By Kasey Rees
Welsh judo chief Darren Warner has warned his sport faces big challenges ahead as it continues to adjust to the consequences of the pandemic.
This week’s announcement of major breakthroughs in the progress towards a vaccination against Covid-19 was welcome news for all, but in a sporting context it offers the only long-term solution to close contact sports such as judo, boxing and rugby.
Before coronavirus, Welsh judo had been one of the sports on the rise in terms of participation. There are 80 affiliated clubs and over 2,400 members in clubs across Wales.
“Before the pandemic, membership numbers were gradually creeping up for the past five years,” says Warner, chief executive of the Welsh Judo Association.
“But because of coronavirus, the challenges for us are greater than most sports as there is no escaping the contact side of it.
“We are following the Welsh government guidelines around all indoor activity returning and how to make it safe.”
The Be Active Wales Fund – administered by Sport Wales and funded by National Lottery and Welsh Government – helped sporting communities stay active throughout recent lockdowns.
Warner has also been overseeing changes to local judo clubs in Wales to ensure a safe return to the sport.
“The first lockdown was difficult with a lot of social media talk about mental health and that was clearly a prominent factor for so many people,” he adds.
“The lockdown made people realise how important judo is to them and their community in terms of both physical and mental health.”
In October the sport celebrated World Judo Day, with this year’s theme ‘Stronger Together’ conveying the message of strength through unity. It was a fitting theme for what the world is currently going though due to the global crisis.
Warner adds: “When restrictions were first lifted and contact sport resumed, we started off with indoor socially distant training, in which we have been gradually building towards one-on-one.
“We were looking into people training with one person in a bubble to reduce the risk. It’s been challenging as nobody knew what to expect with the virus as we have never dealt with it before.
“When it first happened, we planned for three months. Now it is almost a year and the end isn’t in sight.”
Warner seem similarities between judo and rugby, not only in terms of the close grappling of physical combat, but their roles and significance in villages and towns across the country.
Like judo, rugby clubs have been able to resume training, but with severe restrictions and grass roots clubs are still awaiting any date for when they might be able to get back to playing matches.
“I am English but the thing that strikes me about an Englishman coming to Wales is the passion of the Welsh people. The sense of community between the Welsh people is stronger here.
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“I am not sure if anyone in England agrees with me, but it really works well. I see a lot of similarities in judo to rugby, as it is a very popular sport in Wales and there are passionate players and coaches.
“I often feel that there is a big overlap between the two sports, physically but it also has the same sense of community.
“The clubs are doing a great job, especially in these very uncertain times.”