The Olympic Games are now underway, albeit a year behind schedule. While this represents an important symbolic step on the path back to normality, the Games themselves are far from normal. Unlike in the U.S., where fans are crowding back into professional sports arenas, the Tokyo Games’ opening ceremony took place in a largely empty stadium, and the usual crowds of spectators were absent from all events. The approaches may differ, but the underlying problem of how to hold sporting events safely while minimizing disruption for athletes, support staff, and fans remains constant. Today, we’ll look at sports reopening models in more detail to uncover their core strategic dimensions.
The U.S. Model
Overall COVID-19 response in the U.S. has remained largely decentralized, with individual states ultimately assuming responsibility for deploying their own rules and regulations. With states loosening these restrictions as infections fell from their 2020 peaks and vaccines became more widely available, sports leagues, venue owners, and individual municipalities have increasingly taken the lead with regard to pandemic protocols. In response, both MLB and the NBA have prioritized a return to near-normal, allowing significant numbers of fans into stadiums and placing relatively few restrictions on athlete behavior.
That isn’t to say they’re doing nothing, however. Both leagues asked players to abide by codes of conduct designed to reduce the risk of contracting or transmitting the virus, just as both require regular testing for players and staff in order to catch potential outbreaks early. In short, the leagues are optimizing for player harm reduction and engagement on the part of fans, both of which make sense in a nation with strong vaccination rates.
Nevertheless, this approach hasn’t been entirely without incident. While the recent NBA playoffs weren’t terribly impacted by the health & safety protocols, players -- including star Chris Paul -- were in fact forced to miss important games, and the MLB regular season has seen small outbreaks on multiple teams, including the Phillies and Yankees. And with the delta variant continuing to spread in the US, the league’s ability to contain more such outbreaks may be sorely tested.
The Olympic Model
From the outset, the Olympics have made it abundantly clear that harm reduction isn’t the goal. Instead, the International Olympic Committee has adopted a strategy of radical risk mitigation for athletes, support staff, and for the larger Tokyo community. To that end, the IOC disallowed most spectators and released a 33-page “playbook” outlining the requirements for all individuals associated with the games in any capacity.
The requirements are thorough, to say the least. All athletes and staff must test negative for COVID-19 prior to departing for Japan. Upon arrival, they will receive a second test in the Tokyo airport, which they must also pass, and submit a 14-day activity plan outlining where they will go, who they will see, and so on. Once on-site at the Olympic Village, athletes and support staff are expected by and large to remain on-site, minimize social interactions, and submit to frequent screening.
While these measures may be restrictive, they make sense when viewed in the context of the Games themselves. Although Japan isn’t in the midst of a COVID-19 crisis, the nation only began vaccinating in February, and as of now only around 22% of the population has fully completed that process. What’s more, athletes will be coming in from all around the world, often via public flights, all of which increases the potential risk. The plan seems to be working, too; as of this writing, 95 COVID-19 cases have been identified in athletes or staff already, not including those who tested positive before leaving their country of origin.
Comparing these reopening models isn’t about determining which one is “best.” Instead, it’s about understanding the dimensions of the problem in order to find the appropriate solution To that end, here are some things to consider:
- Choose a health goal. While risk mitigation and harm reduction are both good, it’s useful to decide ahead of time which of these is the priority, as they have a major impact on the shape of your reopening strategy.
- Understand context. What’s the case count in your area? What percentage of the population is vaccinated? Where will your athletes and spectators be coming from? And where will they be returning?
- Test, test, test. No matter how strict your controls, some cases will make it through. That being the case, frequent, accurate testing is essential to any strategy.
Sports do more than simply entertain. They inspire us and bring us together. They are important, which is why bringing them back matters -- and why protecting athletes, staff, and spectators matters just as much.
Doing that successfully and sustainably requires a reopening strategy tailored to your specific needs, goals, and circumstances, and Wellstand is proud to be a trusted partner in designing and implementing these strategies. Contact us to learn more.