Getting ready to return (again!)

Positive news abounds as all sports organisations look ahead to Feb 22 and the Prime Minister’s ‘roadmap’ for the end of Lockdown 3.

Firstly, new research has been published showing people playing sport have a very low risk of catching Covid-19 during matches – even when exposed to others on the same pitch who have the virus.

The British Journal of Sports Medicine published a study of rugby league players which, it claims, could “provide reassurances that the risk of transmission during a rugby match” is minimal.

The report summarised that the two rugby codes’ (union and league) classification as ‘high risk’ sports for Covid transmission “should be re-evaluated” and backed those advocates for the sports’ return at grassroots level.

With no rugby league or union matches having been played outside the international or elite club level since March, the report will be music to the ears of all the hundreds and thousands of community rugby clubs up and down the country who can now think about playing again – albeit with adapted rules around the number of scrums and mauls that take place.

The lead author of the report, Professor Ben Jones, looked at four Super League matches where 128 players were exposed to eight other players who developed Covid within 48 hours of playing. Some were involved in more than 30 tackles with infectious players but did not appear to catch the disease.

Elsewhere it was reported that scientists will be carrying out “real life scenarios” for further tests on balls, golf flags, boxing gloves and other sports kit to assess if they carry any risk of Covid-19 transmission.

This news followed research published which measured how the virus could be transferred from stationary sports balls and concluded it was “unlikely” they were a significant cause of transmission due to the rapid decay of the virus particles – an important finding when it comes to ministers’ decisions on the return of grassroots sports.

Prof James Calder, from Imperial College and Fortius Clinic and the independent chairman of the government’s committee on the return of elite sport, said they were now planning more tests to see whether there is even less risk after a ball has been kicked or hit.

“We haven’t looked at real-life scenarios yet where we would put the virus on to a ball, have it kicked or hit when tested. We also want to look at golf pins, boxing gloves and sports clothing to see how much of a risk there is. It could be lower still after a ball is in play rather than static,” he said.

Recent research has shown that surfaces which are slightly absorbent, like tennis balls and red cricket balls, have even less risk than football or rugby balls.

The push for a return to grassroots sport was further supported last week when a coalition of athletes, celebrities and health bodies wrote a letter to the prime minister asking for the “fullest possible support” to help sports and exercise facilities survive the pandemic.

The group – including athletes Colin Jackson, David Weir, Jonnie Peacock, Beth Tweddle and Keri-Anne Payne – said it was “deeply concerned” thousands of shut pools, gyms and leisure centres were at risk of permanent closure.

“The threat of losing these places has brought us together as a collective voice, to hope that everything is done to ensure these essential facilities are available to support our recovery, and enhance the health of the nation,” the letter – also signed by celebrities Davina McCall, David Walliams, Mel Chisholm and Zoe Ball – said.

McCall said: “Obesity and being overweight – Covid loves that. This is what we’re trying to avoid, we’ve got to get this nation fit. We’re going to do it through fitness and through people going to team sports, it’s so important.”

We reported a few weeks ago the positive news that Sport England had announced that an extra £50m was being directed towards grassroots sport after a “significant hit” to activity levels, having already invested £220m since the start of the pandemic. 

Huw Edwards, the chief executive of Ukactive, said: “This is a clear warning from our nation’s health and medical experts, academics, athletes and other champions of our sector, of the grave risk facing the mental and physical health of our communities.” 

Meanwhile, more research suggests that women’s sport has suffered the most during the pandemic.

Nottingham Trent University undertook a survey which showed that 80% of elite female athletes believe the growth of women’s sport has been “hindered by inequalities between men’s and women’s sport.” The study also found that 66% of respondents also said they had  concerns over the long-term financial effects of Covid-19 and 91% feel there is a gender pay gap. 

Dr Ali Bowes, a senior lecturer in the sociology of sport at Nottingham Trent University, said: “Research shows that women athletes have many worries about the impact of the pandemic, but are mainly concerned about the long-term financial impact on sport.

“This was often aligned with concerns about both the quantity and quality of media coverage. Disparities were exaggerated when men’s sport was able to restart much earlier, and since then, more consistently.

“The pandemic has really opened up conversations about gender inequality in sport. It emphasised the difficulties many elite sportswomen face, and in calling those out – from issues around competition cancellations, ‘elite’ football academies, testing, funding and TV coverage – it provides a possibility for stakeholders to reconsider their approach to women’s sport. 

“I think the future could look bright, but there is a need for broader cultural changes regarding women’s and girls’ involvement in sport, including normalising women’s sport as simply ‘sport’.”

 

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