Exclusive | Pullela Gopichand in conversation with WION Photograph:( AFP )
The only Indian sportsperson to win both Khel Ratna and Dronacharya award, Pullela Gopichand, in an exclusive interview with WION’s Sports Editor, Digvijay Singh Deo, spoke on a lot of topics ranging from the importance of remaining physically and mentally fit during lockdown, the postponed Olympics, the idea of quarantine facility for Olympic hopefuls and much more...
Badminton is one of the sports to be hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Badminton World Federation (BWF) has cancelled a host of events like the Australian Open, Thailand Open 2020, Indonesia Open 2020, Russian Open 2020, among others. There's even major uncertainty on the qualification scenario for the Tokyo Olympics when it comes to badminton, which was postponed to 2021 amid the coronavirus pandemic. Furthermore, the athletes have been restricted to train indoors in a bid to stay fit whenever the sporting action resumes.
The Chief National Coach for the Indian Badminton team, the only Indian sportsperson to win both Khel Ratna and Dronacharya award, Pullela Gopichand, in an exclusive interview with WION’s Sports Editor, Digvijay Singh Deo, spoke on a lot of topics ranging from the importance of remaining physically and mentally fit during lockdown, being friends with technology to keep up the training regimes, the postponed Olympics, idea of quarantine facility for Olympic hopefuls and much more...
Digvijay Singh Deo: Now Gopi is usually a very busy man and I have once had to wake up at 5:30 am to interview him. But for this interview, we both had to coordinate the online class timings of our sons. Must say online classes are a boon during these thought times...
Gopichand: The online classes keep the kids busy, otherwise they would be a quite tough to handle in these times
DSD: The family must be pretty surprised to see you at home Gopi all this while. Your day starts and ends at the academy mostly in normal times...
Gopichand: Surprisingly, it's not been bad till now, I've enjoyed my stay at home. I returned from the UK on the 15th of March, which was a very sensitive time. I put myself in quarantine for two weeks even though it wasn't mandatory for me at that time. My wife and kids only joined me last week. So overall, I've enjoyed my time at home. My parents are staying at my house in Hyderabad since it is more important for them to be safe, and I've come to the farmhouse along with my wife and kids.
DSD: What’s happening with your academies? They are pretty big and is any anyone looking after the basic maintenance?
Gopichand: Only a skeletal housekeeping staff is operating at the academy now since we've been closed for a month.
DSD: There were a few players who decided to opt-out of the All England and they left the academy and returned home after some cases were reported in the vicinity...
Gopichand: I think that period in early March, people were sceptical about travelling anywhere in the world because the disease had started to spread in the UK. It was already a crisis in Italy, so players were a bit apprehensive of going for the tournament. With health and safety being a priority, the players decided it would be best for them to skip the all England championship.
DSD: In hindsight do you think all of you took a huge risk in travelling to Birmingham for the All England Championships? It is a very prestigious championship and one of your most memorable triumphs as well.
Gopichand: I was clear I didn't want to go, nor did I want the players to travel.but it was the players' choice which prevailed and I obviously had to go with them. I didn't have an option. My initial plan was not to go, but at the last moment our Korean coach Park Tae Sang wasn't able to travel due to some restrictions and some members of the support staff also dropped out. So it became mandatory for me to travel with the team. I think conducting the All England Championship was a huge risk. I was of that opinion before the tournament as well and still hold the same view. I did advise some players like HS Prannoy, Sameer Verma and Sourabh Verma against travelling for the tournament since it would not greatly affect their world rankings or Olympic qualification chances.from an organisational point of view, I do believe that the tournament should not have taken place
DSD: You are a hard taskmaster so have you got some kind of online classes going for the players...
Gopichand: We are using online platforms to have fitness sessions for all our players. There is a trainer who holds the morning session and there is a strength and conditioning session in the evening as well. We are roughly managing to do about 11 sessions in a week. Of course, it's not the same as being out on the court, but we have to make to with what we have. We have to keep ourselves in good shape physically and mentally during the lockdown.
DSD: How essential is it not to lose your fitness during this period Gopi? Badminton is an extremely gruelling sport and if you are not hundred per cent it sort of shows on the court.
Gopichand: Staying fit is of paramount importance during these times, any players who fail to maintain his or her physical fitness during the lockdown is going to suffer.players often have injuries, when they are not able to do much, but they are still able to do their mental training, visualisation and a little bit of strengthening. Some of these things do not require much space, what you need is a yearning to learn. In terms of the badminton calendar, we don't know what the scenario is or what it will be after in six months or a year. All we can do is that ensure the players are in good physical shape whenever it starts. I've always maintained this mantra, that the 'process is the goal'. So, even during the lockdown, the players must prepare and be ready for the next tournament whenever that may be.
DSD: Do you have any sort of an indication as to when the calendar will resume? As things stand even October 2020 seems a stretch especially with long term travel restrictions in place.
