Sharath Kamal had just returned home after winning the Oman Open on March 15. Hours after he reached his apartment, the Chennai Corporation followed him to stick a poster outside his house. “Adhu corona veedu, anga quarantine sticker poturku (that’s a corona house, there is a quarantine sticker outside),” Sharath reminisces now describing how he was asked to quarantine hours after coming back.
The World No 32 gives the perfect example of his year. “That Oman event was five days, I quarantined for 28 days.” In essence, the experiences of Indian athletes during the pandemic can be split into two broad segments: before Sharath and after Sharath.
The alarm bells weren’t flashing like neon signs then but, in hindsight, the sporting fraternity should have seen the writing on the wall. A scheduled trip of China from March 14 for the Indian women’s hockey team was cancelled in the second week of February. Back then, the team did not have an inclination of what was to happen. They were asked to continue preparations for the Olympics. Within weeks though, hockey sticks were swapped for sanitiser bottles as they received their first lessons on the art of washing hands.
That was one of the first sporting events to be skewered. Soon enough, a Champions League match between Atalanta and Valencia was described as a ‘biological bomb’. Playing sport became a crime as arenas the world over became makeshift hospitals to house Covid-19 patients.
Even if sport came back amid the pandemic, it was never going to be the same. All accepted practices went out of the window as organisers passed new, sometimes unprecedented, rules. In cricket, for instance, players could no longer shine balls with saliva.
In squash, the rules were so strict that Saurav Ghosal, who got back to the circuit in October, had to practise them to not fall foul of new regulations. “We weren’t allowed to touch the glass cage at any time (players usually do this to wipe sweat off their hands). It was so difficult I practised this during training sessions to get used to it.”
Among all sports, squash has a very social vibe to it. Players are usually friendly, they spar with rivals, stay back to watch other matches and regularly share dinner conversations. In 2020, all of that constituted a crime. “There was only room service in the hotel, you couldn’t go down.
You couldn’t stay back to watch matches and you could only practise with yourself... the social aspect of the sport was cut.” Sharath has his own peak 2020 story. “During that Oman tournament (one of the last tournaments to proceed after the WHO declared Covid-19 as a pandemic), there were no shaking hands... several times I would go near the player to shake hands before rebuking myself... ‘damn, I almost shook his hands’.”
Closer home, Viswanathan Anand was literally sweating. Chennai’s famous second summer sunshine was peaking in August. In normal circumstances, he wouldn’t have had a problem. But the scheduled power cut was going to be in the middle of one of India’s Online Chess Olympiad matches. The team’s vice-captain, Srinath Narayanan, had to co-ordinate with Tamil Nadu Electricity Board to sort the issue. This sort of lateral thinking mattered as India won their first ever Olympiad, sharing the honour with Russia.
Around the time the Olympiad was taking place, Rohan Bopanna was playing doctor. One of the first athletes to start playing again, he was required to do nasal swabs on himself while in the US. “The first couple of times you are not really sure how deep into the nose you have to go,” he remembers. “Now, I am probably very familiar with it.”
That wasn’t the only thing the 40-year-old did differently. The items in his suitcase on that first trip from Bengaluru to New York via Frankfurt resembled a mini pharmacy. “I took a lot of things, gloves, masks, lot of medicines.” New York, in late August, has a different vibe. But the doubles specialist says it was like being in a ghost town. “There was no vibe, I walked on entire streets in Manhattan where there wasn’t another soul.” It’s perhaps poetic that Bopanna makes this observation. Because, in 2020, sport lost its biggest soul of them all. The fans in the stands.
Remembering the heroes
Death was a constant in 2020. Sport, too, felt it with a number of personalities going to a greater place. Here are a select few of those whose memories will continue...
Diego Maradona, 60 | Argentina | November 25
The world weeped as one when one of The Beautiful Game’s greatest players passed away shortly after a surgery last month. Napoli have already renamed their stadium to honour him while multiple leagues had black armbands to celebrate his unique legacy. What he did on the pitch is unlikely to be surpassed for a long, long time.
Dean Jones, 59 | Australia | September 24
His death — while preparing to present an IPL match later on a fateful September evening — sent the cricket world into mourning. On air, Brett Lee cried while fans worldwide took a few days to make peace with the fact. One of the founding fathers with respect to revolutionising ODIs, the impact he left behind can still be felt.
Kobe Bryant, 41 | USA | January 26
This still feels surreal. One of the greatest basketballers of all time, the 41-year-old died in a helicopter crash in California at the beginning of the year. The Lakers legend didn’t just play the sport, he transcended it. That the NBA have renamed the All Star MVP to celebrate him is proof of that.
Balbir Singh Sr, 96 | India | May 25
Independent India’s first great sporting hero, his magic with a hockey stick was partly responsible for the country’s dominance in the sport post independence. In all, he finished with three gold at the Summer Games. That the country came together, at a time when it was fractured on several fronts, to mourn his death spoke volumes.
Stirling Moss, 90 | Great Britain | April 12
One of motorsport’s first true superstars, he went on to win 212 out of 529 races that he competed in in various events including Grand Prix. What added to his legacy was the amount of money he made — more than $1 million per year according to the NYT — apart from his brash persona, something that the caught the public eye.
2020 was effectively wrecked from a sporting perspective but a few of India’s athletes still managed to compete in events. Here are the accounts of A Sharath Kamal, Rohan Bopanna and Saurav Ghosal as to how they managed it