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Skaters speak out about Worlds safety

With nearly the entire international calendar of the 2020/2021 figure skating season being cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the decision to hold the World Championships this month as planned has raised more than a few eyebrows. Measures have been announced to create a “bubble” for the competition, but the need for international travel and lack of quarantine period before entering the bubble introduce a great deal of risk.

While there were surely hopes that the pandemic would have mostly passed by now, that certainly isn’t the case, particularly in the Worlds host nation. At time of writing, Sweden ranks #13 in the world for daily average increase in cases per 100,000 people and still has a notably lax coronavirus response strategy.

Especially from the outside, it can be easy to look at these factors and say that the safest thing would be to postpone or cancel the World Championships, but what about from the inside? Surely skaters and federations have more information and might have a different perspective on the event’s organization.

Thoughts from the Skaters

Perhaps unsurprisingly, skaters have been cautious in their statements or completely silent. Figure skating is still a very political, subjectively judged sport, so athletes always have to walk a fine line when talking about ISU decisions since making officials angry could have significant impacts on their results.

Those who have spoken out have mostly skirted that issue by instead emphasizing their focus on personal health and safety. When asked on US Figure Skating’s Instagram story how he would spend his time on the plane to Stockholm, Jason Brown responded with a photo of himself double masking with a face shield and stressed attempts to stay safe while travelling.

From US Figure Skating’s Instagram story, March 12, 2021

In a video press conference, Nathan Chen shared similar concerns about international travel.

“I can’t lie and say I’m not (anxious),” said Chen. “I know in theory airplanes are safe but there’s still an issue, especially on international flights, where people will be taking off their masks to eat and bathrooms are always sketchy.”

“So I have my anxieties about the travel but I will do my very best to keep my mask from slipping and obviously double masking throughout the flight and praying I don’t get sick.”

Courtesy of Reuters

Even back in December, Yuzuru Hanyu stressed the importance of health and safety concerns when considering the possibility of Worlds.

“However, assuming the World Championships will still be happening, what we have to face until then is, without doubt, the coronavirus with society as a whole.”

“The first thing is to stay healthy and there’s nothing I’d like more than to be able to quickly see and live in a world where we can go on with our (normal) athlete (activities), so I’d like to spend my time working towards that.”

“The kind of performance I want to show, and the things I want to express, ultimately, I cannot do any of that without being healthy. So firstly, I’d like to take good care of my body and also the people around me. I want to contribute what I can, as seriously as I can and with pride, in order to protect figure skating, which itself is something precious to me.”

From a December 28th interview with FSTV, translation from Axel with Wings

None have explicitly mentioned the ISU or event organizers, but Chen came the closest to calling out other events that have been held unsafely.

“Number one (concern) is making sure everyone is being responsible about wearing their masks, social distancing, taking this seriously.”

“Not to name names but I have seen how events have been run the past year and things didn’t seem to be structured well.”

“As long as everyone’s staying proactive and being responsible about the requirements, what they’re supposed to do, as well as having repercussions for not wearing masks or doing other things, I think that’d be better.”

Perhaps the strongest statement on the uncertainty and potential riskiness of Worlds came not in words but in actions when Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron announced their withdrawal from the event back in January. However, given that the ISU is still using Worlds as the main Olympic qualifying event, many athletes will feel that they cannot make the same decision, even if they don’t wish to attend.

In a March 15th press conference, Kristin Moore-Towers said she and partner Michael Marinaro did not expect Worlds would take place, but, “once it was an Olympic qualifier, we knew for sure we were going to do it.”

By continuing to make Worlds an Olympic qualifier, the ISU is more-or-less forcing top-level skaters to travel to the event and introducing severe consequences for withdrawing. National governing bodies will likewise be pressuring their athletes to attend Worlds for their country’s sake or risk backlash from the federation. The vast majority of skaters really have no power to stand up to the ISU on this.

Who else can help?

So, who would have the power to criticize the ISU or call for the event’s cancellation if it appears unsafe?

While there are a few national federations who could have the power to influence ISU decisions, none have done so, at least not publicly. The Russian federations is unquestionably the most influential, but as evidenced by their domestic events this season, they clearly have no concern for COVID risks. US Figure Skating still holds a great deal of influence, and it’s possible some of the safety measures for Worlds were recommended or demanded by USFS given how closely they mirror what was implemented for Skate America and US Nationals, but the federation has not made any public statements of record.

The Canadian federation initially said that they might not be able to send skaters to Worlds, but backed down from that position, and while the Japanese speed skating organization did not send their athletes to the speed skating World Cup recently, there has been no suggestion of holding back figure skaters from Worlds.

The last hope for event oversight would be the local government where the competition is taking place, as we saw with Worlds last year where the city of Montreal stepped in and cancelled the event when the ISU did not. Unfortunately, the Swedish government has not had a coherent coronavirus response strategy at any point during the pandemic and it does not seem that they are about to start now. (To be clear, the ISU did not intentionally pick a host nation who would allow them to skirt coronavirus safety measures–Stockholm was announced as the host city in June 2018–but it has certainly been convenient in their event planning.)

So that’s where we are: the 2021 World Figure Skating Championships appear to be going ahead, as planned, and as an Olympic qualifier. Whether athletes or federations will respond differently if there is unpunished rule-breaking is another discussion entirely, and hopefully one we won’t need to have.

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