Neeraj Chopra would’ve hoped for a well-earned break after competing in the season-ending Diamond League Final in Zurich on Thursday. But the Olympic champion and World Championship silver medallist might be forced to alter his plans. And it’s not just him.
From shooters – who will get their first shot at the 2024 Paris Games berth – to the weightlifters, aiming to stay injury-free before their Olympic qualification cycle begins in December, to the wrestlers, whose hectic season was scheduled to end later this month after the World Championships – each of India’s top athletes will have to rejig their schedules after the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) made it mandatory for them to compete in this month’s National Games in Gujarat.
The National Games are being held after a gap of seven years from September 29 to October 12 across six cities in Gujarat. On Sunday, Home Minister Amit Shah launched the mascot and the anthem for the Games, which Sports Minister Anurag Thakur said would be the ‘biggest and grandest’ ever.
To deliver that, the IOA, on Tuesday, shot off letters to the National Sports Federations and State Olympic Associations to ensure ‘all eligible eminent athletes’ take part in the Games. Eminent athletes were described as the ones who have taken part or won medals in international competitions.
In his letter, IOA secretary-general Rajeev Mehta asked for ‘wholehearted support and cooperation in making the National Games successful’. “As far as athletes are concerned, participation in the National Games is most important for them,” Mehta wrote.
He added: “To ensure the esteemed significance of the National Games, participation of all eligible eminent athletes who have taken part/won medals in International Games and Championships are necessary to compete in the 36th National Games also. The Sports Federations and State Olympic Associations are requested to keep this in mind when selecting the athletes for representing their sports and states.”
At the start of the year, the National Games were nowhere in the picture. It was only in June that the IOA decided to conduct the event which was originally scheduled to be held in 2016 in Goa. In July, Gujarat Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel announced that the state – which is gearing up for legislative council polls later this year – will host the Games that will see approximately 7,000 athletes compete in 34 disciplines.
Now, the IOA’s diktat, which was communicated unofficially in the last few days, has put athletes and the federations in a dilemma. “If there is a clash between international tournaments and the national games for some of the athletes we will discuss and find the best possible solution,” Mehta told this paper.
Shooting schedule rejig
Take the case of shooters, who will be most affected. The shotgun World Championships are scheduled to take place in Osijek, Croatia, from September 19 to October 12. Then, from October 12 onwards, the rifle and pistol World Championships will begin in Cairo. The Worlds will give Indian shooters the first chance to book a quota for the Paris Olympics.
“But now, it’s a Catch-22 situation. On one hand, there are competitions where the Olympic quota is on offer. On the other, there’s the National Games, which are taking place after several years,” a federation official said.
While the skeet shooters who will travel for the Worlds will have to give the National Games a miss, their trap counterparts will compete in Osijek on October 2, hop on to a flight to Ahmedabad immediately, and compete at Nationals on October 4.
Similarly, the rifle and pistol events at the National Games will begin a day before the opening ceremony, scheduled for September 29, so that the events are wrapped up by October 3. The shooters are expected to leave for Cairo on October 8.
“We are trying to ensure a way through which at least some of our top-ranked shooters can take part in the National Games. With regards to the rifle/pistol team, they will have to compete in Gujarat before quickly turning their attention to the World Championships,” the official said.
In a way, the National Games pose a lesser headache to the athletes compared to the Asian Games, which were originally scheduled to be held this year. The continental multi-discipline event was slated to be held in Hangzhou from September 10 to 25 but got postponed to September-October 2023 due to the Covid situation in China.
Had the Asian Games gone ahead as scheduled, it would have either clashed with or been in close proximity to, several World Championships and other major competitions, including the Diamond League Final. “So, in that sense, it’s all the same,” a coach said. “Our athletes do not get many chances to compete in front of the home crowd. So, the National Games become important. However, we might not go flat-out to ensure the athletes are not overburdened or injure themselves.”