Row Mikbottom ©ITG

As the world of sport ponders on how best to return to action when the coronavirus crisis allows, there is a common requirement - maintaining the safety and health of participants and spectators.  But how to go about it? When to return? And with what changes, temporary or long-term?

New questions are being asked of sporting bodies across the world, across the full spectrum of events. And given the differing circumstances it is hardly surprising that this unprecedented challenge is being met in different ways and at different speeds.

For instance, on May 16 Germany became the first country in Europe to resume top-league football, with Bundesliga matches taking place in empty stadiums. Football and baseball have also resumed in South Korea.

In English football, however, Premier League clubs are continuing to test their players in training and have targeted "Project Restart" for June 17. Meanwhile, England’s Premiership Rugby clubs announced this week that they are seeking to resume the 2019-2020 season on August 15.

Will these targets be met? Maybe. Will the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, postponed until next summer, take place then? Or will that not be practicable without a vaccine having been developed for COVID-19? Who knows?

Nothing is certain in this perplexing new landscape, but there are some features that will clearly be evident within world sport over the coming months as it strives to establish the "new normal."

The Bundesliga has begun using social-distancing measures in empty stadiums - a big step towards normality ©Getty Images
The Bundesliga has begun using social-distancing measures in empty stadiums - a big step towards normality ©Getty Images

Jon Tibbs, founder of the international relations and communications agency JTA whose client list past and present includes Los Angeles 2028, Manchester United and the Association of National Olympic Committees, told insidethegames: "We are all hypothesising here. No one knows how it’s going to pan out. But I do know the sports industry will have to go and consult way outside its normal pond to get plans for the future.

"It needs to consult with not just futurologists but behavioural psychologists and all sorts of experts, and scientific advisers as well, because a lot of the venues in future, if you plan it right, can be pandemic-resistant.

"Look across the world and see what people would prefer moving forward, to monitor what the change of consensus is. So that’s what I think is going to be really, really interesting. It’s not just about saving costs, which inevitably is going to be considered.

"It’s going to be about evaluating the experience people are going to want to have. It’s going to take people ages to come back to some degree of trust in normality where you would happily rub shoulders with the person sitting on a seat next to you.

"Behavioural psychologists need to be brought in and people need to factor in all sorts of things moving forward. There are going to be some fundamental changes in the way entertainment and sports events are run in future.”

Having consulted widely with world governing bodies, insidethegames offers a bill of fare of changes to sport in the immediate and perhaps long-term future.

New training methods are being developed in lockdown

Athletes confined to home have had to be increasingly ingenious and disciplined in recent months, with International Federations (IFs) attempting to aid them and promote their sport where possible.

"During the current lockdown," says a World Rowing spokesperson, "we have started to see innovative approaches to training and connecting with our rowing community. Our indoor rowing - rowing on ergometers - has been taken to a new level. Thanks to the all-body and low-impact benefits of rowing ergometers, the manufacturers are nearly all sold out due to people buying machines for home.

"While the circumstances are far from ideal, there have been some quick advances in online and virtual opportunities for competitions - and we certainly do not want to lose these innovations as we get back from lockdown. I think it could be great opportunity for us to continue growing the online/virtual rowing world as well as supporting the way that we have traditionally practiced the sport."

The International Judo Federation (IJF) reports: "We have been working tirelessly to offer possibilities to train, proposing exercises to the judoka, that they can practice at home or in small secured groups. The IJF Medical Commission has already been working on providing health rules to the national federations around which they can articulate the reopening and make sure that all judoka are healthy."

But World Athletics President Sebastian Coe points out the limited value of homespun training regimes. 

"Athletes have been massively creative in confined circumstances and you can keep yourself in pretty good physical conditions in those circumstances," Coe said. "But you need seven or eight weeks to get the specificity back - the stride pattern in hurdles, the technique for the shot put. It’s more complicated."

So too new forms of competition

"Many of our national federations have already started running virtual competitions or challenges through social media or video conferencing during the lockdown, and we are supporting these initiatives in our communications," World Rowing reports. "After the success of indoor rowing at the World Urban Games, we have already been planning on adding some virtual events to our Indoor Championships, so we had been working on the technology pre-COVID crisis."

