Sharath Kamal: Social distancing impossible at the Olympics

WION Web Team New Delhi, India May 27, 2020, 08.20 PM(IST) Written By: Digvijay Singh Deo

Sharath Kamal: Social distancing impossible at the Olympics Photograph:( AFP )

Story highlights

Eight-time Commonwealth Games and two-time Asian Game medalist, Indian table-tennis icon Achanta Sharath Kamal, in an exclusive interview with WION's Sports Editor, Digvijay Singh Deo, spoke about life in lockdown, future of table tennis, travelling abroad for tournaments after COVID-19 crisis, Tokyo Olympics, his medal-laden career, the concept of quarantine camp, and much more.

Eight-time Commonwealth Games and two-time Asian Game medalist, Indian table-tennis icon Achanta Sharath Kamal, in an exclusive interview with WION's Sports Editor, Digvijay Singh Deo, spoke about life in lockdown, future of table tennis, travelling abroad for tournaments after COVID-19 crisis, Tokyo Olympics, his medal-laden career, the concept of quarantine camp, and much more.

Digvijay Singh Deo: I must say Sharath, I have been seeing a lot of you addressing webinars through this crisis. Seems like you have been keeping busy.

Sharath Kamal: I feel it is the responsibility of the senior athletes to guide the others through these tough times, so I've been trying to help them through webinars. There is a lot of uncertainty and anxiety about the future and there is a need to motivate people and spread positive messages.

DSD: Has it been frustrating not being able to play and adjusting to this new phase?

Sharath Kamal: Yes, initially it was very frustrating. For the first week of the lockdown, I failed to accept the situation and hence found it very tough to deal with. It was very frustrating to not be able to go out and train. But then I realised that there is no point dwelling on the things that I cannot control. Now, I follow a training schedule with whatever resources I have and play a little bit of table tennis at my mother's house since there is a table at her place. Also, it was tough to deal with the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics, because I was in good form leading up to the games and my world ranking had improved to 31.

DSD: This forced break came at a crucial time for you when you were carrying some momentum and were going to take it into the Olympic qualifiers, in a way you have to start from scratch for the 2021 Olympics.

Sharath Kamal: The sportsperson's body is like a sports car. The moment you stop taking care of it, it gets rusty and doesn't perform. In terms of our preparation for the games, we have to go back to the drawing board, so it is a mental challenge as well. We will need a couple of months of training and a few matches under our belt to figure out what the best way is to prepare for the games. It is definitely going to be an uphill task. The only positive is that all the athletes around the world are in the same boat.

DSD: I did see some visuals of your teammate Sathiyan Gnanasekaran practising on a home table with a robot machine he had imported. Technology has been a boon through this process, be it communication or even playing.

Sharath Kamal: I feel one must find a way to keep in touch with the sport. There is a lot of skill involved in racket sports and a player must not lose the feel of the game. One must not allow skill levels to drop to a great extent, otherwise, it will be very tough for the player when the sport resumes. It is important to train, but high-level training is only possible when you have a goal in mind and something to work towards. As of now, there is no schedule of tournaments and we have no idea when the sport will resume.

DSD: For an elite player like you, how long do you think it will take to return to peak match fitness?

Sharath Kamal: I have been participating in webinars with some fitness experts, and they believe that it will take athletes at least 3 months to regain even 80% of their mental and physical fitness. This is an unprecedented crisis and no one really has concrete answers. In the past, I have been out of action for six months due to injury, but that situation was completely different because I was working on rehabilitation and had a goal to work towards. This period is just filled with uncertainty.

Achanta Sharath Kamal

DSD: You are soon to turn 38 but that hasn’t slowed you down, look around you and there is a generation of golden oldies going very strong in Indian sport be it Mary Kom, Rohan Bopanna or even the biggest of them all Leander Paes. What is the secret of this longevity, there are some who believe that it is the older and wiser heads who will be able to adapt better once action resumes.

Sharath Kamal: Yes, that is possible. However, there have been other reports as well, which make the point that older athletes might lose motivation because of the break. I have been taking an annual one month break for the last 3-4 years. At my age, I think it is important to take a mental and physical break and it also allows me to spend some time with my family. I try to unwind during that period and come back with a fresh mentality. The advantage that I have, being an experienced player, is that I know what parts of my game I will work on once I return. It will be impossible to cover every aspect of your game in the limited time which we will get for preparation.  There is a broad plan that I have in mind and I will work in that direction. Mostly, I will look to sharpen my strengths rather than work on my weaknesses.

DSD: Sharath as one of the senior-most players in the world and with a young family have you thought about travelling abroad for tournaments. It’s a tough situation to be in isn't it especially with rankings so important to the Olympic qualifying process.

Sharath Kamal: Yes, in fact, I was dealing with the very same problem in March. My family advised me against travelling for the Oman Open because the coronavirus had started spreading rapidly at that time. Even though the risk of transmission was high at the airports, I went for the tournament against my family's wishes because it was important for me to get some match practice ahead of the Olympic qualifiers, which were scheduled for April at the time. That dilemma is bound to come up again in the near future. However, the priority must be the safety and health of me and my family. I have decided that I will not travel abroad for any tournament at least till September and the way things are going I doubt if any event will take place till then. There is also a question mark over whether international travel will be allowed in the near future and if it is, what will be the quarantine laws for athletes? There is really no point of me travelling to another country if I have to spend two weeks in quarantine before a particular tournament.

DSD: There is talk of international tournaments abandoning the doubles and mixed doubles format for the time being. Isn't that completely unfair on specialist players. The IOC says all sports should be fair to athletes and how is this a fair process?

