Despite Chopra’s gold, fear of Covid-19 keeps top javelin coaches away

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THERE IS a Covid cloud over the availability of foreign coaches to prepare the next generation of Indian javelin throwers after Neeraj Chopra’s historic gold at the Tokyo Olympics.

Keen to build on Chopra’s success, the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) was looking to hire coaches from Finland, the world javelin powerhouse. However, nine months on, shortlisted coaches are still hesitant to travel to India where the official Covid count so far is 5.2 lakh deaths and 4.3 crores positive cases.

Chopra is currently training in Turkey with trainer Dr. Klaus Bartonietz, an expert in biomechanics. But the AFI believes a core of promising youngsters needs a foreign hand to guide them through the next Olympic cycle if India is to become a javelin nation.

“We are still looking for a second foreign javelin coach to train our athletes. Now the coaches don’t want to travel to India because of the number of Covid cases here. They feel safer at home with their families. We will therefore have to ensure that our javelin throwers spend more time training on board,” said AFI President Adille Sumariwalla.

What complicated matters was that one of the trainers on the AFI radar is an “anti-vaxxer”.

The AFI is trying to enlist one of two Finnish coaches: Teemu Wirkkala, former European junior champion, and Kari Ihalainen, former head coach of Finland. Tokyo’s post-Olympic plan was to have a second foreign coach by the first quarter of this year.

“We are always trying to bring a Finnish coach to India. Maybe he can come here for a short time and then go back to a training base in Finland with our athletes,” Sumariwalla said.

AFI officials are talking with their Finnish counterparts to convince their coaches to make the trip. There are four male pitchers and three female pitchers at the national camp approved by the Sports Authority of India.

The World Health Organization, in its report on excess Covid deaths released on Thursday, said that 47.7 lakh people in India may have died either directly from the pandemic or through its indirect impact in 2020. and 2021 – a figure almost 10 times the official count for that period, and strongly disputed by the government.

In January, the AFI was preparing to hire another Finnish coach, Kimmo Kinnunen, the 1991 world champion. However, he insisted that Indian pitchers make the Scandinavian country their training base. After several rounds of talks, Kinnunen agreed to go to India but with a rider: his javelin thrower son would come.

“We said ‘is he going to train his son here or is he going to train our athletes?’ There were these issues,” Sumariwala said.

The unprecedented heat wave was also evident in calls between the AFI and overseas coaches. “The heat will be a problem here. But the idea has always been to move our athletes and coaches to cooler places. For example, last year when it was extremely hot in Patiala, we moved Neeraj and the coaches to Bhubaneswar,” the AFI President said.

Since Chopra won a gold medal at the World Junior Championships, the AFI has held an open javelin throwing competition to unearth talent. August 7, the day Chopra won gold at the Tokyo Games, has also been declared National Javelin Day when all affiliated state units will hold a talent hunt competition.

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