While football is up and running in some countries, under strict conditions and in empty stadiums, athletics has so far engaged with virtual competitions involving competitors operating individually but at the same time, linked by video. The third of the self-styled Ultimate Garden Clash events is due to take place today. The first of these, involving men’s pole vault attracted more than 250,000 live viewers globally, with more than one million people watching the broadcast around the world within 24 hours of it taking place.

Meanwhile plans are coming together for this Thursday's (June 11) Impossible Games in Oslo, which will feature socially distanced competition across a number of events. For example, runners will have empty lanes between them, while home hero Karsten Warholm will make an individual attempt to break the world 300-metre hurdles record. It is understood that there will be separate mats for the pole vaulters that will go down and be lifted after each jump, and all are forbidden from touching anyone else’s equipment.

The same spirit of hygiene will be present on the baseball diamond, where bases will be cleaned at the end of each half inning. In hockey, the pitch will be disinfected. In football, the ball itself is being regularly cleansed.

Similar measures will be in operation when athletics is due to return to the United Kingdom on June 14 on the island of Guernsey, with the programme consisting of mainly short sprints and throws, plus an 800m race that will be run in lanes the whole way.

A spokesperson for the Modern Pentathlon Union (UIPM) comments: "In terms of virtual technology, we launched the first UIPM #LaserHomeRun with more than 600 competitors who registered within three days. The competition was streamed live on UIPM TV and promoted across our social media channels. It was well received and gives us a lot of possibilities for enhanced virtual engagement in future. UIPM is planning to announce other virtual activities soon."


Get used to empty stadiums

This, as the Bundesliga has shown, is the new norm for sports making their return to action.

World Rugby’s view is that when lockdown measures are relaxed to the point where gatherings of 500 or more people are allowed, "a Union, Club and competition may be able to discuss limited crowd attendance with Government and local public health authorities. Large traditional crowds are unlikely in the absence of an effective and freely available vaccine for COVID-19."

Coe’s view of spectator-free arenas is pragmatic: "I don’t think anybody is contemplating this as the ideal long-term solution. Sport would wither on the vine quite quickly if that were the case. But it may well be a compromise we have to make in order to get the athletes back into competition, leagues finished, at least some kind of competition."

Already, however, some sports are experimenting by adding crowd noise to television feeds - or in some cases playing back reactions from fans that are being monitored virtually.


Social distancing - the new glue

Social-distancing injunctions can be largely enforced in sport, especially if spectators are absent. But for sports such as football, rugby or combat sports - with the exception of individual elements such as kata in karate, or poomsae in taekwondo - it is impossible to administer once the action gets underway.

That said, observers of football now restarted in the Bundesliga believe they are seeing fewer all-holds-barred tackles.

For its part, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) maintains it will "draw on the experience of Paris-Nice, the last event of the UCI WorldTour calendar held, at the beginning of March, before the beginning of restrictive measures".

Given that they take place outside, over several hundreds of kilometres and on public routes, road events pose specific problems. Spectators often gather along the roadsides and it is necessary to secure zones where the concentration is high, such as the start, finish and any mountain passe.

The UCI is looking at using some of the safety measures employed in this year's Paris-Nice race if and when road racing returns to action later this year ©Getty Images
The UCI is looking at using some of the safety measures employed in this year's Paris-Nice race if and when road racing returns to action later this year ©Getty Images

"At Paris-Nice in March, the protocols at the start (signing-in) and finish (podium ceremony) were therefore adapted," the UCI said. "Physical barriers between the public and riders will most certainly be used again as part of the measures recommended by the steering group with a view to the resumption of racing.

"Other competitions, such as mountain bike downhill or BMX (racing and freestyle) and track - these last two taking place in closed zones - could be easier to secure, even though there will obviously be other considerations to be taken into account when it comes to television broadcasts and ticketing."

The measures currently being considered by the UCI for future road racing include testing before races and checks during - although it’s not yet decided whether it will be compulsory or on a voluntary basis - barriers to distance fans and the media, creating "bubbles" at riders' hotels to separate teams and adapting protocols at starts and finishes.

A UCI spokesperson stresses, however, that this is a work in progress, with measures due to be announced in the next few weeks. Measures that may be in place at the intended start of the season - July and August - are likely to loosen “in September and beyond” if the epidemic allows.

