Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

As organisers of next month’s Australian Open strive to manage quarantine arrangements for many of the world’s leading tennis players, they have no more sympathetic observer in the world than Hockey Canada’s vice-president Dean McIntosh, who recently oversaw the successful staging in Edmonton of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Junior Championship.

The Australian Open was postponed by three weeks to allow for the period of quarantine after players arrive in the country and is scheduled to run from February 8 to 21.

Calls have been made for the tournament to be pushed back again, but organisers have stressed the competition will start as planned.

However, 72 players are currently confined to their hotel rooms in Melbourne for two weeks after positive COVID-19 tests showed up on one of the three planes chartered for the event. Numerous players have complained about the standard of food and accommodation, and Serbia’s world number one Novak Djokovic demanded improved conditions and more flexible quarantine arrangements.

And of course, the world has become acquainted with the anguish of home player Bernard Tomic’s girlfriend, Vanessa Sierra, as she has struggled in hotel quarantine conditions that have obliged her to learn how to wash her own hair.

World number one Novak Djokovic has led the complaints from tennis players about quarantine arrangements in the run up to next month's Australian Open in Melbourne ©Getty Images
World number one Novak Djokovic has led the complaints from tennis players about quarantine arrangements in the run up to next month's Australian Open in Melbourne ©Getty Images

Albeit that it has been stoutly supported by the Victoria Government, Tennis Australia has been under rapid and sustained fire.

It has built on a body of knowledge that has been assembled by organising bodies across the world that have been seeking the safest and best way of allowing competition to take place during the pandemic.

When the London Marathon was held safely on October 4, its race director, Hugh Brasher, paid credit to the templates already set up by Formula One and Test cricket events earlier in the year about the creation of bio secure "bubbles", both for the event and for the accommodation, with associated travel and testing protocols.

Different sports have tweaked the model into different shapes. The Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), for instance, have devised a system with one of the world’s leading diagnostics companies which co-ordinates a COVID-19 testing programme before and during events.

Before players, caddies and staff can travel to an LPGA event they are required to test negative for COVID-19 through an at-home test, with results available within 24 hours.

Upon arrival to each tournament venue, those involved are tested again and given a wristband bearing the words "results pending" that allows access to the tournament grounds but not to enclosed spaces until final test results are returned. Results can be processed within 12 hours.

The LPGA has also established support services for players requiring quarantining alone in hotels for the required seven to 10-day period.

Edmonton held the IIHF World Junior Ice Hockey Championship in December under a series of COVID-19 protocols ©
Edmonton held the IIHF World Junior Ice Hockey Championship in December under a series of COVID-19 protocols ©

In establishing protocols for the IIHF World Junior Championship, Hockey Canada was able to consult the formula applied by the National Hockey League (NHL) in conjunction with Edmonton Events, the city’s strategic partnership for tourism and events, in staging the Stanley Cup play-offs between July 26 and September 28 last year without any positive tests.

Despite that helpful template, however, the experience of hosting the World Junior Championship had significant differences - not least that 10 international teams flew in directly to the city, with those from Sweden, Germany, Austria and Canada all reporting positive tests in December, and with Germany and Sweden then registering five and two COVID-19 cases, respectively, shortly before competition was due to start.

The IIHF was forced to cut the schedule of exhibition games before the tournament from 10 matches to four. But once fully underway the event - which concluded with a 2-0 victory for the United States over the hosts on January 5 - returned no more positive cases.

"Now that we are through, I can speak about it quite confidently, but it’s not an easy process," McIntosh, vice-president of events and properties within Hockey Canada, told insidethegames. "I certainly look at the organisers in Australia and can empathise with what they are going through.

"At the end of the day the greatest solution and the best solution is time. We don’t always have the benefit of time, but that was the one thing we always looked at in our contingency planning."

While the tournament got underway as planned on December 25, the positive tests saw the organisers looking at options for later starts.

"At the end of the day, you can’t rush the virus," McIntosh said. "You have to decide on what your timeframes look like in order to still deliver the outcomes you are hoping for."

Asked if that advice would apply to the organisers currently charged with planning the most involved sporting spectacle on earth - the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games - McIntosh cited the next ice hockey event on Canada’s horizon, the IIHF Women’s World Championship.

Although the tournament is due to take place at joint host cities Halifax and Truro this April, Hockey Canada and its partners are already looking at alternative, later dates, depending on the trend in coronavirus cases.

"As related to the virus, the longer down the road we go, whether we can gain an extra month or an extra 90 days to deliver an event that is certainly beneficial as well," he said.

"I give the Organising Committee in Tokyo all the credit in the world for continuing to move forward and plan. But if there was an opportunity for them to look at an August or a September start, I think the benefit of time would be huge."

It is expected that Tokyo 2020 organisers will use the protocols that have been developed over the past year in requiring athletes to test before travel and then to remain inside a protective "bubble" for a specified period before competition begins.

But in matters of safety protocols the devil is in the detail.

Reflecting upon Edmonton’s most recent sporting event, McIntosh added: "When Germany arrived, by testing daily we knew in a 24-hour period that we had positive tests, and we knew we had five days of quarantine to make a decision on how we were going to manage those positive tests.

"We had a plan, so that if we got to a certain number of positive tests, this was the step we were going to take. Any advice I would give to another group seeking to host a competition during the pandemic is to have a plan in place so that when a crisis does hit you are able to follow your protocols and you are not trying to devise something mid-stream.

