Saina Nehwal accused the sport’s administrative body, the Badminton World Federation (BWF), of prioritizing money over players’ safety by continuing the All England Championship amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
"Only thing I can think of is that rather than the player's welfare and feelings, financial reasons were given more importance. Otherwise there was no other reason for the #AllEnglandOpen2020 to go on last week," Saina tweeted in response to Danish badminton player Mads Conrad-Petersen expressing concern about the health implications of the tournament being held as per schedule.
The 30-year-old lost in the opening round of the marquee event, one of the few sporting events that continues on even as everything else shuts down. The early exit meant her chances of qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics has taken a serious hit. With two more tournaments postponed, her chances of rising up in the rankings to qualify for the Games remain low.
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Even though Saina’s criticism is sensible it is hard to digest especially considering that she chose to make the statement after her exit from the tournament. A newly minted member of the ruling party in India, Saina’s accusations ring hollow when you consider the fact that she chose to travel to Birmingham, participate in the tournament, while aware of the risk and has only criticised the association after the event itself. Considering her clout in the world game — she is also an IOC player representative in the BWF Athletes’ commission — it is probable her voice would have led the organisers to reconsider the tournament’s timing.
Saina, however, is not the only athlete who has raised their voice against global administrations and their desire to go on as before. Her husband and fellow shuttler, Parupalli Kashyap also doubled down on her statements,intimating that players were under pressure to participate in the All England Open despite global travel restrictions due to the outbreak of coronavirus pandemic.
The BWF is not alone in registering finance before sense though. Multiple global federations have swiftly announced new schedules for tournaments and events without consulting any of the stakeholders involved. If anything, the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC’s) statement saying ‘players should remain fully committed and continue to prepare for the Tokyo Olympics as best they can’ reeks of negligence and mistrust.
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With several countries on lockdown, and training facilities shut off — not to mention self isolation protocols and curfews enforced in Spain and Italy — several prominent athletes have registered concerns about their preparation for the event. Others have cited an inequality that will stem from the time given for recovery. It is a line of questioning Great Britain’s Katarina Johnson-Thompson has registered publicly. Johnson-Thompson trains in France, but had travelled to her home in Liverpool right before the lockdowns. Canadian Olympian Hayley Wickenheiser, also a member of the athletes’ commission said the IOC must acknowledge uncertainty over the games instead of ploughing ahead like nothing is happening.
“From an athlete perspective, I can only imagine and try to empathize with the anxiety and heartbreak athletes are feeling right now,” Wickenheiser wrote on a statement on Twitter. “The uncertainty of not knowing where you’re going to train tomorrow, as facilities close and qualification events are cancelled all over the world would be terrible if you’ve been training your whole life for this.
“BUT — the crisis is bigger than the Olympics,” the statement continues. “Athletes can’t travel plan. Sponsors and marketers can’t market with any degree of sensitivity. I think the IOC insisting this will move ahead, with such conviction, is insensitive and irresponsible given the state of humanity. We don’t know what’s happening in the next 24 hours, let alone the next three months.”
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While the IOC has refused to entertain contingency plans for the Olympics other organisers, like those at Roland Garros have been too quick to announce changes. Their decision to reschedule the event for September, a week after the final of the US Open, has invited a huge backlash from players across the tennis world.
Canadian tennis player Vasek Pospisil was scathing in his assessment of the decision, calling the decision ‘madness’ while acknowledging the lack of say players have in this decision making process.
French Open organizers did not respond to Pospisil’s comments directly. But the tournament organizers were clearly intent on preserving this year’s edition of their tournament after investing heavily in expansion and renovation in the last several years. Even with the big picture in mind, their unilateral move could have longer-term repercussions for the sport, coming at a time when tennis players have been pushing for shorter calendars and more say in the scheduling of their sport.
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