What in the Worlds?

The novel coronavirus has completely obliterated the 2020-21 figure skating season. Every major international event was ultimately removed from the calendar, with only the question of the biggest and final event, the World Figure Skating Championships, remaining to be answered. Last week, in a meeting on January 28th, the ISU decided to go ahead with the World Championships scheduled for late March in Stockholm, Sweden. Given the current state of the world, there are many questions about how the event can be hosted safely, none of which have been answered by the organizers as of yet. With the announcement that the event will go on, let’s take a look at why the ISU is pushing for it to take place, the challenges in hosting a safe skating event and how other competitions have done, and a few potential outcomes.

WHY ARE WE DOING THIS?

Alina Zagitova at the 2018 Olympics, Courtesy the Olympic Channel

The biggest incentive to keeping Worlds on the calendar is that the results should be used to decide entries for the 2022 Winter Olympics. Each ISU member nation is allotted between zero and three entries to the Olympics, with the vast majority of slots being decided at the preceding World Championships. In a typical year, there is then one further event at the beginning of the Olympic season where athletes can qualify, but this route is mainly designed for individual athletes looking to earn a berth, not national federations looking to maximize entries. The ISU has yet to clarify whether the same Olympic qualifying structure will be used this year, but given how long they’ve delayed in making a decision, options that don’t push into preparation during the Olympic season are limited.

The fact that next year is an Olympic year will also factor into any decision about keeping the World Championships on the scheduled date rather than postponing them. Any delay in holding the event pushes into preparation for the Olympics themselves and given the scale and importance of the Olympics to the sport, they have to be given the highest priority. More people watch figure skating during the Olympics than any other time of the year and it’s the sport’s biggest opportunity to gain new fans, so it’s important to make that competition as outstanding as it possibly can be.

THE CHALLENGES

So, knowing the ISU’s reasons for keeping Worlds on the calendar as scheduled, what are the challenges of hosting an event safely?

The most obvious factor for a World Championships is that it includes athletes and officials from, well, all over the world. In 2019, Worlds featured 167 athletes from 43 countries, plus all of their coaches, judges and other event officials, venue staff, broadcast crew, and more. That amount of international travel obviously introduces a lot of possible points of infection which is, quite frankly, hard to mitigate effectively.

Once athletes arrive, you also have the challenge of quarantine and isolation time. Sweden, which has been shockingly lax in their coronavirus approach thus far, currently only requires a minimum five-day quarantine period (with two negative tests) and only for travelers coming from the United Kingdom, South Africa, Brazil or Norway. Even if that list of countries doesn’t expand as more countries report new COVID variants, the ISU themselves should require a quarantine period for everyone coming to the event. This kind of isolation presents a unique challenge to figure skating, as time off the ice is actively detrimental to performance. Doing sit-ups in a hotel room isn’t going to cut it in maintaining tip-top shape to challenge for a world title.

Figure skating is also an indoor event, which greatly increases infection risks when compared to outdoor sports like football. There’s even circumstantial evidence that coronavirus spreads more rapidly and aggressively in ice rinks than in other indoor sports venues. A report by the Washington Post found that infection rates were much higher among youth ice hockey leagues than in any other youth sport, with scientists speculating that ice rinks can promote spread by trapping the virus around head level due to restricted airflow, temperature, and humidity. Figure skating doesn’t have the same risk as hockey, a group contact sport, and it’s worth noting that figure skating competitions remove the plexiglass barriers needed for hockey which contribute to stagnant airflow, but the environmental risk is still notably higher than in other sports.

Photo from Ashley Cain-Gribble showing fog in an ice rink

The final and most substantial challenge to setting up a safe bubble with rigorous testing is that the ISU is, to put it kindly, not as flush with cash as some other sporting bodies. Figure skating doesn’t have the viewership figures of the NBA or the Saudi oil money of Formula 1 to let them throw millions of dollars at hosting a season. The sport simply doesn’t bring in the kind of revenue to safely host a major event with no spectators without taking a massive loss. But sitting around not hosting events doesn’t bring in money either, so how have smaller organizations managed so far this season?

HOW IT’S GOING

While there has been an almost complete lack of large-scale international skating events, there have been a number of domestic-run competitions that we can look at for reference for both positive and negative examples.

