the case of other patients. Yes, the athletes are supposed to be more fit but the virus spares none,” said Dr Bhowmik.

Many shooters have recovered recently from Covid-19 after the ISSF World Cup in New Delhi in March.  So, until they train at full steam, one will not know the real position. Pistol shooter Rahi Sarnobat spoke two weeks ago about her recovery.

In layman’s term, she may have fought the virus, rested adequately and got back. But the acid test begins in Zagreb, where the shooters will be based till the Olympics. Perhaps, the European Championship can provide clues as to how Rahi and rifle shooter Apurvi Chandela overcame the virus.

Dr Bhowmik also talked of how tough it will be athletes who are in sport which needs explosive energy. “The super fit boxers, athletes in sport where you could hold your breath for a minute, also the track and field athletes will be tested to the hilt if they have had Covid-19. Their lung capacity comes down. It is also a proven fact that after Covid-19, the cardio-vascular system does also gets affected in many cases. I would love to see the Indian athletes do well but the journey to Tokyo is a sort of voyage into the unknown,” Dr Bhowmik said.

He also talked of ‘pulmonary embolism’ which is scarier.

One really does not know how many of these elite athletes hit by Covid-19 were analysed medically. After all, it is beyond just doing blood tests and making them run on the field. Many athletes, including Jinson Johnson, have reported fatigue.

As one who works (gratis) with the Indian Olympic Association Medical Commission and the Athletics Federation of India, Dr. Bhowmik added that competing in empty arenas at the Tokyo Olympics is a huge factor. “In every sport, the athlete-fan engagement is intense. Minus the fans cheering, raising one’s own level will be tough, especially for someone like Neeraj Chopra,” he said.

Leading physiotherapist Ruchi Varshney

Leading physiotherapists and sports physios concur with Dr. Bhowmik. Delhi-based Ruchi Varshney, who has over  two decades of clinical practice, stressed how physiotherapy is vital post Covid-19.

“I have been treating many patients recovering from Covid-19. The trauma is varying. As a physio, one has to work on case-to-case basis. Pain in joints, limbs and calf muscles is common. For the shooters, strength in calf muscles will come down. Unless they are totally rehabilitated, training again at full steam will be quite a challenge,” said Ruchi Varshney.

She said there are many ways in which she has helped patients as far as their breathing pattern and working on the diaphragm is concerned. “I have been doing online counselling with other physios as well. Athletes, perhaps, need greater attention as from head to toe as the impact of Covid-19 has been observed,” said Ruchi.

In her words, if the common man needs holistic treatment post Covid-19, elite athletes need more attention. “There is a misconception about physios and the role they play in India. Athletes need to be monitored by their doctors through blood tests and so on as well. There is no instant recovery prescription,” she said.

One thought on “Not easy for athletes to hit peak form post Covid-19, say experts

  1. Its a well written & detailed write up on would be impact on Tokyo Olympics qualified Indian Sportspersons who had a tryst with COVID once. These Sportspersons have certainly recovered and are training very hard & sincerely. We all need to cheer them up so that they are boosted to the hilt with their confidence-and thus give their best performances in Tokyo Olympics. Positive attitudes also play a big part in getting the best from the Sportspersons. Let’s hope the Indian Sportspersons come back with bag full of Tokyo Olympics Medals.

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