On May 5, a nine-year-old took centrestage at the Suwon Baseball Stadium, South Korea. He had been given the privileged task of throwing the first pitch to mark the resumption of the country’s baseball league that had been halted because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The boy was placed inside a plastic bubble designed to look like a baseball, which was made to roll towards the home plate. In many ways, that ‘bubble’ is the symbol for social distancing is a metaphor for what the sporting world will need to do to fight the pandemic. And with the use of a ‘bio-bubble,’ there are now plans for major competitions to resume.
A bio-bubble is essentially the securing of a sanitised area that can be accessed by only a certain set of people — all of whom need to be clear of coronavirus. The bubble has been tested briefly in the last few months, over exhibition tennis events involving players who live near the stadium, and even in the German Bundesliga, where players are to stay at a hotel seven days prior to a match. Now several major competitions are poised to resume, with protocols in place.
Basketball’s marquee league has decided to resume the season by moving all teams still in the running for the playoffs — 22 out of 30 — to the 25,000-acre Disneyworld in Florida. At the moment, the park has been shut to the public, and will open its gates only for the 22 teams, that are expected to follow staggered travel plans to Orlando. Inside the venue is the 220-acre ESPN Wide World of Sports — a sports complex with three arenas, each capable of fitting 20 courts, and equipped with facilities for broadcasting. All matches will be played without spectators. There is a wide array of hotels for players, although the NBA is expected to house players in just one.
With all teams at one venue, it eliminates the risk of players being infected during travel.
Prior to coming to Orlando, guidelines have been issued. Teams are scheduled to assemble at their respective bases by June 30, where players are expected to be tested. Only those who test negative will be allowed to travel. Thereon, teams — with no more than 35 personnel, including players and support staff — will travel to Orlando no later than July 7, where they will be in quarantine for 36 hours.
US Open (tennis)
It is still unclear if the United State Tennis Association (USTA) will cancel the US Open, but the governing body has put forward plans in case the events fall into place.
Since most players are abroad, the USTA will help organise chartered flights. To board the plane each player (and the one member of their entourage they are allowed to bring), will need to undergo a Covid-19 test and also be symptom-free. Once in New York, players will undergo temperature checks and follow-up tests, and will be ferried to a designated hotel equipped with physiotherapists, and facilities for training and testing. Players’ movement in New York will be restricted between the hotel and the stadium.
The draw will remain of 128 players, but there will no qualification round, no junior or legends events, and the doubles draw may be reduced to 24 teams (from the original 64).
As for the French Open, as reported by Spanish newspaper Marca, the major which is scheduled to take place a week after the conclusion of the US Open (September 20) will start with a draw of 96 instead of the usual 128 for the men’s and women’s singles events.
Windies in England (cricket)
The 25-player and 11-person support staff of the West Indies team has left for England, in two chartered planes, after having tested negative. Upon arrival in Manchester, the team will stay at an on-site hotel at Old Trafford, where they will self-isolate for two weeks, but will be allowed to train once they clear a follow-up test. The players are expected to play a three-day and a four-day matches among themselves. In the meantime, they are not allowed to leave the stadium or hotel. For the first Test in Southampton from July 8, the England and Wales Cricket Board has planned the bubble to include a hotel adjoining the stadium, with everybody being tested and nobody to leave the bubble throughout the duration.
Premier League (football)
The league is expected to resume on June 17. The strict protocol in the lead-up includes sanitisation of corner flags, goalposts, balls, cones and practice pitches after each training session. Players are to be tested twice a week, and undergo temperature checks and pre-training questionnaires daily.
For the first phase of training, players are prohibited from coming in contact or tackling, and they are to drive to training themselves and not use public transport.
The league has confirmed that leaders Liverpool, just six points away from securing the title, will be allowed to win the league at their home stadium Anfield. This is despite reservations from police, who fear fans may flock outside the stadium to celebrate. The police have also listed several ‘high-risk’ matches – including Manchester United versus Sheffield United, Tottenham versus West Ham and West Ham versus Chelsea.
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German Bundesliga (football)
In the month before the May 16 resumption, players were tested at least twice a week and quarantined for a week ahead of the opening game. The German federation will pay for the 20,000 tests that the Bundesliga will conduct — approximately 0.4% of the country’s capacity — to complete the season. According to Sports Illustrated, conducting the remaining eight games per team to complete the league has around $800 million at stake.
Players, additionally, are barred from interacting with visitors at home or using public transport. They are to be kept under security around the clock, and are not to share hotel rooms. They are to sit at least two metres apart during meals, and will enter hotels using exclusive entrances where their temperatures are checked each time. In the team bus, they will all sit metres apart.
Schalke has arranged the purchase of groceries for all its players, which will be left in sanitised baskets for them to take home. Borussia Dortmund will use multiple locker rooms at its home ground, Signal Iduna Park. During matches, reserve players will not be in the dugout, but in the first row of the stands with masks.
For each match, there will be no more than 322 people allowed in and around the stadium complex. This includes eight groundkeepers, three photographers, four ball kids, four medical personnel, security guards, doping control, journalists, police and support staff.
La Liga (football)
The Spanish top flight returned on June 11 after a 91-day break. Training had resumed early in May, with all players, coaching staff and team doctors tested daily, and remaining personnel involved at least three thrice a week. Starting May 4, players were allowed to train only individually, and a week later, no more than 12 players were allowed to train at a given time — six on one pitch. The full squad was allowed practice a week after that, with members being tested constantly.
Players were to come to training grounds individually, in a staggered manner, already dressed in their kits. Players were given training kits a day earlier in biodegradable bags. After going home they would place the dirty kits in the bags, and bring them for washing to the club the next day, according to the BBC. Only three players were allowed per dressing room, and their kits and boots were placed far apart. Meanwhile, food was placed in individual bags in the canteen.
Players who had tested positive earlier were to go into isolation prior to resumption of training. If a player tests positive after the restart, the entire team will be placed in quarantine, and if there is a second outbreak, the league will be stopped.
This article first appeared in the print edition on June 16, 2020 under the title ‘Sports inside a bubble’.
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