Elite athletes may be classed as 'outdoor workers' as lockdown eases

Elite athletes may be classed as 'outdoor workers' as lockdown eases
16 September 2018; Sanita Puspure of Ireland is congratulated by Rowing Ireland High Performance Coach David McGowan following her victory in the Women's Single Sculls Final on day eight of the World Rowing Championships in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Sports bodies are seeking clarification from government as to whether high performance athletes can be considered “outdoor workers” under the roadmap for re-opening the country and return to training bases under the necessary restricted conditions.

Athletes have been confined to the same parameters as the rest of the country, essential workers aside, in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. Training regimes have been severely compromised as a result, despite the plethora of online tools and hastily arranged home gyms.

However, many live beyond the current 5km radius limit from their habitual training bases and, while that cut-off point will increase to 20km come early June, it will be July 20th and the commencement of phase four before all travel limits are abolished.

That's if everything goes according to plan.

“The safe return of high performance athletes to training is high on the agenda for Sport Ireland,” said a statement from the body yesterday. 

“We are aware of the concerns of National Governing Bodies and we are working with them towards a situation where athletes can train safely and in line with Government protocols and public health guidelines. We are in constant communication with the sports and Government and are hopeful that a return to training won’t be too far away.”

Much has been made of the benefit to be accrued from lessons learned in countries where lockdowns are already being eased. Rowing Ireland's head coach, for instance, is David McGowan who is currently in Sweden where no lockdown was imposed.

That sort of information will all add into the complicated stew of considerations determining the route ahead for sports here but there is a flipside to being a step or two behind. Athletes in the likes of Australia, Italy and the USA are all beginning to rediscover their strides quicker.

That is a distant consideration when set against the health of the nation but sports have to be mindful of these operational issues. Tokyo 2021 is still over a year away but numerous major championships and other big qualifying events are being mooted for autumn starts.

Time and timing is a factor.

There is no one-size-fits-all solutions. Not in terms of countries, or sectors, or even within sports themselves. One such example is rowing which will make a tentative return to the water in phase one of the reopening here this Monday.

Single scullers will be permitted but not large crews, while it will be left to the discretion of each club as to whether household pairs can be accommodated. The 5km travel radius will, like golf and tennis, prevent many from accessing rivers and clubs just yet.

Rowing Ireland has published a comprehensive plan covering all five phases of the roadmap and how it relates to their members. As with all sports, detailed accounts of those attending clubs will need to be kept in the event that a positive case is recorded and contact tracing required.

One Dublin club has already established a COVID-19 committee and Rowing Ireland are recommending that others follow suit. The governing body accepts that all risk of the virus cannot be eliminated but, as a water-based sport, it is well accustomed to reducing risk in general.

Each sport has a different conundrum to solve. For cricket it is the age-old practise of bowlers applying saliva to the balls. In rugby it is something as concentrated as a scrum involving 16 people. Golfers are being told not to rake bunkers or take out flags.

Rowing's imponderable is the 'slipstream effect”. This refers to respiratory droplets transmitted when exercising behind an athlete and it depends on a combination of factors that include the speed of the boat, wind conditions, crew numbers and the levels of exertion.

Cycling is among other sports in a similar situation.

Rowing Ireland CEO Michelle Carpenter described the effect as akin to sitting in a car when the vehicle in front turns on its windscreen washer and there has been very little research conducted on this given the novel nature of the coronavirus.

The NGB has consulted with medical experts and virologists who possess a rowing background and the world governing body, FISA, has established a medical commission which is examining this and other questions nobody ever thought of asking before now.

The hope is that any risk from the slipstream effect is negligible. The problem is that we just don't know for sure. “All of this is a new concept,” Carpenter told the Irish Examiner. “We haven't faced anything like this since 1918.”

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