Sports Ministry seeks exemption from travel ban for Indian shuttlers

Saina Nehwal
Saina Nehwal faces an uphill task to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. File photo: Reuters

Indian badminton players' hopes of qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics hang in the balance, with the country's Sports Ministry seeking exemption from the travel ban to compete in a qualifier in Malaysia.

In the wake of an unprecedented spike in COVID-19 cases in India, Malaysia has banned travel from India.

The Malaysian Open, which runs from May 25-30, is one of the final two events where Olympic hopefuls can collect points towards the Race to Tokyo rankings -- a programme that decides who qualifies for the Summer Games which begin on July 23.

"After the initial request made earlier this week, the Indian High Commission in Malaysia has received information from the Malaysian Government that the travel of the team may not be possible immediately," the Sports Authority of India (SAI) said on Thursday.

"However, with 19 days left for the competition to begin, the possibility of travel cannot be ruled out completely."

India reported on Thursday a record 412,262 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours and a record 3,980 deaths. COVID-19 infections have now surged past 21 million in the country with an official death toll totalling 230,168.

All top Indian singles and doubles players such as P V Sindhu, Saina Nehwal, Srikanth Kidambi, B. Sai Praneeth, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, Chirag Shetty, Ashwini Ponnappa and Sikki Reddy are due to participate in the Kuala Lumpur event.

The postponement of the India Open, which was scheduled for Delhi between May 11-16, had already dealt a severe blow to Indian shuttlers hoping to secure Olympic berths.

As the current Race to Tokyo rankings stand, only Sindhu, Sai Praneeth and the doubles pair of Shetty and Rankireddy can make the cut.

London 2012 bronze medallist Saina, who is ranked No. 22 in the women's singles qualification standings, and former world No. 1 Kidambi, 20th in the men's singles list, need to break into the top 16 in their respective categories to gain direct qualification to the Games.

The Race to Tokyo period ends on June 15 and the final qualification event is the Singapore Open, scheduled for June 1.