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N.B. Elements of this article were first published on www.lawinsport.com on Wednesday, 12 August 2020.
As sporting activity recovers from the pandemic and resumes in the UAE, and indeed globally, it remains imperative to be mindful of potential COVID-19 transmission risks inherent in each sport. These risks should be appropriately identified, accounted for and addressed. This article examines some such risks and considers measures being taken across the sports industry to facilitate safe resumption of activity.
While pandemic-induced shutdowns in the sports sector were relatively ubiquitous, each sport is different and there are specific risks of which we should be mindful in an effort to minimise the risk of exposure
to the unforeseen enemy. Specifically, understanding what fundamental and unique features in some major sports may exacerbate or reduce the risk of participants and stakeholders contracting COVID-19 will be useful in determining appropriate restrictions in a safe and sustained re-emergence, as well as perhaps introducing systemic resilience against potential future challenges.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that the sports industry will have to adapt and remain flexible to remain sustainable and reliable when a worldwide crisis strikes. While we have seen a wide array of logistical measures and guideline requirements impacting off- field action being adopted and adhered to by various sports in an effort to restart in a safe and secure manner, it would be useful to look at some specific and practical measures and rules introduced by relevant leagues and sports’ governing bodies, directly related to on-field action and designed to promote and sustain the safe re-emergence of sports from an operational, on-field, perspective.
Various considerations are under review and the introduction of several safety measures have impacted the spectacle of sports that we have been used to, brought about by COVID-19 inspired change. For instance, ball assistants have been reduced in football, the number of potential substitutes permitted to warm up on the sidelines at any given point has been reduced, match balls are sanitised (as with NBA game balls), players shaking hands has been discouraged, training staff appear wearing PPE and players routinely now use personal drinking bottles. Elsewhere, in tennis, line judges are being replaced by automated machines where possible and players are using opposite sides of the court for changeovers, in cricket bowlers are prevented from applying saliva to the ball and emergency medical staff and equipment are subject to new PPE requirements.
In addition to these practical and operational changes, we see foreshortened seasons in a number of sports and must consider limitations on previously typical parameters. Would a World Series champion escape an asterisk for an MLB season below 162 games? Would Wimbledon maintain the integrity of tradition without qualifiers? If the NBA survives the bubble, how will we view a season winner with no real home/away game dynamics? These questions will doubtless persist unless and until normalcy returns to the sports industry but the rigor and passion of sporting debate is an honoured tradition that looks set to continue.
Health and safety issues are of paramount concern in the UAE, which is host and home to a series of one-off premier global sporting events each calendar year. These events include the UAE Tour (a UCI sanctioned cycling event taking place across the Emirates and incidentally amongst the first international sporting events to fall prey to COVID-19), the Dubai World Cup horse race, The Dubai Rugby 7 ’s, the ITU World Triathlon Abu Dhabi, The Abu Dhabi Formula 1 Grand Prix and numerous professional golf tournaments amongst many more. These sporting calendar favourites attract a legion of fans and travellers from around the world and the resumption of safe and secure sporting activity, in compliance with relevant return to sport guidelines, will require the coordinated efforts of government, the sports authorities, event organisers and all the other relevant stakeholders.