Gopichand: We can speculate all we want, but I would rather focus on being prepared for whenever tournaments return. The players have to keep busy during the lockdown and train hard every day in whatever capacity they can, that's all we can do at the moment. Action could return in October 2020, or in October 2021, its just speculation at the moment. With or without the lockdown, the process should be the goal. Athletes have to keep themselves motivated and push themselves day in and day out, with whatever resources they have.
DSD: At some point, the global calendar will resume but will it fair, I have heard that in a few countries where the virus has been contained practice is on like China and Chinese Taipei and those players will be the main rivals for our players.
Gopichand: Sport has never been fair. It is the best of what an athlete can make of whatever circumstances he or she has been given and the players who have the best facilities available to them don't always win. The scenario is also not as bad as some people might think. Right now tournaments have been suspended till July. But if BWF were to announce that tournaments would resume after that, there would be at least a two month notice period for all the players, since the various arrangements would have to be made for travel, accommodation and training. So I think that time is sufficient for players to prepare if their physical fitness has not deteriorated during the lockdown.
DSD: Let’s get to the Olympics now and the way things were shaping up would you consider it a positive thing for Indian badminton considering we were probably going to have just 2 entries had the games gone ahead as per schedule.
Gopichand: Yes, I think most coaches would have agreed to postpone the games for a year. Last year was extremely hectic and players were hardly getting any time to train, and only a small part of the qualification period was left. Now with the whole year available to the players, it is a good time for them to rest, train and get back.
DSD: I must say that I found the BWF leadership during the crisis extremely shoddy. The Olympic qualifying process is sacrosanct and it is four years of toil for a player. I do not think they were being fair by denying opportunities to players with so many cancellations happening. What do you think?
Gopichand: The Olympic qualification period was ending in April, and tournaments had been suspended from the second week of March. So there were about eight weeks to go for the qualification period the BWF still hasn't announced the new qualification norms. I would want to see them consider the 44 weeks of the qualification period that had been completed since all the players and coaches assumed that those would form apart of the qualifiers. The rest of the eight weeks that were left should be adjusted, so whatever tournaments that have been lost should take place either next year in March and April or sometime this year. Every tournament that was suspended should be replaced with an equally graded tournament. I would believe that the BWF would be planning something like that, so players won't have to pay for the tournament cancellations.
DSD: World Athletics has stopped all Olympic qualifying till December 1. What sort of timelines should the BWF come up with considering that the IOC deadline is June end of 2021? Should there be a 10-tournament swing starting December to decide on the Olympic berths perhaps?
Gopichand: I believe that the 44 weeks of the Olympic qualification period that has been completed, should be frozen. In badminton, the Olympic spots are not determined by a particular tournament or event, they are decided by an aggregate number of points. In that kind of scenario, it makes sense to retain he ranking for the already-completed period, and the remaining tournaments that were part of the qualifiers can take place in the same months next year.one of the dangers of this lockdown is that the players who are in a comfortable position to qualify at the moment, might get complacent and not train enough.
So because their slot is all but confirmed, those players might not perform at the highest level at the tournaments. I think whatever new qualification norms the BWF announces, it is bound to be criticised by various nations because those countries will look at the process from their own perspective with regards to how the norms will benefit their players' chances of qualification. But I think it is fair to give time to the BWF to decide on the new norms.
DSD: Do you also have to recalibrate your approach that has worked so well in the last. Ahead of an Olympics you usually work intensely for two to three months with the players. And it has paid off in London 2012 and Rio 2016. I am not sure you will get that much time for 2021 especially if the qualifying race gets tight.
Gopichand: I think the situation is different when compared to the 2008, 2012 or 2016 Olympics, the players are at a different level. We have foreign coaches and specialised event coaches as part of our support staff. So this time my role will be different. I will look at things more closely when the tournament schedule is out and decide on the best plan for each player.
DSD: Abhinav Bindra told me a few weeks back that the experienced players will cope with this delay better than the younger ones. For example, this works out very well for Kento Momota who was recovering from that car accident in Malaysia. Is it time for the best minds in Indian sport to get together and chart out a collective way forward. Every sport is currently in its own cocoon but I think when it comes to the mental approach you can learn from shooting, perhaps hockey can be able to share more tips about fitness. Since the Sports Authority of India pays most salaries the ministry can get everyone together for a two to three-day summit. Can that work?
Gopichand: I think the next few months will be very critical. Right now the lockdown is till may 3rd, but it could very well be extended. Our athletes might not get tournament exposure for the next few months at least. It will definitely help if top sporting minds come together to work out a plan that will benefit all Indian athletes. It might even be a good idea to look at a quarantine facility for Olympic hopefuls from all sports. For example, since inter-city travel is not possible, athletes from the same city can stay at a facility which allows them to train for the upcoming events. We might also have to plan for domestic leagues and tournaments because restrictions in India could be lifted before those of other countries. Since global tournaments would not be taking place, there will be a need to replace those with quality domestic competitions to make up for the loss of international exposure.
We are going through an unprecedented crisis, so adjustments need to be made. For example, I had never used a mobile phone application for training, but we are forced to do that now and that has become the norm. So we are looking at different ways to help the players enhance their skills during this lockdown. Adaptability is the key, we have to make quick decisions and think out of the box