Elite sport is slowly returning. Some, like professional football, are preparing to resume competition, but for most it’s about small steps to resume training. But while some sports get on to their starting blocks, others are still waiting outside the stadium – and there is also a difference between Wales and England, as Sport Wales CEO Brian Davies tells Graham Thomas.
Sport Wales acting chief executive Brian Davies insists the country’s top athletes will not get left behind their rivals in the race to be ready again for major competitions.
Welsh elite athletes in all sports are still waiting for a green light to resume training as some of the lockdown restrictions start to ease across other parts of the UK.
In England, some of those athletes returned to socially distanced training in mid-May and are now able to move to close contact training provided their sport’s governing body has put in place various protocols and hygiene measures.
The situation differs in Wales where elite athletes are mostly training alone, and most facilities remain closed, ahead of the next Welsh government review on June 19.
That difference in approach has led to some elite Welsh athletes feeling left behind – like runners in a staggered start at the beginning of an 800 metre race.
But Davies believes once major factors are considered, then there will be no significant gap. Once the first bend is reached, then athletes will all have re-bunched as they race towards a resumption of their major tournaments.
“If some of our Welsh elite athletes feel they have been left behind and been disadvantaged, then we have to look at that and see whether that is the case,” says Davies.
“If they have been, then we need to do something about it. But, generally, I don’t think that will have been the case.
“In England, they made the announcement three weeks ago to allow some elite athletes to go back to training, but in reality – because of the amount of work that needs to be put in – very few have gone back so far.
“The public health messages and outcomes are the priority. They cannot be risked and so it takes a lot of time to set-up the necessary arrangements and protocols.
“We may be a couple of weeks or so behind in Wales in terms of announcements, but the reality for most athletes is that they are not very far behind others – and if they are it’s for the right reasons.”
The other consideration Davies believes has to be taken into account is the changed sporting landscape.
Competitions have been suspended, tournaments put on hold or moved back. The Olympic and Paralympic athletes are working to a revised timetable and even those planning for the next Commonwealth Games are feeling the knock-on effects.
The full-time professionals at Cardiff City and Swansea City may have resumed training, but football in both the Premier League and the Championship now has confirmed dates for the resumption of matches.
“We have to be realistic in all sports,” adds Davies. “There is no point rushing back into full training, if you have no competition in place. What are you then coming back for?
“In football, they have a date and they have put in place training plans to meet that date. If you don’t have a date, then there is no rush and the best strategy is to make sure the plans are put in action.
“Even for our Olympic athletes, there are no dates yet for their new qualifying competitions. It may well be that the best thing for many athletes at present is just to keep ticking over with their core training and not do anything significant.
“That may vary a little from sport to sport and the athletes have to be at the forefront of our thinking all the time.
“If there are issues then we need to react, but for the moment so long as we keep the athletes involved in the decision-making process, then I think we should be okay.”
Until the next Welsh government review, elite Welsh athletes will continue to train alone, mainly in public spaces.
They can now be coached on a one-to-one basis provided their coach lives locally and maintains a social distance – but until their sport has a plan in place, then other training facilities will not yet re-open in the way the training grounds of the professional football clubs have done.
To ensure those plans meet Welsh government approval, Sport Wales have streamlined various working groups into three main ones – representing outdoor sports, indoor sports and elite and professional sport.
They will be feeding their findings back to Sport Wales who are consulting with Welsh government on the way ahead.
With new procedures needing to be put in place – these could range from Covid19 officers appointed, social distancing rules, cleansing and screening athletes for symptoms – there could be concerns in many sports about the issue of cost.
But Davies says initial costs for the sports for which they have responsibility, will be absorbed by Sport Wales and that as costs increase, then funds such as the sports resilience fund should meet the extra obligations.
🏴 Welsh athletes are facing challenges to get back to competition.
🗣️ Our acting CEO @BrianDavies09 gives his thoughts on the current situation.
— sportwales (@sportwales) June 5, 2020
The final factor – for all sports to consider – is that the return to training will be gradual, phased, and will likely move faster in some sports than others.
“There is not going to be an automatic return to sport for all sports and all clubs,” says Davies.
“Initially, only a small cohort of elite athletes will benefit from the easing of restrictions to allow training back at facilities.
“It’s not going to be all athletes and all sports in one go. The lessons we learn will then be fed into the wider cohort of athletes and sports.
“It’s going to need patience. But, overall, I have been buoyed by the response of the Welsh sports fraternity. They really do understand why these restrictions have been in place and they don’t want to rush back and risk public health.”