Olympic hockey champ Haner on Covid-era challenges for sports

NEW DELHI: An Olympic gold medallist and a doctor rolled into one, Germany‘s hockey ace Martin Haner never stopped ‘defending’ even when sports came to a halt for close to six months. The difference was that instead of a hockey stick in hand against the converging opposition players, he wielded the stethoscope in his country’s fight against the coronavirus.
In European sports culture, players don’t compromise on academics for sports, maybe because the game is not as professional as it has lately become in India — which is why reaching the level Haner has attained becomes harder and therefore more commendable.
But what he encountered over the last five months, when he switched from the operation theatre as an orthopedic surgeon to the intensive care unit, was unprecedented for medical professionals world over. Having said that, watching the pandemic unfold from close quarters, Haner is proud that Germany reacted in a better way compared to the other countries.
Last month, the 32-year-old Haner took his doctor’s coat off to wear his Germany jersey when international hockey made a return after a 199-day break because of the pandemic. The Germans hosted world champions Belgium for a two-match FIH Pro League tie in Dusseldorf.
Germany were trounced 1-6 in the opening match, while they managed a shootout win in the second after holding the Red Lions to a 1-1 draw in the regulation period.
Haner admits that he was both excited and a little apprehensive to play while the Covid-19 pandemic remains prevalent, and the doctor stuck his neck out to admit that travelling longer distances to play hockey presents a greater “risk of infection”. The Berliner HC defender, though, is looking forward to the Olympics in 2021, for which he has extended his hockey career by a year.

(Action from the FIH Pro League tie between Germany and Belgium held in September 2020)
In an exclusive interview with Timesofindia.com, the German veteran opened up both as a doctor and as a player in these unprecedented times.
Germany and Belgium were the first teams to resume international hockey while the coronavirus is still a pandemic. Take us through all that went into getting the team back together again to train and then those two match-days after months.
It was a strange feeling to get back together with the national team after such a long time. We haven’t had any training sessions together since February. Before we met, of course, all the players and staff were tested for Covid-19 (all were negative). We were very isolated in the hotel and had our own hotel corridor. There were clear agreements on hygiene and we were only allowed to leave the hotel to play hockey.
Before the matches against Belgium took place, we were tested again 48 hours before the game (all negative) and the games were played without spectators. Since we are still in the middle of the pandemic, it was a strange feeling; but on the other hand, it was also nice to be able to play international matches again after such a long time.
Was there still some fear somewhere in the back of the players’ minds?
Our medical department and our manager have made all the arrangements for our training camp and informed us about all the special features, so that we as experienced players did not have to take any fears. Everything was very well planned and luckily there were no positive cases.
You are a doctor as well. How do you analyse the return of sports, especially international hockey, amid this pandemic? Does the virus still pose serious threats to sportspersons?
I think this question has to be viewed in a very differentiated way. Outdoor sports do not seem to be a particularly high risk of Covid-19 infection. But longer trips are necessary both in the German Bundesliga and even more so in international tournaments. The risk of infection is certainly much greater. Of course, as a doctor and a family man, I have in the back of my mind that I can infect myself and then possibly infect other people. That’s why we try to adhere to all the guidelines wherever possible, but I am very skeptical about long journeys in the current situation

(Martin Haner, standing extreme right, with the Germany team – Facebook photo)
Coming to the matches against Belgium, your team turned it around after a below-par outing in the first match to salvage a fighting draw in the second, before winning it in the shootout. How satisfying were your first competitive days in almost six months?
It was very nice, but the euphoria was still subdued for me because unfortunately the end of the pandemic is not yet in sight and we don’t know how long we can play. In the first game against Belgium, we played three of four quarters well, and the result (1-6) certainly doesn’t reflect the game. But, of course, it was nice to end our first trip together in the second game with a win after shootout.
The Pro League is going to run up to the door of the Olympics in Tokyo. What are Germany’s plans, who have slipped out of the top five in FIH rankings?
At the moment, the world ranking is certainly not our main focus. We want to try and prepare as best we can for the Olympic Games next year under the current circumstances, and the Pro League is, of course, extremely important in development, as you are only challenged there against the best teams in the world.
There were some talks around you ending your hockey career but I read somewhere that you may extend it by an year to play the Tokyo Games. What’s your current state of mind on that?
My plan was to end my hockey career after the Olympics and concentrate fully on my family and my job as a doctor. As a result of the postponement, everything has now shifted by a year and I thought for a long time whether I should continue. After talking to my wife and my boss at work, I received their support in doing sports for another year, for which I am very grateful.
Going back a few months, how did your life as an orthopedic surgeon change during these times of a viral pandemic that required almost all the doctors to attend to Covid-19 patients?
I work as an orthopedist in an operational area. Due to Covid-19, non-vital operations were banned, so that all of a sudden this was completely eliminated. Then I switched to the intensive care unit. Fortunately, we in Germany have the situation under control relatively well compared to other countries, and we never had more than 5-6 Covid-19 patients in our intensive care unit. But, of course, it was and is a completely different area of activity (in my medical profession) than usual.
Did your experience as a sportsperson help you deal with the state of unprecedented emergency inside the ICU?
To be honest, it was never as bad in our clinic as when you watched pictures from Italy or Spain on the television. We were very well prepared.

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