World Rowing believes racing on a 2,000m course will make it easier to establish social-distancing measures for spectators ©Getty Images
World Rowing believes racing on a 2,000m course will make it easier to establish social-distancing measures for spectators ©Getty Images

World Rowing’s spokesperson comments: "The biggest change I believe will be how we watch sport - probably without spectator participation, or quite limited spectator participation for an extended period. The stepping back on the limitations on mass gatherings and… social distancing with strangers at stadium/arena sports are the two key unknowns at this point. And those sports whose financial model depends on physical spectator receipts will have to change. 

"As an outdoor sport along 2,000 metres, rowing will have less difficulty."

The UIPM acknowledges its laser run format may offer scope during the return to competition. "While it’s true that athlete congestion during a laser run can be minimal due to flexibility with the width of courses and shooting lanes, and also staggered start times, it’s too early to say if the competition format will need to be modified to account for social distancing regulations.

"In general terms, we do believe that most aspects of the modern pentathlon competition are more compatible with social distancing than some sports."

Non-contact disciplines are at an advantage. A World Taekwondo’s spokesperson points out: "Taekwondo is more than just kyorugi. Poomsae for example is non-combat and does not require athletes to be in close vicinity with each other. 

"For instance, there are already online poomsae competitions happening around the world. So, it presents a lower risk and is a discipline we could host competitions for, if within a venue, while continuing to respect social distancing regulations.

"In its sparring format - kyorugi - taekwondo is a combat sport that necessitates athletes be close to each other. We cannot change that nor do we intend to. It is an essential part of the sport. What we can do is implement safety measures around how we deliver events so that when the two athletes step onto the mat they are totally focused on competing and do not have to worry about their health.

"Poomsae does present opportunities given its format. Our preference would be to host events in person, but certainly virtual competitions is something we would consider if the circumstances called for it. Through the virtual format, we can create new formats of competitions where we can engage with the whole family."

An IJF spokeperson comments: "Our Medical Commission is based on experts and follows WHO [World Health Organization] advice and expertise, taking into consideration all aspects of the present situation. They have prepared a document for all national federations and clubs around the world to ensure a safe reopening. This document presents a step-by-step process from high to low contamination risks and offers answers to all of them so the judoka can get ready to practice their beloved activity once again."

The poomsae discipline in taekwondo is ideally adaptable to conforming with social distancing and safe competition, World Taekwondo maintains ©Getty Images
The poomsae discipline in taekwondo is ideally adaptable to conforming with social distancing and safe competition, World Taekwondo maintains ©Getty Images

No kissing and no licking

Just as the French have had to resist kissing each other on the cheek in greeting in the new world of lockdown, many athletes will have to change little details that have long been an instinctive part of their game.

Footballers are instructed neither to celebrate nor commiserate on the field in close physical contact. In cricket, bowlers are banned from using their own saliva to help impart extra swing to their deliveries -  sandpaper remains a prohibited method too - while baseball pitchers are forbidden to lick their fingers.

Athletes used to anti-doping testing must take on COVID-19 testing - and greater responsibility

Testing, for many years the reality of athletes in a doping context, is the new reality for them in terms of health. Take the example the South Korean baseball players. If any of them should test positive for COVID-19, the renewed league would be halted for at least three weeks.

A spokesperson for World Rowing outlined how common sense and trust have become increasingly important within the sporting community.

"This will be a matter of trust and common sense about how to minimise risk of infection," they say. "The crewmates will have to find ways to minimise contact with strangers and live 'low risk of exposure' lives. If rowers can be assured that their crewmates are ‘clean’, then pairs can lead to fours and eventually to eights.

"We know some national teams are living and training in isolation so that training can continue. Luckily we have lots of single sculls in rowing clubs around the world so that water training can continue for those who can’t live ‘low exposure risk’ lives… those using public transport or working in high risk situations, for example."

Elite athletes throughout world sport will have to adapt to COVID-19 testing as they have previously for drug testing ©Getty Images
Elite athletes throughout world sport will have to adapt to COVID-19 testing as they have previously for drug testing ©Getty Images

The UCI comments: "Maintaining distance within the peloton is physically impossible. The aim is therefore to reduce the risk of transmission during the race by detecting those who are carrying the virus, removing them from the peloton, isolating them [for 14 days] and monitoring them before they return to training then to competition after testing.

"The objective means carrying out diagnostic tests, monitoring their clinical condition before the start of competitions, and reinforcing prevention measures outside the race.

