As Covid-19 started rearing its head again in India in the middle of April, international travel for the country’s athletes became doubtful. The case of rowers was no different.
But their visit to the Asia and Oceania Olympic and Paralympic Qualification Regatta finally happened and turned out to be a successful one — thanks to Indian Army’s Naib Subedars Arjun and Arvind who finished second in the final to book a ticket to the Games.
Besides the double sculls duo, Jakar Khan too finished in the qualifying bracket (top five) in the single scull final. Khan finished fourth, but as per the qualification rules, each participating nation in the event was offered one Olympic quota, which then went to Arjun and Arvind in India’s case.
But be it at the hotel or at the tournament venue, the Tokyo Bay, one thing that ruled every rower’s mind was “kahin [Covid] rules follow karne mei koi galti na ho jai [hope we don’t make a mistake in following the Covid rules].”
“Before we left [for Tokyo], the coach [Ismail Baig] was saying travel has become tough, so don’t know if we will be able to go or not. It wasn’t confirmed,” said Arjun, who hails from the Nayabas village in Jaipur, while talking to Timesofindia.com
(Arjun and Arvind finished second, behind Japan, in the men’s double sculls final)
“There were a lot of rules we had to follow. Even if one of us tested positive, the whole team would have had to return [withdraw]. Indiscipline [not following Covid protocol] could also lead to suspension,” Arjun added.
Loaded with those apprehensions, the team embarked on the journey. After landing in Tokyo, it took the squad five hours before they could move out of the airport.
“It took us around five hours to clear immigration at the airport after we reached Japan,” said the 25-year-old Arvind, who is from Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh. “There were multiple checkpoints because of [Covid] testing and other safety measures. It was tough.”
But the team’s responsibility had only begun at that stage. At the hotel, while in separate rooms, they could move out only for meals, any emergency or when they had to go to the competition venue. Each participating athlete’s location and movement was tracked by the authorities.
“Like we have the Aarogya Setu app [in India], there are two apps that we have to download before leaving the airport in Japan. Then, on a daily basis, we had to mail the authorities and tell them we are okay or if we had any symptoms. Between 10 am to 2 pm daily, we had to send that update by mail,” Arvind told TimesofIndia.com.
At the hotel, besides staying in their rooms for most of the time, there were strict dining rules during meal timings, which were also fixed.
(Rowers Arvind, Arjun and Jakar carrying coach Ismail Baig on their shoulders at the Tokyo Bay)
“We were given time-slots to eat. We had to eat within those 30 minutes. We couldn’t talk while eating. As soon as you finish, you have to put the mask back on. Only a particular number of athletes could eat in one time-slot. The tables were marked with country names,” Arvind said, giving a peek into what could be in store for athletes at the Olympics scheduled to run from July 23 to August 8.
In such a scenario, the coach had to perform the dual role of a coach-cum-monitor and remind the athletes about Covid-appropriate behaviour.
“If we did anything wrong, he [coach Baig] would tell us what we can do and what we can’t to not risk getting suspended,” said Arjun.
But once in the water, the Indian rowers showed their prowess, with hosts Japan, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Uzbekistan as their main competitors. Hong Kong had beaten India by 1.5 seconds at the Asian Championships in South Korea.
“It was tough, but [coach] Ismail saab told us – ‘You are my best doubles sculls team. In my 30 years of coaching, you two are my best team.’ So as soon as we entered the water, we were determined to show our hard work of the last eight months. That’s the mindset we raced with,” Arjun recalled while talking to TimesofIndia.com.
Arvind, meanwhile, recalled how the coach told them to not give importance to the timings in the Heats [qualifying rounds].
“During our qualifying Heats, none of the top teams put in their 100 percent [in order to conserve energy for the final]. So the coach said don’t look at the timings.
“My partner and I had complete trust in each other, as we had practised so hard for this. We were confident about qualifying,” said Arvind.
(Indian rowers with coach Ismail Baig in Tokyo)
Both Arjun and Arvind come from farmer families and took up the sport only after joining the Indian Army. Arvind was recruited in 2016, while Arjun, who was scouted by Asian Games gold medallist Bajrang Lal Takhar, joined the Indian Army in 2015.
Training together since 2017, Arjun and Arvind are now gearing up for the next preparatory camp.
“With God’s grace, all went well [during the Tokyo trip],” said Arjun.
And Arvind added: “We gave our 100 percent despite restrictions due to [state of] emergency [in Tokyo]. I think it will be a similar [atmosphere] at the Olympics.”