HANGZHOU (Reuters): The three Indian martial arts athletes unable to compete at the Hangzhou Asian Games due to a politically-charged visa issue are "mentally broken" by the affair, team-mates told Reuters on Sunday.
The absent trio - Mepung Lamgu, Nyeman Wangsu and Onilu Tega - come from Arunachal Pradesh, a state in the northeast of India which China claims as part of Tibet.
The Wushu athletes were issued with stapled China visas instead of stamped ones, according to India's foreign ministry, meaning they could not travel as India does not accept stapled visas as valid.
"I trained in the camps with them, but it feels so sad because they also tried very hard to get in this position," Anjul Namdeo, 31, told Reuters, after a sixth-placed finish in the men's Changquan final.
"As an athlete I feel very bad, but it's up to the ministry. I can't do anything.
"Sometimes they talk to me because it’s every sports players dream to perform in this arena, biggest arena like this," Namdeo added. "It's like Asia's olympics. So they feel sad. They feel broken, you can say, because they also trained so hard."
Suraj Singh Mayanglambam, a 24-year-old from Manipur, which lies close to Arunachal Pradesh though not on a border with China, was similarly devastated by the news.
"I feel very bad because we are training together, enjoying together all of our events, all of us," a visibly distraught Mayanglambam said following his fifth-place finish in the men's Changquan.
"The matter is so upsetting. They have been preparing every day for months. Now all injury, time, energy, all a waste... They're at home now preparing for the world championship but feel very upset because of this, mentally breakdown on this."
One of the trio, Lamgu, on Saturday posted on X, formerly Twitter, that she was "alright" and safe in India following reports in Indian media that she had gone missing after being unable to compete.
But on Sunday she was still on the start list for her event given to journalists at the competition venue in the remote southeast outskirts of Hangzhou.
Several of her rivals, including 17-year-old Zeanne Law Zhi Ning from Singapore, only found out at the last minute.
"I think it's a pity for them," she said. "I just hope they manage to get a visa for the next competition coming.”
Fans were likewise unaware, but when asked several took the side of the athletes.
"I feel very sorry about this," said a local middle school teacher of politics, surnamed Guo, 24.
"I feel that everything should be done for athletes to be able to compete... Sport has no borders.”
The Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) and Asian Games organisers are examining the visa issue, acting OCA President Randhir Singh said on Sunday.
Wei Jizhong, chairman of the OCA's ethics committee, told reporters last week that China did not refuse entry to the athletes.
The practice of issuing visas on loose sheets of paper has been seen as China's way of questioning India's sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh.
Beijing and New Delhi fought a war over the disputed Himalayan frontier in 1962 and have been uneasy neighbours ever since.
Relations nosedived in 2020 over a border clash in which 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers were killed, and worsened again recently when Beijing published its latest official map claiming parts of northeast India as its own territory.
Players and fans told Reuters they hope the two governments can resolve this as soon as possible.
"The governments should finish this item," Mayanglambam said. "It's not the duty of the player.”
Wushu is a collective term for the martial arts that originated and were developed over centuries in China. Famous practitioners include film stars Jet Li and Donnie Yen.
Wushu became an Asian Games sport for the first time in Beijing in 1990 and at the Games it is divided into sanda (sparring) and taolu (routine-based) events, including Changquan and Taijijian.
The sport has tried and failed on several occasions to become an Olympic event, but the athletes Reuters spoke to on Sunday were all hopeful that will one day change. (Reporting by Ian Ransom and Martin Quin Pollard; Editing by David Holmes)