Coronavirus: How to make sports events safe during a pandemic

Editor’s Note: This series is produced in partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO).

After months of cancellations and suspensions of sports events because of the coronavirus pandemic, athletes and teams are gradually returning to competition around the world.

While many professional leagues have resumed play behind closed doors, spectators are being allowed to attend games in some countries.

But with the virus still prevalent, confirmed cases surging and no vaccine available, is it safe to open stadiums to fans? And how can the players be better protected?

National federations, sport unions, club owners and leagues, in conversation with the WHO, have been advised to evaluate the risks of each event by answering a set of questions, making the necessary changes to mitigate those risks and then effectively communicating the steps to the public.

“The decision and protocols can only be local, sports-specific as the risks are different in different countries at different times,” Maurizio Barbeschi, senior adviser to the executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies program, told Al Jazeera.

“There is no unique set of prescriptions,” he said. “There is a baseline of guidance, which evolves with increasing knowledge, and that guidance should be used more and more to take these decisions by a risk-based approach.”

Across the globe, countries have taken different measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 – the highly contagious respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus – such as physical distancing among fans, families being allowed to sit together and limiting the number of spectators at matches .

Using a single venue or staging events outdoors, as opposed to a closed indoor setting, may reduce the risk of exposure, according to the WHO. Since older people and those with essential health conditions are at a greater risk of severe illness, their attendance could be restricted.

Use of hand sanitisers and masks, disinfecting equipment and surfaces, screening, preventing overcrowding and, where possible, shortening the duration of the event are recommended.

On the field, handshakes, hugs, high fives and spitting have been discouraged by several leagues.

Where the stadiums remain closed for fans, a “safe bubble” approach is also being taken, restricting all the participants to one location for the duration of the tournament. This model will be used in football at the European Champions League in Lisbon, Portugal next month.

Table of Contents


But authorities must also consider the risks associated with fans gathering outside of the stadiums to watch the games and celebrate, Barbeschi, the WHO expert, said

“Even if you only have the teams, staff, and journalists present, there will still be a lot of tourism associated with events, fans sitting in pubs, going to the streets, so you cannot be taking a mass gathering decision in sporting events without thinking about these broader risks, “he said.

Looking ahead, what can we expect from the postponed Tokyo Olympic Games next year and the upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar?

“Nobody has this answer,” Barbeschi said. “What I can say is that both FIFA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are using some of the best tools for monitoring the situation, the risks and they are getting the best advice.”

Follow Saba Aziz on Twitter: @saba_aziz.