The outlook for the Olympics

 Stéphane Bermon MD PhD

Director of World Athletics Health and Science Department

by Kay Hare

We interviewed Bermon regarding the Olympics last year before anyone would have guessed that the games would have to be postponed. With the new global situation, there are many changes for everyone not least in the sports industry which relies on spectators and competitive interaction. Stéphane is Director of the Health and Science Department at World Athletics, based in Monaco. The IOC overlooks the rules and regulations of the Olympics as well as primarily ensuring the health and wellbeing of the athletes as well as the spectators. What lies ahead for the next Olympics? 

Stéphane is Director of the Health and Science Department at World Athletics, based in Monaco

The Olympics has been put off until 2021 in Tokyo the dates will be 23 July to 8 August 2021. Is this likely to change again?

No, it will happen at these dates or be canceled. The Japanese authorities, the IOC, and the city of Tokyo have been clear on this point.

As a doctor do you think we will find a vaccine soon? Some people think as soon as we find a vaccine for Covid 19 there will be another virus on its way? Is this realistic?

It is likely that several efficient vaccines will be successfully found and tested against the SARS CoV-2, the virus responsible for the COVID-19, around summer 2021. However, the aspects of production and vaccination campaigns have been poorly addressed so far. Indeed, the WHO recently recommended having at least two billion persons vaccinated around the world to have a significant effect on the spreading of the virus, hence the pandemic situation. Although several laboratories and their contractors (many of them Indian) prepared themselves for such a massive production, vaccinating two billion individuals in five continents represents a serious logistical challenge. Moreover, some laboratories are working on vaccines that would need not only a single injection but likely a primary injection and a boost some weeks later. Finance may also represent a challenge as we have diverging information on the sale price and orders placed by governments. A risk of outbidding is not excluded. Long story short: if a vaccine is available and produced in large quantities in August 2021, it will take several additional weeks to implement vaccination campaigns.

What sort of mindset do athletes have to embrace to handle postponed dates and how do they keep their momentum up for dates that keep changing?

Taking part in the Olympic Games is the ultimate goal for an athlete. However, one should remember that they should also attend national, continental, and international championships, tournaments to show their talent and also to earn their living. Elite athletes are by essence very resilient and motivated and most of them have developed countermeasures and strategies to keep on training and stay fit. However, a contracted athlete should take part in competitions to gain prize money but also bonuses and salaries from their sponsor. With the lockdown and the restriction related to COVID-19, most athletes have lost considerable incomes by lack of participation in events but also because of sponsors’ budget cuts. 

The athletes involved have all effectively lost a year? Does this mean that some of them may not participate next year?

In theory, and with exception of those who had decided to retire in 2020 after the Olympics, most athletes planning to attend the 2020 Olympic Games may attend the 2021 rescheduled Games. However, international federations actually struggle to organize qualifying events for the Olympic Games, because of the pandemic. Indeed, to qualify for the Olympic Games, most sports require athletes to achieve some minimal performances and mark a minimum of points to qualify for the Olympic Games, the year before the Games. In agreement with the International Olympic Committee, each international federation is actually trying to find a sport-specific solution to qualify athletes. It is not simple.

Do you think healthy fit athletes are mostly immune to the covid? What sort of precautions are athletes taking if any?

It is difficult to answer this question with certainty. As they are young and healthy, it is very likely that athletes will develop an asymptomatic or a minor form of COVID-19, should they be infected by SARS CoV-2. Whether or not elite athletes are more prone to this kind of viral infection remains to be proven. Well before the COVID-19 pandemic athletes have been cautious re the infectious risk. After musculoskeletal injuries, infections (most of the time viral) are the second reason for an elite to miss a training session or a competition. This is why elite athletes are likely to be more cautious and motivated with respect to social distancing, hand hygiene, and the use of masks than the general population.

Will the stadium capacity change dramatically now due to crowd management and spacing between seats?

Yes, it is already the case in Football, Rugby, Tennis, and Athletics. Reduction of capacity is often superior to 70% and this also represents a loss of incomes for clubs and event organisers. The market for mass road running is also suffering a lot since March 2020. Many companies organising mass participation events in Triathlon, Running, Cycling is bankrupt because of the pandemic.

What sort of things are you focusing on at World Athletics with regard to the well being of the athletes and the general public that attend the Olympics?

World Athletics in its recent strategic plan emphasized several topics that are related to health, safety, and well-being. It will be too long to explain them here, but we are working on important topics such as the prevention of doping, abuse, and harassment in Athletics. Monitoring air quality and raising awareness for athletes on air quality is also very important for us. Many marathons are actually taking place in cities where air quality is poor and individuals exercising in these cities are at higher health risk. Promoting a healthy lifestyle through Athletics is important, and we are in the process of revisiting our tools and contents to develop kids athletically. Developing Athletics at the grass-root level is necessary for the number one sport at the Summer Olympic Games.

Last but not least we have of course developed risk assessment and risk management tools and mitigation measures toward the COVID-19. As for all sports, it is important to reboot Athletics to allow mass participation and elite competition at a certain level. There are here obvious public health and also economic consequences. We have recently organised a world championship where all accredited persons were tested before flying to the competition site but also once arrived on site. New methods of detection of viral genetic material are now available, as a point of care diagnostic devices, at a reasonable cost, and give results as reliable as the RT-PCR (Reverse Transcriptase – Polymerase Chain Reaction) is a molecular biology method which amplifies genetic material (a part of the genome of a particular virus for instance) to detect microorganism. It is considered the gold standard for the diagnosis of COVID-19 infection. This is a game-changer for the sports world.

Where do you see the Olympics in say 10 years time? For example, will more people watch online and events specifically designed for this? Or will there be smaller events that are more focused on less traveling for athletes, public and designed with specific sports in mind? For example, having the racket sports confined to one event and track running, etc.

It is difficult to say. Physically attending Olympic Games is unique and there will always be spectators for these events. However, I think that the IOC in particular and sports governing bodies, in general, will have to address the issue of sustainability. Young generations who are tomorrow sports consumers are very aware and committed to these environmental aspects. This must be taken into account. Similarly, it is more and more difficult for sports federations and the IOC to find bidding cities to host major championships and Olympic Games. Instead of adding lines and expenses to event specifications, one should rather downscale the system in a more sustainable way. For instance, hosting Championships or Olympic Games twice in a row in the same city could considerably reduce the carbon print, expenses, and optimise local resources.

For more information:

Tokyo 2020

IOC Monaco 

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