Following the UK's strict Covid-19 protocol, badminton's world body, the BWF, took this decision after a passenger travelling on the same flight as the elite Indonesian shuttlers had tested positive.
Last week the Indonesian badminton team, consisting of several title contenders, were forced to withdraw from the All England championship in Birmingham. Following the UK’s strict Covid-19 protocol, badminton’s world body, the BWF, took this decision after a passenger travelling on the same flight as the elite Indonesian shuttlers had tested positive. The move triggered a storm. It would divide the badminton world and also provide a fresh headache for all sports officials grappling with the new normal of hosting international events behind closed doors.
The Indonesian players, and also their fans on social media, were peeved. They had their reasons. Since their entire squad had been vaccinated and had also tested negative after landing in the UK, they didn’t see the logic of sending them to quarantine. BWF, on the other hand, said the UK Government, despite their request, wouldn’t make an exception for the All England participants since their legislation on self-isolation periods was not negotiable.
What happened to the Indonesian squad at All England last week?
The entire Indonesian squad of 25 badminton players, including two Top 10 men’s singles shuttlers and World No.1 & 2 pairings in men’s doubles at the All England and third seeds in mixed doubles, were withdrawn by the organisers of the All England at the end of Day 1 of the tournament. Two doubles pairings, dubbed the ‘Minions’ and ‘Daddies’ and one of their top singles players, Jonatan Christie, had already played their matches when they were held back at the stadium and informed that the whole team would need to quarantine for 10 days since an unnamed passenger on their flight from Istanbul to Heathrow had been found positive. UK’s NHS stipulations dictated that everyone on the plane isolate for 10 days.
Why were the Indonesians angry?
Seven attendees from Denmark, India and Thailand, including a Danish assistant coach and three Indian players had been declared positive the day before All England started. And a staggering 40 samples ended up ‘inconclusive’. Retesting yielded negatives, and all of them were allowed to play. The Indonesians and Turkish shuttler Neslihan Yigit, who was also on the same flight, had tested negative for Covid-19, but were grounded and denied a retest, according to NHS rules. What infuriated the Indonesians – though timeframe is unknown – was that they had all arrived in Birmingham having received their second doses of the Pfizer vaccine, and believed that a ‘negative result’ and the vaccination ought to have marked them safe enough to play.
What was the fallout?
The night when it all fell apart was a nightmare for the squad as a leading player alleged that they were made to walk back to the hotel and refused access to the hotel’s elevator on return. Besides being disallowed to play, the squad stressed that they were discriminated against. It blew up into a full diplomatic episode with the Indonesian Ambassador stepping in to argue on their star shuttler’s behalf. While there was no going back on NHS rules, the Indonesian foreign minister and sports minister ensured the team could return on March 21, 8 days into their quarantine. Upon landing in Jakarta, the shuttlers of the badminton-crazy nation were accorded a ‘Welcome Home Heroes’ reception. While the Indonesians have threatened to knock on the doors of the Court of Arbitration for Sport, diehards also accused England of weeding out the Indonesians and denying them a chance to win the prestigious tournament.
Why did the outrage spill over internationally?
Obsessive Indonesian netizens for whom the country’s shuttlers are demigods, jumped onto timelines of many international shuttlers, notably the Danes and Japanese, screaming ‘Unfair’ and spamming their Instagram and Twitter pages. Some even got abusive, inviting saner voices amongst Indonesians to say ‘sorry’ to those ambushed on behalf of their countrymen.
Why are these warning bells for Tokyo Games?
While deciding on athletes’ protocols, the Tokyo Olympics organisers would do well to look at the plethora of disasters on the badminton circuit to draw up their hosting plans. International badminton has seen all this:
1. athletes testing positive on RT PCR tests months after their infections, but being cleared to play based on positive antibody test. Saina Nehwal has tested positive (or false positive) at most ports of call, trying to play, though her infection dates back to November.
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2. Painful nasal swab tests leading to nose bleeding when quarantine was enforced and repeated tests administered.
3. Forced withdrawals at the last minute when pre-competition quarantine was not enforced.
4. Shuttlers asked to withdraw from a tournament for sharing a breakfast table with a positive case.
5. Shuttlers pulled out for being on commercial flights where unrelated passengers tested positive, like at tennis’s Australian Open. In fact, the Scottish badminton team returning home from Swiss Open a week earlier was forced into quarantine and missed All England as well.
What are the lessons for Tokyo?
In and out, fly-in, play, fly out might not be as easy as envisaged, if tests and results on arrival are factored in. Foreign athletes will need to fly into Japan on chartered flights and might still need a quarantine to ensure no last-minute blowouts like shuttle happen.
While false positives have infuriated athletes, false negatives can prove disastrous. So mass-scale testing will need to be absolutely accurate.
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