Sharath Kamal: I don't know why they took that decision. Mixed doubles is an Olympic event, while the men's and women's doubles are also part of the team championships at the Olympics. I fail to see the sense behind a ban on those events since the Olympics are only a year away. Manika Batra and I have a fair chance of qualifying for the Games, we won the bronze medal at the Asian games and we have a small chance of winning a medal at the Olympics as well. So it's not fair to scrap those events. Also, when we travel to tournaments, we anyway spend a lot of time together during our travel and meals. I am bound to be in contact with say, Sathiyan or Manika, so what difference does it make if we play a doubles match together?

Achanta Sharath Kamal

DSD: Has the pandemic forced international bodies into panic mode. Table tennis isn't a contact sport and as long as players are tested regularly and the playing arena is sanitised, it shouldn't be a problem...

Sharath Kamal: I was watching the German Bundesliga the other day and the substitutes were sitting on the bench while maintaining social distancing measures. I fail to understand the point of such a measure when there are 22 players on the football field who are constantly coming in contact with each other. This is an example of a decision that is just taken for the public perception of safety. The Badminton World Federation also just put out dates for the tournaments without having a clear plan in mind, we have no idea what travel restrictions will be put in place in the future I think every sporting body needs to have contingency plans in place for the calendar. In table tennis, the World Championships, which were initially scheduled in March, can be pushed back to the latter part of the year, since it is an important tournament. But there is no point preparing a schedule in panic mode.

DSD: It felt like a threshold had been crossed by Indian table tennis at the Asian Games in 2018 with you and Manika Batra winning a mixed bronze, has it given you the confidence to challenge for medals at the Olympics and World Championships.

Sharath Kamal: Absolutely, it was a huge boost for us to win a medal at the Asian Games, which has traditionally been dominated by countries like China, Japan and South Korea. These are the powerhouses of the sport and it was great to be at the podium. I should really hand it to Manika Batra, she was playing some truly outstanding table tennis during that mixed doubles event. I would say she played even better than what she did at the Commonwealth Games. She was able to carry her form from the CWG to the Asian games. Earlier, we were just hoping for a good performance when we went to the Olympics, but now we actually believe we can win a medal for the country. The image of Indian table tennis has changed in the entire world. Many international players wouldn't know the names of the Indian opponents, but all that has changed now.  They know exactly who they are facing and Indian players are seen as serious competition. So, there has been a major change in the perception of Indian table tennis.

DSD: What is the change Sharath, you have been toiling hard on the international tour for 2 decades now and finally last 2-3 years the breakthrough has happened. How close are we to a World Championship and Olympic medal now?

Sharath Kamal: There have been a lot of changes that have been made in Indian tennis over the last few years. Before the Commonwealth Games in 2006, I decided to play in Europe and hence my game improved a lot. I think after that a lot of Indian youngsters started playing in European countries and that considerably raised the level of Indian table tennis.  Four Indian paddlers secured their place at the Olympics for the first time at the 2016 Rio Games and that led to an increase in funding for the sport. We then hired top quality foreign coaches, who along with the table tennis federation of India and the sports authority of India, came up with a long-term plan. Now, there is a structure in place which allows us, Indian players, to travel abroad and get access to the best facilities for high-level performances at global events.

The franchise-based Ultimate Table Tennis League, which started in 2017, was also a game-changer. It allowed young Indian players to compete and train with the best in the world. I went to Europe so that I could play with the best in the business and now the young Indian players have the opportunity of doing just that in India itself. Sathiyan Gnanasekaran and Manika Batra were the finds of the 2017 edition of the league. Then in 2018, Archana Kamath and Manav Thakkar emerged as strong talents, Thakkar is world no.1 in the U-21 category. Being a senior player, I made it a point to guide and mentor these youngsters. When I was young, I felt my development would have been fast-tracked if had a senior to show me the ropes. I think it was a huge advantage that I was able to pass on my experience, while still competing with them. Initially, they were a bit wary of the fact that I was giving them advice, while still being their opponent, but they gradually understood the point of the guidance and learnt to accept it that way.

DSD: Now training protocols have been announced by sports authority of India and you were asked if you wanted to join a national camp but the players have refused now. What is the road ahead, when do you think you will be able to return to training in groups?

Sharath Kamal: At the moment, training in groups is a big no. The guidelines that SAI came up with were for the athletes who were already at the facilities during the lockdown. They have invited us to camps, but at the moment there is no point of attending those them because we don't know when the next tournament will be held. I think it is unsafe for us to travel to any SAI facility. We as athletes need to wait for another month at least before we resume training in groups at any facility. Sathiyan and I live in the same city, but at the moment I don't think it will be wise for us to venture out given the rise in the number of cases in Chennai.

Achanta Sharath Kamal

DSD: Does the concept of a quarantine camp work for you where everyone is together in a sanitised environment or there can be no substitute for tournament play...

Sharath Kamal: I think when we speak about quarantine camps, the players aren't the only ones who need to be protected, there will be multiple staff present at the venue and there will always be a worry about the health and safety of all the personnel at the facility. It is very hard to focus on your training when you don't feel completely secure, that worry will always be there at the back of your mind. We still need to wait for things to improve before making a proper decision.

DSD: Would you be willing to head to the Olympics if no vaccine is found by then and should the Olympics then go ahead as many are now fearing.

Sharath Kamal: At a mega-event like the Olympics, social distancing is virtually impossible because there are so many people at the village. I think it is highly unlikely that the Olympics will take place without a vaccine. If that is the case, it will be a huge setback for me personally because I don't know if I will still be playing when the next Games happen in 2024. So I really hope a vaccine is developed soon, not just for selfish reasons, but also for the good of humanity.