Little more than eight months ago, Asian Athletics Association President Dahlan Al Hamad, in his capacity as Vice President of the local organising committee, watched as the curtain came down on the World Athletics Championships Doha 2019.
For the nation of Qatar, their long-held dreams of hosting the event had become reality. But for the world of athletics – not that anyone could have predicted it back then – it would be the last global championships of any kind for at least another 12 months.
The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted every aspect of life across the world, athletics included, and for many the focus is now on the next stage of recovery and slowly getting back to the ‘old’ normal.
For athletics in Asia, being the largest continent in the world – in terms of size and population – brings its own set of challenges.
“This pandemic is a tragedy for everyone all over the world, not just in Asia, and we’d like to offer our condolences to the families of anyone who has lost someone,” says Al Hamad. “But there is also hope to this pandemic, and the lockdown has given us the opportunity to review our life, review our sports activities, and to spend more time with our families.
“Asia has about 4 billion people, which is more than half of the world’s population, and it spans several time zones. This continent is really big. All of that means we at the Asian Athletics Association have a big responsibility.
“We don’t just communicate with athletes; we communicate with countries, with sports authorities in Asia, and with families. Any communication has to be really clear to show the importance of the sport. This pandemic has allowed us to communicate more often and more efficiently.”
One of the other challenges they faced is the fact that Asia – or, more specifically, the Chinese city of Wuhan – was the epicentre of the initial outbreak, so several countries on the continent were the first to head into the unknown.
“When the pandemic started, it began in Asia before spreading to the rest of the world,” explains Al Hamad. “People were shocked and were desperate because they didn’t know what would happen. The athletes and the families of the athletes were really disturbed. The athletes didn’t know what the solution was or what their training programme was going to be. People were anxious, remember: athletes in Asia were going into lockdown while watching other athletes around the world continuing to train and even compete. At that stage, no one knew that this would be a global pandemic.
“We, as a federation, have a responsibility to guide and advise athletes. But we also have to understand that there are restrictions from governments that we cannot cross, for example with lockdowns in each country, so we have to obey the systems from each government.
“But people are now beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. They are also getting used to living through a pandemic and finding ways to handle it.”
The wonders of modern technology
Like many business and organisations, the Asian Athletics Association (AAA) had to adapt to new ways of working. All staff at the head office in Bangkok started working from home, and technology started to play a much bigger part in their day-to-day operations.
“Things have to continue and people have to remain engaged,” says Al Hamad. “We’ve been using Zoom as a communications platform for our member federations and the media. We’ve managed to conduct many online courses, in India, Hong Kong and even in remote places like Palestine.
“We also had our Council Meeting online, which was attended by World Athletics President Sebastian Coe, and it was really successful. We asked our medical commission to do an analysis and then provide guidelines for our athletes, coaches and administrators for coping with this situation.”
Instead of trying to remedy all of the issues across the whole of the world’s largest continent, Al Hamad instead addressed each of the five regions – Central, Eastern, Western, South, and Southeast – as each had its own unique set of concerns.
“We conducted meetings with the member federation presidents and general secretaries from each region,” he explained. “We gave a presentation about the developments, explained the courses that are on offer, spoke about the calendar, and had question-and-answer sessions. These meetings really helped us to understand the needs of each region, and we came away from them with good feedback for the future. It will also prepare them for the next stage of the pandemic.
“Because of the lack of resources in Asia, we’ve not always been able to conduct meetings with our commissions and committees. But in recent months our commissions and committees have had many meetings, and I’ve really enjoyed being able to engage with them.
“Before, we used to travel to meetings, whereas now we’ve been meeting online – and more often too. The number of meetings can be seen as exhausting, but for me it’s a good thing because it feels like we’re still moving forward.”
Athletes as role models
Many of the best athletes in Asia have also turned to technology as a way to stay engaged – not just with their coaches and support teams, but also with their fan base.
“They’ve been sharing videos on Instagram and Snapchat, showing how they’ve been training at home and encouraging the wider community to stay at home,” says Al Hamad. “In the beginning it was hard because the athletes were separated from their coaches, but technology has allowed them to communicate and given them a way to train.
“Our top athletes understand that they have a responsibility. They see that this is going to affect them, their friends and their families. So the engagement on social media was really welcome in Asia and all over the world. And I’d like to thank them for sharing all of their positive posts on social media and setting a good example. Their images represent their countries and Asia, and we encourage them to continue sharing them.
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“The athletes have been the ones who’ve really suffered, because they’ve lost almost a whole season, they feel as though they’ve wasted all their preparation for the season, it’s all gone,” he adds. “We need to show them that this isn’t the end; this is a new beginning and, with our help, it can be a good start.
“We don’t know what will happen next year or the year after, but we’re always learning. We have to prepare ourselves.”
Looking to the future
Now that lockdown has been eased in most countries, attention has now turned to returning to training venues and holding competitions, albeit sometimes in a modified format.
The Asian Athletics Association is trying to help its member federations in taking the next steps back to normality, but they’ve also had time to reflect on the lessons they’ve learned over the past few months.
“As an organisation, our level of communication has improved,” says Al Hamad. “We hope that this continues. It’s not going to be just for this period, this communication has done a lot for us. We have to be very practical in the ways that we support and work with each other. We also know that it’s important to listen to the opinions of medical professionals.
“We keep monitoring the virus and we continue to communicate with our member federations. We’ve also encouraged them to follow the guidance from World Athletics’ health and science department. Our member federations know that they can reach us any time if they have a question. We need to help them because this is not easy.
“Many lessons have been learned from this,” he adds. “One of them is to understand that in this life, nothing is guaranteed. You have to be prepared for the worst scenario.
“More than anything, though, it has also underlined the importance of caring for one another. So I think it is important to focus on the positives that can come from this pandemic.”
Jon Mulkeen for World Athletics