While the coronavirus pandemic shut down most of the world by the latter half of March, the spread of the virus itself progressed in phases. By late May, when some parts of the world were beginning to ease out of lockdown, South America became one of its most lethal epicentres. Brazil has been especially hard hit, with more than 2 million cases of Covid-19 reported and over 80,000 deaths. Peru and Chile, with nearly 700,000 cases and more than 20,000 reported deaths combined, have also been badly affected.
“The impact in our region has been really, really hard,” said Helio Marinho Gesta de Melo, President of the South American confederation ConSudAtle, speaking from his home in Manaus, the capital of the northwest state of Amazonas. “In Brazil, we went past 80,000 deaths, which is unbelievable. Four months ago we had no idea that this could be possible.
“But it has also hit us at a different speed."
Manaus was hit hard in late April and May, he said, “but now everything seems like normal. But on the other hand, other areas in Brazil and some other countries, especially in the southern part of the continent, are struggling very much."
Competition season wiped out
The sport in South America has also been impacted in a much different way than in other parts of the world.
European, North American and some Asian and African athletes found themselves locked down prior to their main summer season, impacting their ability to train. But in South America, athletes found themselves in lockdown during what was to be their main competition season.
"We had events planned for late March and early April and they were all cancelled, De Melo said. “Athletes couldn't go to the track and train and we did not have those competitions.”
While most South American athletes are still locked out of their usual training facilities, some exceptions are being made for a few high level athletes, who are being granted access to training facilities, De Melo said, “in very limited and restricted situations”. One example is Argentina who recently began allowing their Olympic qualified athletes to train in facilities which otherwise remain closed.
Closed borders have all but halted travel between countries in the region, while connections to the rest of the world are essentially non-existent.
But there was good news in recent weeks for some of the region’s athletes who have already qualified for the postponed Tokyo 2020 Games.
Brazil’s Olympic Committee secured permission to send around 200 athletes from 16 sports - 28 from athletics - to a training camp in Portugal for the next several months. Some athletes from other sports, who will be based at the Rio Maior Sports Complex, began arriving earlier this week. The athletics group will leave Brazil in early August.
All athletes were tested for Covid-19 prior to departure and again upon arrival in Lisbon where they were required to remain in quarantine for 48 hours before they could begin training. They hope to also be allowed to compete later this summer in other European Union countries.
Colombia’s Olympic Committee managed a similar arrangement for a group of more than 100 athletes who arrived in Spain earlier this week. Five of those were from athletics, but two were not able to travel because they could not comply with the protocol, De Melo said. They too were tested for the virus prior to departure. While they won’t all be required to stay in Spain, they will have to comply with a mandatory 14-day quarantine when they do arrive at their final destination.
For some athletes, such as Venezuela’s world triple jump champion Yulimar Rojas, who is based in Spain, and Olympic pole vault champion Thiago Braz, who is based in Formia, Italy, the situation is obviously easier. “Those athletes should be okay with their season.”
But back in South America, it’s proven nearly impossible to look ahead.
“It’s difficult to understand how (the pandemic) is going to evolve and when we're going to be free of that,” De Melo said. “Our calendar has been halted and we have no idea when we'll be back.”
At the moment, none of the 13 countries in the area federation are holding competitions but they remain in regular contact through a working group set up in June to facilitate a regular flow of information during the pandemic. By most accounts, the earliest that competitions will resume on the continent will be in November or December, De Melo said.
“We're trying to motivate the federations so they can adapt the season to the current circumstances, to start in November and December so we can count these competitions towards the world rankings and Olympic qualification,” De Melo said. And to take advantage of the more suitable southern hemisphere weather.
New ways of working
The pandemic working group channel is just one of the ways in which ConSudAtle has altered how it functions since lockdowns swept much of the globe. Like their colleagues in other area and member federations - along with most of the planet’s industries - working remotely and virtually has become the norm.
“It's unbelievable how often we've been able to talk to each other and meet with people we'd usually see twice or three times a year,” De Melo said. “Now we have constant communication, sometimes monthly, sometimes more.”
The region’s development centre in Santa Fe, Argentina, has long been enthusiastic about working online, De Melo pointed out, but now most national and even some local federations and associations are hosting virtual meetings, clinics, classes, workshops and courses.
The Peruvian federation has come up with an especially engaging example, a ‘Fun in Athletics’ programme, geared towards seven and eight-year-olds that’s streamed each Saturday morning and hosted by physical education teachers who specialise in athletics. “This has been really successful,” De Melo said.
Athletes as well have found new ways to stay in touch with and engage with their fans. Some of those examples have been collected on ConSudAtle’s Instagram page.
Those examples illustrate a big lesson that everyone has learned from working through this pandemic, De Melo believes.
“This is going to change a lot of things,” he said. “Many of the meetings will now be done on line, and we'll be able to better use our time.”
And we’re also becoming more efficient.
At ConSudAtle, De Melo said, “We have been able to reduce our working hours (through a government-supported scheme to keep people at home) and we're not accomplishing less than we did before. So it allows some off-time to enjoy what really matters: our personal lives.”
With competition brought to a standstill, lockdown also provided a good opportunity for athletics to try to attract new fans, De Melo said, an important component of the sport’s recently announced Strategic Plan that shouldn’t be overlooked.
“It's important to note the focus that has been given to expand the fan base, and increase the number of those who are becoming involved in some sort of activity because of the pandemic,” De Melo said. He includes himself among those.
After he received a new pair of Asics trainers during the World Athletics Council Meeting in March in Monaco, he broke them in with walks around the streets of the Principality.
“Since then I've been back to walking almost every day over the last four months. And I think this is something we have to focus on. I think these are the kinds of people who can become involved in athletics, or in following athletics. I think this one of the main points of the Strategic Plan. And we are going to adapt ours to include that.”
Bob Ramsak for World Athletics