At wrestling nationals, no social distancing, stands full and few people with masks
No mask, no social distancing and packed stands. On Saturday, wrestling became the first major Olympic sport to hold its national championship since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.On December 26, the sports ministry had released an eight-page Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) for organising competitions in the midst of a pandemic, in which it underlined that the events should be conducted ‘strictly in accordance with the guidelines of the Ministry of Home Affairs’.The government had said that the organisers should ensure there are specific markings on the floor at gaps of six feet, limit the presence of support staff at the venue, ensure ventilation and make available face covers, masks, gloves and sanitisers at the venue. It had also said that spectators will be allowed up to a maximum of 50 per cent of the capacity of the stadium for outdoor events.However at the indoor arena of the Noida Stadium, hundreds of spectators gathered to watch the men’s freestyle championship, which has attracted 252 wrestlers in 10 weight categories. The grapplers had to produce a Covid-negative certificate to be eligible for the championship. However, there was no such requirement for coaches and support staff accompanying them, as well as referees and federation officials.And while referees officiating the bouts wore face shields, few others wore masks. People roamed around freely within the field of play and at one point had to be chased out by Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, who too did not wear a mask and was on the dais where the dignitaries sat close to each other.The spectators mingled freely with the wrestlers before and after the bouts, posed for selfies and, in some cases, shared meals and cups of tea.A WFI official said they tried to control the crowd but the orders were disobeyed. “They did not listen to us. It was not possible for us to keep alternate seating since there were no chairs in the stands; instead, the spectators sat on the steps,” the official said.Protesting farmer’s son is national champWhile his father is at the farmer protests at the Singhu Border in Delhi, Punjab wrestler Sandeep Singh was crowned national champion in the highly-competitive 74kg weight category on Saturday.Sandeep, who belongs to a farming family in Mansa, said one of his regrets was not being able to join his father, Sagar, at the protests. “He has been going there regularly but I haven’t been able to join him as I was preparing for the national championship,” Sandeep said.The wrestler said he cared about the issue since his career was funded by the money his family made from farming. “I do not have any sponsors so the monthly expense to keep my wrestling going, which is around Rs 30,000, comes from farming. It’s my livelihood. It’s unfortunate I haven’t been able to join the protests and fight for the cause,” he said.Sandeep defeated Haryana’s Jitender Singh in a closely-contested final, thus opening up the race for a spot in the team for the Tokyo Olympics qualifiers.India is yet to earn a quota in the 74kg category. Sandeep’s victory means he zooms into contention in a crowded field, which also includes former national champion Gourav Baliyan, who lost in the first round to Narsingh Yadav – another contender. Two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar, too, competes in this category.The selection trials for a place in the qualifiers will be held in March.