Reduced training, limited physio time: Badminton stars face strict quarantine protocols in Thailand

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Indian badminton players who're in Bangkok for the Asia tour starting next week are contending with hard 14-day-quarantine protocols - one hour on-court session a day for the team and prior clearance to meet their physios. The rules have been laid down by the Thai government and are largely consistent with protocols followed in other sports, including top-level cricket teams. It is, however, of little consolation to the players. Their primary concern - as expressed by Saina Nehwal in a series of tweets on Tuesday - is that it could undermine their form and fitness ahead of crucial Olympic qualifying tournaments that get underway in March. There is, though, no way around it for now.

Members of the team underwent Covid-19 tests on their arrival in the Thai capital on Monday and all results have returned negative. Three events - two Super 1000 events followed by the World Tour Finals are scheduled to take place between January 12-31. It's going to be the first competitive appearance for most top players including Saina and PV Sindhu, since the All England Open in March last year.

"Four courts and just a one-hour session time has been allotted for the entire team. In a 16-member team that's barely 20 minutes practice individually. There's no way to warm-up, cool-down, do stretches or taping in that kind of time. Gym too is one hour for the entire team. This is a top-level tournament, most players are returning to competition after a long time and we have the Olympic qualifying in two months' time. All of us have already tested negative. Many players in the team are just back after recovering from COVID-19, so they might need constant access to physios. If these protocols remain through the tour, fitness levels will drop sharply and our bodies will suffer," an Indian player told ESPN.

BWF on its part says the stringent rules are mandated by the health guidelines of the department of disease control of Thailand. "Today, around midday Bangkok time, Badminton Association of Thailand (BAT) and BWF got a request from Saina Nehwal via BAI seeking permission for the athlete to see her physio. According to the protocols, athletes are allowed to meet their physios in their rooms only once practice commences on January 6 (Wednesday). A special procedure still has to be followed for any personnel to leave their room to go to the practice hall, or in the case of a physio, visit the athlete they treat," a BWF official told ESPN.

The procedure in place currently is that players will need to direct all requests for physio visits to their rooms through the hotel COVID manager, who is authorized to approve the appointment. Sindhu and Saina have flown their personal physios and trainers for the tournaments while three physios are accompanying the Indian team.

On arrival in Bangkok, all members of the team were asked to download three mobile applications which will track their location at all times and into which daily temperature readings are to be fed. "Organisers are taking extreme precautions which is understandable," said another player, "After endless formalities at the Bangkok airport, which was absolutely deserted, all our bags were sanitized before they were loaded on to the bus. Each of us had dedicated seat numbers on the bus and we were called for our COVID-tests in batches according to those numbers once we reached the hotel. You can hardly spot more than two people anywhere standing in groups. In India, things appear largely normal on the outside, but it's when you reach Bangkok that the COVID impact looks really real. We're hoping there will be some sort of relaxation to the protocols in the days ahead, especially an extension in time allotted for gym and on-court sessions." There isn't enough clarity on what the protocols will look like beyond the two-week quarantine period but it might be fair to assume that they could be eased given it's a long haul of events lined up.

Top events in other sports too are following fairly rigorous protocols.

A few days ago, there were reports of disgruntlement among members of the Indian cricket team, who've already quarantined in Dubai and Sydney for 14 days each, at the prospect of further isolation protocols for the remainder of their Australia tour despite negative results. At the Australian Open scheduled next month, players are allowed to practice for a maximum of five hours per day at Melbourne Park, during the mandatory two-week quarantine and spend the remaining 19 hours in their hotel rooms.