"It is important to bear in mind that it is a question at this point of reducing risks, and that the development of the pandemic in the next weeks will enable us to fine-tune the measures to be considered."

Regular body-temperature checks on athletes and participants being subjected to daily health screening are among the recommendations made by the International Triathlon Union, which admitted in its own guidelines that "every single aspect" of competitions will have to be reviewed in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

World Taekwondo commented that it was "too early to say exactly what measures we will put in place", but that it would following medical guidance. "These scenarios are what we are currently studying carefully so that we are prepared to resume as soon as possible," the spokesperson added.

A greater profile for esports

The hiatus in traditional sport allowed virtual competitions to take centre stage. Cycling has been one of the sports at the forefront.

"At the height of the pandemic, we saw that organisers turned to digital competitions to make up for the absence of events in the real world," said the UCI spokesperson. "From our side, we are behind the development of cycling e-sport and are working on the organisation of the first UCI World Championships for the speciality.

"This new way of participating in cycling has taken a leap forward in the last months, and this tendency will most certainly continue. That being said, cycling e-sport will not replace the cycling that we have known for over a century."

From football to sailing, Alpine skiing to tennis, countless esports tournaments have been launched in response to the crisis.

International travel within sport will have a very different face as a result of the coronavirus pandemic ©Getty Images
International travel within sport will have a very different face as a result of the coronavirus pandemic ©Getty Images

Less international travel

Given the difficulties involved in organising international competitions, the current parlous state of airline travel and the likelihood that flights will become rarer and therefore more expensive - and not forgetting the inherent apprehension over gathering in large groups within confined spaces - it looks like the patterns of international travel are being and will be profoundly altered.

The International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) is considering "bubbles" as being the way forward.

"When it comes to travel, being an IF that primarily organises international events, this is something we need to consider closely," says an ITTF spokesperson. "We are aware that 'travel bubbles' will open around the world, at different times, with different benefits and disadvantages. The ITTF has also been considering the possibility of establishing their own 'bubble' with elite players to recommence high level table tennis. We are thinking of many different options to get live table tennis back ASAP."

Bye bye to globetrotting for sports administrators

With regard to sporting administrators, the potential new norm was succinctly summarised by Olympic marketing expert Michael Payne recently when he told insidethegames"The days of dozens of commission federation members flying around the world are over. Video conferencing will drive all future commission meetings for IFs, with gathering in person being held only once a year, around a World Championships or annual assembly

"This will represent a dramatic cost saving for all IFs. Many sports leaders probably already wanted to move in this direction but it would not have been 'politically' welcomed by the rank and file. COVID-19 gives leaders the opportunity to make this change."

World Taekwondo’s spokesperson reports: "From an administrative point of view, we have certainly seen the benefits of using virtual technology. For instance, we had our Extraordinary Council meeting recently via video conference, and most of our committees are now meeting virtually. I’m sure it is something we will look to use more of moving forward."

Meanwhile, World Sailing is canvassing members as it plans for a virtual Annual General Assembly later this year and, perhaps, a virtual Presidential election.

Fewer, but more meaningful competitions

For the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB), less is more. A spokesperson comments: "With the current restrictions on international travel, the FIVB is prioritising the start of national leagues if it is safe to do so. All national leagues will be required to implement comprehensive safety and protection measures for all events, and the FIVB is working to establish a set of guidelines for volleyball and beach volleyball events.

"Additionally, prior to this situation in December 2019, the FIVB Board of Administration approved plans for our next volleyball calendar for the Olympic cycle leading up to the Paris 2024 Olympic Games to prioritise the principle of 'Less is More' by reducing the number of events while creating additional value. Consequently, less international competition but with greater value is something that we were already working towards, and will continue to do so in the future."

The FIVB is working on safety guidelines for future volleyball and beach volleyball competitions ©Getty Images
The FIVB is working on safety guidelines for future volleyball and beach volleyball competitions ©Getty Images

Other IFs are similarly observing silver linings. World Rowing reports: "We see this situation as a good thing for the promotion and growth of more continental-based activities as well as assisting the sustainable reduction of environmental impact that the World Rowing federation is already committed to.

"It is clear that people will be nervous about international travel, however this might be an opportunity for continental confederations to offer some more or some different regionally based competitions and events and for all sports to consider reducing their own impact on the environment."

