Adapting in pandemic times provides the theme on day two of the e-Convention

Steinar Hoen
European Athletics

Bislett Games meeting director Steinar Hoen was one of the speakers on the second day of the 2020 European Athletics e-Convention, explaining how they were able to stage the Impossible Games during the coronavirus pandemic  

Sporting events across the world have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and the second day of the 2020 European Athletics e-Convention featured three case studies on how event organisers have adapted in the context of the pandemic.

Czech Athletics President Libor Varhanik spoke extensively on the #BackOnTheTrack project which galvanised the Czech athletics community. Working within strict governmental guidelines, 173 meetings took place across the country on 1 June to mark the official restart of athletics in the Czech Republic.  

“We must show the light at the end of the tunnel...there will be competitions but with restrictions,” said Varhanik on one of the primary motivations of this ambitious project.

The Czech Republic was the first European country to resume competitions on a nationwide scale after lockdown. The initiative featured events for all age-groups, including small-scale competitions for elite athletes which were covered extensively on Czech television and made available for non-Czech viewers courtesy of a non-geoblocked stream.

As well as providing competition for all athletes, the initiative also sent a positive message to the rest of Europe by showing how events can take place safely and successfully during the coronavirus pandemic. The initiative also received generous and positive coverage in the Czech press.

“The credibility and creativity of athletics with 173 places taking part shows the strength and coherence of our beautiful sport,” said Varhanik.

While the Czech Republic was the first nation to resume domestic events, the first significant international event to take place was the Impossible Games in Oslo on 11 June in place of the traditional Bislett Games. Meeting director Steinar Hoen explained how they made the impossible possible.

Sport was temporarily made illegal in Norway during the initial stages of lockdown but Hoen was provided with a glimmer of hope at the start of April when non-contact sport was permitted to resume again albeit within a very strict framework.

“It was strange that this could be good news but it was. Athletics is not a contact sport. Could we design something similar?” he said.

From the quarantining of international athletes to the one lane gap between competitors on the track, Hoen and his team implemented every social distancing measure possible to ensure the Impossible Games would take place in a safe environment as well as delivering an exciting night of athletics to a significant worldwide television audience.

The event was highlighted by a solo world best in the 300m hurdles from Karsten Warholm and a European 2000m record from Jakob Ingebrigtsen in a virtual head-to-head against ‘Team Cheruiyot’ in Nairobi. “We were very careful to make sure the meeting wouldn’t end up with negative press but it worked fantastically,” said Hoen.

Swedish Athletics event manager Magnus Malmsborg explained their strategy of staging events in pandemic times to the delegates
European Athletics
Swedish Athletics event manager Magnus Malmsborg explained their strategy of staging events in pandemic times to the delegates

Working within a different set of government guidelines, Swedish Athletics event manager Magnus Malmsborg explained how they delivered a full competition programme within the confines of the 50-person rule which was in place throughout the summer.

Their mantra throughout the summer was “adjust rather than cancel” and despite the ongoing restrictions, Swedish Athletics were still able to stage all their televised events including the Stockholm Diamond League, the Friidrott GP series and the Swedish Championships albeit without spectators.

Malmsborg said the Swedish U18 and U20 Championships had to be split up in order to adhere to government guidelines and national road running events had to be moved onto raceway tracks to ensure they would take place without spectators. 

In the following session, World Athletics Executive Director of Communications Jackie Brock-Doyle and timing specialist and solutions provider MYLAPS Commercial Director Maurice Timmermans both shared their experiences of adapting their respective strategies during the pandemic.

Jackie Brock-Doyle outlined World Athletics' digital and social media strategy in light of the coronavirus pandemic
European Athletics
Jackie Brock-Doyle outlined World Athletics' digital and social media strategy in light of the coronavirus pandemic

Despite the severe disruption to the competition calendar, Brock-Doyle reported all of World Athletics’ social media accounts still experienced significant growth during the initial months of lockdown courtesy of their successful Athletics@Home campaign which informed, engaged and entertained fans across the world. 

The #UltimateGardenClash series was one of the sporting success stories of lockdown and with restrictions easing across the world, Brock-Doyle has said one of World Athletics’ goals is to tap into an upsurge of people wanting to live healthier lives and to be more environmentally conscious. This began earlier this summer with the 'Fitter With Friends' initiative which was endorsed by six elite athletes around the world.

Timmermans spoke about the challenges his company has faced during lockdown but also on some of the benefits which have arisen from a greater emphasis on healthy living and from the growth of virtual and hybrid events which have replaced actual events in pandemic times. 

“On a silent level, shoe shops are doing great business...one of the biggest aims for people is to keep fit and people want to go out to run. The great thing about hybrid events is there is no entry limit and no matter what your level is, people want something to train for,” he said.