Hamish Adams, chief executive of Athletics Ireland, discusses how the sport has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic as it takes its first steps back in phase one of the government’s roadmap for re-opening the country
It would have been Thursday, March the 12th when the lockdown was finally announced. That was a bit of a moment. It had been with us for a number of weeks but then it was finally like, ‘right guys, what we have been talking about is actually going to happen’.
We were prepared anyway. Our team of 40-odd people are well versed, many of whom work remotely all the time. It was easy for us to transition from the office to remote working and life carried on.
I’ve seen most things now from births to deaths to serious injuries but we had a devastating office fire in Athletics Ireland in August 2018. I was only in the job a couple of months and the place was burned to the ground so, I’ll be honest, that was pretty catastrophic for a number of reasons and it obviously happened very quickly. We probably learned an awful lot from that fire as an organisation, so much so that it wasn’t a massive upheaval for us in managing the Covid-19 progression into remote working and all the rest of it because we had been through all that so recently in out history. The learning from it was you just have to stay calm, control the controllables, and that’s what we did.
Very severe, I’ll be honest. There’s no competition going on. There is no recreational running. We run 20 events throughout the year of our own as a profit-making venture, like the Great Ireland Run. All of that business has taken a massive hit and obviously the sponsorships that are linked to those respective events. It is difficult times for us. As an NGB we are forecasting being down €1.5m this year alone. We conservatively estimate that we have 350 clubs and if they lost ten grand each that’s €3.5m. It’s had a huge impact on our sport. On the positive side there’s never been more people walking and running. Fingers crossed, when we can get the business back up and running there will be a demand for those sorts of activities. The Federation of Irish Sport has called for a government resilience fund.
Q: Your native New Zealand has just announced an innovative and detailed €147m package for the sector there which will aid all levels, big and small. Will it take something similar here?
That would certainly help. All sports are hurting but there is still a lot of water that has to go under the bridge yet. I would have to say that the government have been very good in the supports they have put in place. The Wage Subsidy Scheme has been a massive boost to us all without which we would be in real jeopardy. Government needs some time to absorb what is going on. Things are happening at such a fast pace that I would hope there would be some form of resilience fund, or however we put it, to support all businesses. And not just those in sport because we all need it, that’s for sure.
It’s still very early days yet. It’s lots of very strict limitations within the guidelines, like the 5km radius from the club and groups of four. So for the average club with a large juvenile cohort that means no activity, really, for them yet. It’s only really focused on 13 years and above but you will find a lot of clubs have been very conservative.
I think they are doing the right thing. They want to make sure that they have good systems and structures in place because it’s all about containing this Covid-19. We don’t want to spread it anymore and I have to congratulate everyone I have spoken to. We’ve had lots of questions and everyone has been really sensible, taking Phase 1 really slowly. Assess how it is going and we’ll take it from there.
I have a regular call with my equivalent in New Zealand, Peter Pfitzinger, the CEO of New Zealand Athletics. They are a few weeks ahead of us but, again, there’s no magic bullet here. Social distancing is key, contact tracing and hygiene. I can’t think of much more than three things at once and those are the three things that we need to be concentrating on right now.
We have deliberately not announced any dates for competitions at this moment in time because we feel we need to get through the first two or three phases of the lockdown, exit them before we can be confident that events will go ahead.
We want events to go ahead and we are also mindful that we need regional events to go ahead at county level and provincial level before we can have national competitions so there is a lead-in required.
We do have some dates planned for August and September and hopefully we can make those.
I don’t think that’s as difficult as the domestic participation side of things. We have an in-house team that manages all that. There was certainly some unknowns about international competitions up until recently but most of those decisions have been made now so there is clarity. It’s back to the athletes now. High-performance athletes have taken a break in most instances now because track and field competitions are certainly not taking place this summer so it is a case of refocus, reset the goals and get back to work and go again. I firmly believe it can be an advantage for Irish athletes in that it gives us another 12 months to prepare. We have some really exciting young athletes coming through and that extra year will bode well for them and for our qualification opportunities.
That is a silver lining. In every recession there is a great surge in athletic club membership so we are hoping that the extra hundreds of thousands of people out running at the moment, according to the recent Sport Ireland literature, will translate into more members in our clubs. There is a real desire from people to get out and be sociable, to get back into the clubs. Look, we are hopefully only a few weeks away from that. That’s the positive side. We have been through a tough time but we are close to really getting back into it. Let’s be cautious, let’s be patient but let’s be optimistic as well because I can certainly see light at the end of the tunnel.
The message is to keep moving, keep the faith. We want competition, we will be back delivering events and competitions as soon as possible and we are working hard for our stakeholders because athletics is all about participation and competition