World Athletics, meanwhile, foresees its new range of one-day meetings under the Continental Tour banner being a practical and significant means of creating relatively safe competition. "If the Nairobi Continental Tour Gold that was postponed last week is able to happen later this year it could be the only competition that African nations can be part of," said a spokesperson. "So that focus on one-day meetings in every region could have a big effect going forward."


Closer links between International Federations, the International Olympic Committee and the World Health Organization

For example, the guidelines set out recently by World Rugby are fully compliant with WHO recommendations as they detail the route ahead in training from small groups to full groups and then to full contact.

The World Rugby guidelines also document the environment for returning to match action in a domestic, cross-border and cross-continent context and processes for facility and stadium preparation. WHO guidelines are dictating many IFs' actions.

The UCI reports that professor Xavier Bigard is now leading a working group on road cycling, while the body is also involved in the Outbreak Prevention Taskforce established by World Athletics with the International Institute for Race Medicine.

"The UCI has established recommendations with a view to the resumption of training, both individually and in groups," a spokesperson says. "It’s a first step that is very important before talking about a return to competition. The group, composed of representatives of organisers, teams, riders, team doctors and the UCI, will have the mission of defining the conduct to be adopted (social distance, protective gestures and other measures), in particular concerning health, when the season starts again.

"We will adapt, for cycling, recommendations issued by an international working group, formed at the initiative of World Athletics with the participation of the principal International Federations implicated in the organisation of major competitions, the WHO and the IOC."

The coronavirus pandemic could prompt a radical re-think over how stadiums are configured ©Getty Images
The coronavirus pandemic could prompt a radical re-think over how stadiums are configured ©Getty Images

More flexible stadium designs

Regarding the way stadiums might look in future, Jon Tibbs adds: "I do think less is more in terms of major international multi-sport events in terms of trying to have mega-stadiums, in terms of this whole notion of trying to have everything compacted together into a really tight, easy-to-access unit.

"This crisis has made people appreciate space more, to realise their surroundings more, and I think you’ll find there will be a re-set in terms of size of venues and layout in terms of seating convenience and experience.

"More space. Something that should be factored in and thought about - because it is going to take people a long, long time to come back to trust.

"If people are selling future plans on the notion of safety and a reasonable distance between seats instead of absolutely being rammed up against each other, then they will attract the nervous people quicker than older, traditional stadiums.

"You could have a plan where you can just strip seats out or block them off in the case of future pandemics. All the seating is already ready for social distancing."

On the bright side, a huge new opportunity for exercise

In terms of looking on the bright side, the spokesperson for the IJF probably expressed it best. "The coronavirus situation needs to be understood as a major crisis, that has impacted millions of people, but it can also be seen, from now on, as an amazing opportunity to rethink our future.

"The meaning of judo is the 'gentle way' that can be understood as the ‘way of adaptation'. The sport was designed to adapt to any situation, thus this is what we are already doing."

For many IFs, adapting to the new reality has included seeking to capitalise on an increase appetite for exercise from the housebound general public. World Taekwondo "will soon launch a mobile poomsae app developed for the general public. This is another creative and fun way to stay active at home until it is safe to return to the taekwondo clubs again."

World Athletics announced recently that it was setting up a new support campaign after research showed exercise in lockdown had increased by 88 per cent, with running and walking top of the list.

"That’s how I think our sport can take a central role," Coe tells insidethegames. "For example, there have been quite serious discussions around COVID-19 and they have tended to focus on the immediacy of containment and how you deal with lockdown and testing and all the project management.

"But when we are out of this there is one thing I believe is central to all this and that is the health and wellbeing of our global communities. And athletics is better placed than any other sport to enter that debate because we are the most accessible.  If you look at the way people have tended to keep themselves physically and even mentally healthy during lockdown and the vast majority of challenges that have taken place - they have involved running.

"This pandemic has hit communities hard and sport can really help with that imbalance. Not least by producing patterns of exercise and physical activity at a young age when we all know those habits are set early.

"It’s very difficult to get to that habit once they’ve hit 16.

"So I want our sport not just to be structurally different I also want it to have a very powerful voice now on the pressing issue of physical activity in communities. Because I am sure that healthier communities with boosted immune systems are better placed to withstand some of the challenges that are going to come down the line. This is not going to be the last time we are confronted by this type of issue."