….that is the question!
Sport has never had to deal with a global pandemic before. It is an unprecedented time and difficult decisions have to be made. Last season the corona virus caused the World Cup round in Nove Mesto to be held with no fans. Kontiolahti was the same and was ended a day early and then Holmenkollen was cancelled altogether.
So what of this season? Will there be biathlon? Should there be biathlon? There is a real possibility that the season could be cancelled. Here are some of the difficulties our beloved sport will have to face in the very near future.
Biathlon is a winter sport and even though cases are falling in some places around the world and the peak in Europe is passed unfortunately viruses tend to spread more easily in the winter months. If there is a second wave of corona virus is most likely to be right around the time the biathlon season is due to begin.
With 9 rounds of the World Cup, a season opener and the World Championships on the schedule for the 2020/21 season it means travelling between 10 different countries (Germany has 2 races). One of the stops on the World Cup is in Beijing, China for the Olympic test event in February but the rest are all in Europe.
Biathletes do sometimes drive between venues that are closer together but they also fly to save time. This means going through airports that obviously have people from all over the world passing through them and so the virus can be spread more easily.
Different countries also have different rules for their borders and these could change at any moment if a cluster occurs in a certain place. This might lead to airports being shut down amid a localised lockdown or borders being closed with little warning.
Socially distant racing
It’s not really possible to socially distance in a biathlon race. Maybe in the sprint and individual it would be easier but not in the head to head races or obviously the relays. There is also the question of contact with wax technicians and physiotherapists as well as race officials and journalists. The shooting mats are also shared by all the biathletes on the range and could be a source of spread.
How will the prizes be awarded? The podium is not that big to stay separate especially for the relay teams and how can you award flowers and a medal from two metres away? (Well you could try and throw the medal around the neck I suppose!)
As we saw last season biathlon without the fans is just not the same. However if mass gatherings are still banned then biathlon will be held behind closed doors possibly for the entire season.
Hopefully by the time the season opener comes around on the 28th of November in Kontiolahti these issues will not be a problem and we can go racing normally but what if we can’t?
There are a number of things the IBU could try to make sure the season goes ahead. The most radical would be to entirely change the schedule. For example in Moto GP, Formula 1 and for the Champions League the authorities are holding races and matches at one venue multiple times. Biathlon could also do this. Germany already hosts 2 World Cups so why not 3 and that would be one race block in one country with much less travel and movement involved.
Kontiolahti, Nove Mesto and Holmenkollen missed out last season with no fans and cancellations so why couldn’t they hold two races this season instead of one? The World Championship are in Pokljuka and with Antholz and Hochfilzen not so far away they could also be held around the same time. Yes it would take a lot of reorganisation and some venues would miss out but it is a possibility.
As for racing we already have a biathlon bubble. The biathlon family tends to stick together throughout the season competing, travelling and staying in local accomodation around the venues together. This should reduce the likelihood of transmission from outside sources.
Testing the biathletes and their teams and the officials regularly to make sure no one is spreading the virus will no doubt have to happen. If they were tested before returning from the breaks in the season like at Christmas or before World Championships it would find anyone who may have picked up the virus from returning home or seeing family.
However this throws up another issue about what happens if someone tests positive during a World Cup round or after coming back from the breaks? Obviously they would have to self isolate for 2 weeks but would their entire team have to do the same or the entire tour?
Travel could be made standard with all teams using chartered flights like they do already between some venues or if they choose to drive they could be always with the same people in the cars and also in the hotels at the venues. Or we could have a biathlon bus fleet!
Hopefully all the venues have been stocking up on personal protective equipment as the officials will need to wear gloves and masks when dealing with biathletes and their equipment like at the rifle checks or when fitting the transponders.
The fans is a tricky issue if there are no mass gatherings allowed in the winter. The fans make biathlon but it is still pretty watchable without them. The last two races of the season were incredible even without the crowd (but would have been even better with them!) because of the intense drama on the tracks.
Other sports have crowd noise played into the stadium to generate an atmosphere which is an option as some teams already do this in training to simulate race conditions. Also the number of spectators could be reduced to allow for more social distancing.
It is a tricky time for sport and the problems mentioned here hopefully will not come to pass. We all want biathlon to go ahead as normal this winter but it’s likely that it will have to make some changes. The possibility of behind closed doors races is probably the most likely scenario but at least that would be better than no biathlon at all!
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