Skate America men’s podium, Courtesy U.S. Figure Skating/Jay Adeff

On the more positive side, we have Skate America and the US National Championships. Both events took place at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, which is an ideal venue for a bubble system since there is an attached hotel as part of the facility. All participants were tested on arrival and not allowed to leave their hotel rooms until receiving a negative test and US Figure Skating made it clear that they were taking a zero-tolerance approach to rule-breaking, with no warnings for infractions like leaving the designated event area or violating masking or social distancing guidelines. While there was one positive case upon arrival at Nationals and some questionable contact tracing protocols, no further cases have been reported as a result of either event.

Coach Alexei Mishin at Rostelecom Cup after Mikhail Kolyada’s free skate

On the other hand, we have the bevvy of events that have been held in Russia over the past few months. The list of troubling incidents is long and includes no social distancing, live audiences, blatant disregard for mask wearing, and allowing skaters to compete with fevers and while visibly struggling to breathe. Unsurprisingly, a number of Russian athletes have contracted COVID, some suffering serious lung damage, with many of those infections likely occurring at Rostelecom Cup. Earlier this week, Estonian skater Eva-Lotta Kiibus revealed that she also contracted coronavirus at Rostelecom and is still recovering, meaning the event organization by the Russian federation is also having a direct impact on the prospects of other country’s skaters.

Despite the safety failings at Rostelecom, an ISU Grand Prix event, the ISU has not enforced any of their own coronavirus guidelines and has dodged questions about possible sanctions for federations who conduct unsafe events. For the Grand Prix, the ISU determined early on that they would be run “domestically,” essentially shifting all accountability to local organizers, while also showing a failure of imagination on the part of the main governing body. Throughout the pandemic, the ISU has not even tried experimenting with other event formats, such as virtual events like the American ISP challenge or Skate Canada challenge, essentially going with the approach of sticking their heads in the sand and waiting for coronavirus to go away. Now that it hasn’t, the ISU has no experience to inform potential changes to the Worlds format and is essentially locked into the traditional format that has proved difficult to get right.

HOW DO WE DO THIS

The most recent ISU communication does not specify what COVID protocols will look like at Worlds, but what can we learn from past and other planned events?

At a minimum, Worlds should carry over the safety protocols from Skate America/US Nationals that were so effective: no audience, test everyone, strict masking and social distancing, and zero tolerance for rule breaking.

As far as an audience is concerned, the ticketing page on the official event website recently changed from saying tickets would be released when possible to saying:

Because of the current pandemic and the local restrictions that are in place today in Stockholm, we cannot have any tickets for sale to the ISU World Figure Skating Championships 2021. We hope the situation will improve and, in that case, we will let you know as soon as possible on our website, newsletter and on social media. Our main goal right now is to create an event that is safe for the participants.  

At the very least, this shows that organizers are open to holding the event without an audience, which should be the bare minimum, but is far from certain given the financial situation of the ISU and Swedish federation. That said, the ISU is still a money-making operation, so if there is a way for them to get away with having a paying audience, they’ll probably try.

For a look at what the ISU is currently doing, the organization is currently conducting the World Cup Speed Skating series inside a bubble in Heerenveen, The Netherlands. This is a multi-week series of events being hosted in one arena, with participants and facilitators confined to a bubble for the duration. Tests are required when arriving in The Netherlands and again when arriving at the hotel before entering the bubble. Skaters are only allowed to be in their hotel or in their designated area at the arena. Within the arena, there is also a bubble for officials and event facilitators, which is kept completely separate from the athlete bubble. I think it’s safe to assume that a similar model will be implemented for the figure skating World Championships, or at least that the current bubble will be used as a model, so all eyes will be on Heerenveen over the next few weeks to see how effective the system is and how rules are enforced.

In figure skating, Challenge Cup is scheduled for late February, also in The Netherlands, and the official announcement includes general COVID rules, though the final protocols are to be sent to participants separately, so we don’t know the full details. Among the general guidelines are requirements that skaters stay only in their hotel and the rink, masks be worn at all times, social distancing except for when skaters are on the ice, and stipulations that if you have been in contact with someone who contracted COVID-19, you are not allowed to enter the rink. Testing requirements are not stated, but presumably match the World Cup Speed Skating guidelines, plus whatever the local government requires at the time of competition.

All of those guidelines look good on paper, but their true value is in how closely the rules are followed and how strictly they are enforced. NHK Trophy and Japanese Nationals both had strict guidelines, but at both events, multiple skaters were seen without masks beside the rink and while taking group photos at the exhibition gala. These small moments may seem harmless, but present a risk to everyone at the event, and with the lax attitude shown by some, like the Russian pair skaters posing for a press photo with masks over their eyes, there need to be clear and compulsory consequences for rule-breaking, the kind of which the ISU has yet to show.