"When Germany had the first couple of tests, we weren’t making any changes. When they got to five positive cases, and we were worried a little bit about the spread, we increased the length of the team quarantine. These were protocols we put forward ahead of that time, knowing when we would hit that step.

"We extended the quarantine for the Swedish team as well, but in a different manner because there were fewer positives cases. No one came out of the German quarantine until after the tenth day, whereas with Team Sweden we brought them out of quarantine after day five because there were no additional cases.

"The Swedes had two positives, both from their staff. Whereas in the German squad it was primarily players. These positives were absolutely the number one challenge for us.

"I think the medical team would tell you that once you have a clean bubble you have no opportunity for the virus to get in, so you are in good shape. And probably by December 25, 26, that is what our medical team was telling us.

"But I would tell you as a non-medical expert, right until we awarded gold medals the night of January 5, you continue to live on pins and needles because you want to see the event through to the end and at any point another positive case could burst that bubble."

Fans were forced to watch the action on screens owing to the COVID-19 regulations in place at the tournament ©IIHF
Fans were forced to watch the action on screens owing to the COVID-19 regulations in place at the tournament ©IIHF

Personnel from the 10 teams involved were required to have taken three PCR ( polymerase chain reaction) tests in the week before they travelled. Two hotels were used to house them along with officials, broadcasters, drivers and staff - the number of accredited people numbered more than 1,200.

Hotel staff underwent a PCR test within 48 hours prior to their shift and were tested every day they worked, with the operation being conducted by a private company. Twice daily temperature readings were also employed.

If managing positive tests proved the greatest challenge, the second greatest lay in ensuring compliance with the medical protocols established.

Compliance officers were deployed with teams to ensure that masks were worn as required and social distancing respected, and there was a tracking system in operation.

Tracking was carried out through bracelets during the quarantine period, and through chip technology on lanyards during the event.

On the evening of teams’ arrival on December 13, one official - from Team Sweden - proved persistently non-compliant with the protocols regarding staying within the "bubble" hotel.

The following day there was a hearing, after which this individual was flown home.

"That action was taken very swiftly and decisively," McIntosh said, "and I think that made a real statement to everyone in the bubble that we weren’t fooling around as an organisation.

"It was not something we publicised, but internally we had the discussions with all the federations that this is what we are doing. I think that was key.

"If people started to stray outside of the regulations, we, Hockey Canada, were going to be accountable for that. And we weren’t going to let that happen."

The United States beat Canada to win the IIHF World Junior Championship ©Getty Images
The United States beat Canada to win the IIHF World Junior Championship ©Getty Images

The Rogers Place arena also required special handling. 

Stuart Ballantyne, vice-president, venues and entertainment within the Oilers Entertainment Group that helped with bidding for and hosting the event, told insidethegames: "With COVID-19 we worked with Hockey Canada to morph the tournament format in a bubbled environment.

"This past summer we hosted the NHL Hub City and 2020 NHL Playoffs in Rogers Place, hosting 82 games in 66 days in a fully bubbled environment. This experience greatly assisted Hockey Canada and our Rogers Place staff to be able to divide, secure and operate the arena in the safest possible manner for the teams, players, officials, broadcasters and media.

"There are many challenges with access inside the arena to execute the services required to host this many teams including food services, laundry, virus testing, security, logistics, practice schedules, cleaning and sanitising and accommodations.

"Although some of the pre-tournament games were cancelled due to quarantine issues with a couple of teams, the tournament was a huge success hosting 32 games in 17 days."

McIntosh praised the way in which Edmonton Events, the city’s strategic tourism and events partnership, had worked with organisers, citing by way of an example the arrangement of the charter flights and the coordination of testing and transportation that enabled teams to be at their hotel within 75 minutes of landing - including the 35 minutes’ drive from the airport.

"They have been a great host community for Hockey Canada, and we look forward continuing that in future," he added.

Edmonton Events director Janelle Janis told insidethegames hosting the Stanley Cup and IIHF World Junior Championship had gone ahead only with the "strong partnerships" of the municipal, provincial and Federal Governments "because they understand how important the event industry is for economic recovery".

Janis added: "After successfully hosting our second major bubble event, we have the key learnings and confidence to know that with the right protocols in place, it is possible to successfully host events during a pandemic.

"With a vaccine in place, we will still likely see an enhanced level of health and safety protocols at events, and Edmonton has demonstrated that we have the experience and the knowledge to host safe events in our city.

"Having now gone through the COVID-19 health and safety protocols with all levels of Government I would say that we are in a better position when it comes to obtaining future exemptions, approvals and support."

The IIHF World Junior Championships was the second major ice hockey event Edmonton had staged using the bubble format having also hosted last year's Stanley Cup ©Getty Images
The IIHF World Junior Championships was the second major ice hockey event Edmonton had staged using the bubble format having also hosted last year's Stanley Cup ©Getty Images

Edmonton is preparing for its next challenges in terms of hosting major sporting events - it has the rights to hold the World Triathlon Championship Finals in August, and the next edition of the IIHF World Junior Championship, due to start in 11 months’ time.

"Like many other sports organisations, World Triathlon Edmonton is working diligently with all the necessary parties on how to safely host the 2021 World Triathlon Championship Finals in Edmonton," Janis added.

"Edmonton looks forward to hosting the 2022 IIHF World Junior Championship once again this December and we hope to welcome fans into the iconic Rogers Place arena to cheer on their home team."

Regarding the latter event, more than 85 per cent of those who bought tickets for this year’s tournament at the Rogers Place arena but were unable to attend have retained the option of being able to see the action in person.