Running for cover, a crying need in searing summer heat - Hindustan Times
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Running for cover, a crying need in searing summer heat

May 30, 2024 12:28 AM IST

Building indoor stadia could be the key to help athletes train around the year, especially when temperatures zoom past the mid 40 degrees Celsius

At the end of the 400m race at the Delhi Summer Athletics meet in capital's Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium recently, an athlete fumbled across the finish line and collapsed on the burning synthetic track. With the morning sun beating down, the drenched and exhausted athlete could be moved away only after generous amount of water was poured over him.

Another option could be to change the training session timings to beat the heat, as Mirabai Chanu did in Patiala before the Tokyo Olympics.(REUTERS)
Another option could be to change the training session timings to beat the heat, as Mirabai Chanu did in Patiala before the Tokyo Olympics.(REUTERS)

Earlier this month, at the Federation Cup in Bhubaneswar where Olympic and world champion Neeraj Chopra and Asian Games silver medallist Kishore Jena competed, the stifling heat and humidity meant none of the javelin throwers pushed their limits even though Paris Olympics qualification was on the line for some.

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A year back, at the National Inter State athletics in the Odisha capital, Tejaswin Shankar had blood oozing from his nose after the pole vault routine of his decathlon event. These are just a handful of instances that illustrate the heat getting to athletes under extreme conditions. With the national capital breaching the 50°C barrier for the first time and northern and central Indian states under a spell of punishing heatwave, outdoor training for athletes is an ordeal.

“These are brutal conditions, not at all ideal for outdoor training,” said distance running coach Amrish Kumar who runs his academy near Shamli, about 100 kilometres from Delhi. “If an athlete is financially sound, I suggest they should train at high altitude. That will build their lung capacity and endurance while saving them from heat,” Kumar, who has coached 3000m steeplechase athlete Avinash Sable, said.

So how do athletes get past this at a time extreme weather conditions are becoming the order of the day? According to a NASA analysis, Earth was about 2.45 degrees Fahrenheit (or about 1.36 degrees Celsius) warmer in 2023 than in the late 19th century (1850-1900) preindustrial average. The 10 most recent years are the also warmest on record.

One option would be to move to a place with a milder climate. But then not everyone, certainly not those just starting out, can afford that. Another option could be to change the training session timings to beat the heat, as Mirabai Chanu did in Patiala before the Tokyo Olympics.

Kumar, for instance, has been starting his morning sessions at 4:30 am, two hours earlier than usual. The 3’o clock evening sessions have been pushed to 5:30pm.

“That’s the bare minimum we can do,” says Gaurav Tyagi, who coaches Paris-bound steeplechaser Parul Chaudhary. Based in Meerut in western Uttar Pradesh where temperatures have been hovering around the 45°C mark over the past week, Tyagi has also flipped his regular morning and evening sessions of his 250-odd trainees to counter the heat.

The final option could be the one India truly needs. Most of us who watched the 2022 football World Cup marvelled at the technology available in Qatar’s stadiums – that kept the hot air out and cooled the footballers as well as the spectators. India may not have the budget for that but they could still build indoor facilities that will keep athletes out of the sun and on the track all through the year.

One such facility already exists in India – an indoor multipurpose stadium was inaugurated in Bhubaneswar in March. Equipped to accommodate 120 residential trainees, the facility can host long jump, triple jump, sprints, pole vault and shot put. The stadium, built at an estimated cost of 120 crore, could be the answer to India’s problems.

Amrish believes India needs “20-25 such stadiums” while triple jumper Poorva Sawant, who won the Indian Open Jumps Competition in March, believes having one in each metro would be a sound start.

The reasons are simple. If one takes the example of Delhi, it is virtually impossible to train in summer and winter. And then there is the perennial problem of pollution. While one might say that India lacks basic facilities, the idea should be to invest in the right kind of infrastructure so that India has a generation of athletes ready for 2036, when they want to host the summer Olympics.

If the Olympics are indeed the dream, then the next generation of athletes cannot take 3-4 months off from training each year.

Para high jumper Sharad Kumar, who trains at Delhi’s JLN Stadium, believes the capital is “not the place to train because of weather.”

“I don't know how athletes are managing these days. It is brutal. I have trained in Panchkula in summers and it was just as bad,” said the Tokyo Paralympics bronze medallist. “An athlete cannot give his/her 100% for more than 15 minutes in this heat. After that, it’s just war.”

Javelin coach Vipin Kasana, who trains over 25 athletes at the JLN Stadium, rues lack of basic facilities at the stadium. “There’s precious little we can do other than changing training timings. There are not even enough water coolers here. The ground remains dirty and dusty and we need more covered areas for athletes to rest,” he said.

The situation is no better in coastal cities where athletes have to deal with sapping humidity. While temperatures remain moderate, humidity presents its own set of challenges. And then there is the monsoon season to reckon with as well.

“I have lost a number of training sessions to Mumbai rains. An indoor facility will be a major boost. They have long been in vogue in Europe,” said Sawant, who has had a couple of indoor sessions in Kazakhstan last February.

While India has done a lot to help individual athletes catch up with the world, perhaps it is time some attention is paid to the infrastructure as well. Given the pace of climate change, it may be the need of the hour in more ways than one.

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