Surprise! There’s still one more event left in the 2020/2021 season!
World Team Trophy coming after the climax of the World Championships always catches skating fans off guard, but has done even more so this year when almost every other competition has been cancelled. So, what is this event, why is it happening, and how do its safely protocols measure up?
World Team Trophy is, you guessed it, a team event similar to the team competition that was introduced at the 2014 Winter Olympics. The six highest-ranked national teams at the end of the season send a team of four singles skaters (two men and two women), one dance team, and one pairs team, who compete in a short and long program. Teams score points based on how their skaters rank in each segment, with 12 points for first, 11 for second, 10 for third, and so on. Medals are awarded to the top three ranked teams, but crucially, all teams receive prize money, which we’ll get into more later on.
World Team Trophy started in 2009 and is held every two years, always in Japan. When the first event was announced, then-ISU President Ottavio Cinquanta said the goal of the event was to encourage countries to develop top competitors in all disciplines. However, since the event’s inception, only seven countries have ever competed, with only the US and Japan winning gold and the only other medals being won by Russia and Canada.
The 2011 version of the event was cancelled following the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami and rescheduled to 2012, but the 2021 event is, as of writing, still going ahead, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. So why is the event going ahead and why would skaters choose to attend?
WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?
Honestly, who knows. With coronavirus spreading very quickly and the host city of Osaka recently being put under a state of emergency, holding a large international sporting event seems unnecessary and unwise. The prefecture governor recently cancelled the Olympic torch relay leg scheduled to start in Osaka on April 14th, the day before World Team Trophy. And given concerns about the Summer Olympics being able to go on in just a few months, it wouldn’t be surprising for the government to step in and cancel World Team Trophy, as the Montreal government did with Worlds last year, but it is shocking they haven’t done so yet with the event less than a week away.
In terms of ISU and federation incentive, it’s hard to say. There was some degree of urgency with Worlds since they were an Olympic qualifier, but World Team Trophy has no impact on next year’s season. Any benefit from holding the event isn’t sporting, it’s monetary. Sure, there’s lots of lost revenue to make up from the mostly cancelled season, which also explains why tickets are still on sale for a live audience, but of course athlete safety should come first.
And why would athletes themselves choose to compete here? Well, for many of them, they don’t have much of a choice.
If you read the rules for participation from the World Team Trophy announcement, you’ll notice an emphasis on making sure top ranked skaters are present. National teams can be excluded from the event if one or more top skaters are missing and they repeatedly invoke the “Priority Participation” rule from the ISU General Regulations. That clause says that ISU Members (ie. national federations) are obligated to give priority to top-ranked skaters for certain ISU Events, which isn’t too shocking, but it also states that “Skaters who refuse to participate in such ISU Events, without medical or other justified reasons, shall be subject to sanctions.” Basically, anyone who finished in the top ten at Worlds who skips World Team Trophy without a “justified reason” can be sanctioned by the ISU.
Now “justified reason” is pretty subjective, but the guidelines for proving a medical or other reason are pretty lengthy and strict, and also seem to suggest that any skater withdrawn can be completely banned from skating events until the ISU says so. In fact, after the first event in 2009, Canadian ice dancer Scott Moir essentially confirmed the ISU’s willingness to invoke those kinds of penalties.
“We weren’t exactly forced to participate, but the ISU told us if we didn’t come, we wouldn’t be allowed to do anything else for the rest of the year, including shows.”Scott Moir to The Toronto Star, April 20, 2009
Is that to say every athlete competing is being forced against their will? Of course not. With the lack of events this season, many are probably genuinely excited to be able to compete. There are plenty of skaters in the lineup who didn’t even go to Worlds and for whom this is their first international competition in over a year.
Plus, the prize money on offer is no joke. The total prize pool is one million USD awarded on a sliding scale, with $200,000 to the top team and $130,000 to the sixth-place team. Following the rules on how that money is divided up and how much the federation can take, the least a skater can earn from World Team Trophy is just shy of $15,000. ($130,000 for 6th place team – 10% fed cut ($13,000) / 8 = $14,625) Sure, it’s not like what you get from winning a world title, but that money can make a huge difference, especially for skaters who aren’t in that top tier with sponsorship deals and major federation funding.
Despite the COVID situation in Japan and the number of international participants involved, the two-week quarantine that is usually required for travelers entering Japan has been waived for athletes coming for the event. In fact, all of the five countries sending athletes to the event (in addition to Japan) have shown slight or significant increases in coronavirus cases since Worlds two weeks ago, so travel is even riskier than it was then.
In contrast with Worlds, the exact safety measures for World Team Trophy have not been posted publicly by the ISU. However, the event website was recently updated to add brief mention of testing requirements and some kind of bubble being implemented for the event. Part of the schedule has also been modified based on measures to prevent coronavirus spread, but as of writing, an audience will still be present at 50% capacity.
Even if there were extremely strict measures outlined, the lack of rule enforcement at the World Championships doesn’t inspire confidence that there will be any consequences for anyone who does exhibit unsafe behavior. So, once again, athletes are being pressured, coerced, or even forced to participate in an event where their safety is not a priority.
Honestly, it’s hard to be excited about World Team Trophy in a normal year after the hangover from the World Championships, but it’s even harder this year when the event shouldn’t even be happening. Nonetheless, the presence of many top skaters means we’ll see a repeat of many of the exciting matchups from Worlds, and once the event ends, we’ll officially be in an Olympic season, so perhaps it will serve as a nice preview of good things yet to come.
World Team Trophy starts on April 15th and ends April 18th.