Russian pairs press conference at the 2021 National Championships. At least four people in this photo have had COVID at some point.

HOW THIS COULD END

With all of that, what are the possible outcomes of this whole debacle? It now appears likely that Worlds will go ahead in March. Whether that happens safely or not remains to be seen, but it seems clear that the ISU is intent on plowing ahead.

What could potentially throw a wrench in those plans is if individual federations decide not to send a team to the event. Skate Canada signaled in November that they might not send a team due to varied and limited training conditions, while Japan has already said they will not send athletes to the World Short Track Speed Skating Championships in early March, so if Worlds’ safety standards are not up to snuff, federations might step in on their athletes behalf. There’s also the issue of high-profile athletes pulling out themselves, which could impact the event’s legitimacy if it is to be used to decide Olympic spots. Ice dancers Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron have already withdrawn, preferring to focus on preparing for the Olympic season, and enough others following their example could certainly have an impact.

Another possibility is a repeat of the situation that unfolded around 2020 Worlds in Montreal, where the ISU refuses to cancel until forced by the local government. Last year the cancellation came just a week before the event, after some athletes had already travelled to Canada, so hopefully the organization has learned from their mistakes and will at least give more advance notice if they need to cancel. Ideally, that determination would be made as soon as possible, because making athletes train for an event that doesn’t happen is not only inconsiderate but actually detrimental to their performance which, again, could have knock-on effects for the Olympic season.

But what could have even wider reaching effects, not just for the Olympics but for the entire future of the sport, would be if Worlds goes ahead unsafely and becomes a super-spreader event. Athletes who have had coronavirus have shared some genuinely troubling stories about the long-lasting effects on their training and health. Evgenia Medvedeva and Victoria Sinitsina both had serious lung damage after contracting COVID and a number of skaters were unable to compete at Russian Nationals due to continued complications of coronavirus. The impact on the field was so substantial that the Russian Skating Federation had to change their well-established qualification criteria for the World Championships because of how many top-ranked competitors were missing.

Effects of the virus can even be severe enough to end an athlete’s career. On January 29th, Russian ice dancer and 2016 Youth Olympics champion Anastasia Shpilevaya announced her retirement in a lengthy interview that detailed her struggles recovering from the virus. It’s worth reading the full account of her symptoms to see just how damaging COVID can be, even to young, healthy people.

Anastasia Shpilevaya, from her Instagram

“When the quarantine was over, we went out on the ice for a week, and then I got seriously ill. Coronavirus. At first, I was treated at home. I called the doctors, I knew what to take, but nothing helped – my fever lasted a total of two months.”

“There was no improvement, despite two courses of antibiotics. My kidneys began to hurt, other problems began. My shortness of breath was insane – I would get up from the bed to go to the toilet and start panting. I tried to walk, do breathing exercises, but nothing helped.”

“We made a decision to go to a hospital…There I spent ten days; they cleaned my blood because it was very bad. Complications came on the whole body. I was highly intoxicated. I got better, they discharged me, but my temperature rose at home for some time. And as I was discharged from the hospital, I was quarantined again, so I had a great interruption in my training.”

“Next thing I knew I was out on the ice, not exaggerating, for one hour. The next morning my foot hurt so badly that I just couldn’t stand up on it. I didn’t understand what was going on – there was no reason for such pain. Immediately, of course, I went to the hospital, to the examinations, and they told me – “you have reactive arthritis.” A complication of the coronavirus. It happens, you have to stay home for three more weeks…But I got better. We started skating, and a week later my feet hurt again; now both of them, and twice as bad.”

“At first, I thought I couldn’t skate anymore, so I started taking painkillers. All athletes know that it helps for a few weeks and then it only gets worse. Because, first of all, you get addicted to the pills, and secondly, you don’t cure anything, and the problem gets worse. And so it got worse than it was. I went for another checkup. They found a fracture of the metatarsal bone in both legs.”

“According to the doctors, after the disease all my joints were weakened, my bones were not ready for the strain, though I put half as much strain as usual. What to do?…It was a huge blow to me. I realized that I would never be able to go on ice again.”

Anastasia Panina for Match TV, translated by DeepL, lightly edited for length and clarity

No one should have to go through such an experience if it can be avoided, but by putting their top stars at risk, the ISU would also be risking losing those stars from the sport. Whatever the financial impacts or inconveniences of devising a new Olympic qualifying system, the focus should always be on the athletes’ health and safety. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because the future of the sport depends on it.

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