Coronavirus wreaking havoc on sports—winter version
Business & Sports Editor
The Norwegian American
It’s amazing we’re publishing a Winter Sports issue amid the coronavirus pandemic. Games are happening, games are being canceled. Seasons are being restructured. Everyone is playing the “if” game, Plan B’s in case of further outbreaks of the virus among their athletes, coaches, and staff. Some are allowing a limited number of fans into stadiums. How will the landscape look when the issue is published as we write now?
It’s somehow hard to believe it’s already 10 months since the Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert was the first athlete to test positive the week of March 8, which led to the sports world and society to shut down globally.
Norway was slightly ahead in interpreting and guarding against the potential spread. The weekend of March 7-8, 2020, was the prestigious Holmenkollen Festival Weekend, the most special and cultural sports event on the Norwegian calendar, as well as the World Cup program, featuring cross-country, Nordic Combined, and ski jumping. The ski jumping finale on the Sunday has drawn 100,000 spectators, including the royal family. Norwegian fans camping out, lining the cross-country trail, cheering for everyone, waving Norwegian flags, ringing cowbells is part of the charm. But two days before Holmenkollen, the Oslo City Council announced the show would go on, but without the fans. Poor weather canceled Sunday’s ski jumping. This year, Holmenkollen is in danger of not happening at all.
Meanwhile, Minneapolis was psyched to host the first cross-country World Cup competition in the United States in 19 years. The Norwegian American was sending four of their staff. Then, Norway dropped the bomb. It wasn’t sending its skiers. Minneapolis said the show was still on, issued protocols for the media, but, within 24 to 48 hours of Norway’s decision, canceled.
Here we are almost a year later. If there is a positive that has come of the sports situation as leagues and federations debated the best ways to return to action, it provided a lab of what worked and didn’t work.
I was surprised when Major League Soccer and the National Basketball Association (NBA) decided to restart within a bubble in Disney World in Orlando, Fla., a state with skyrocketing COVID-19 cases. The National Hockey League (NHL) opted for bubbles in Toronto for the Eastern teams, Edmonton for the Western teams.
MLS got off to a rough start in July, when Nashville had positive tests. They were sent home, and Dallas, which had some cases, were told to stay home. Jakob Glesnes, 26-year-old Norwegian for the Philadelphia Union, noted that once that happened, “…the bubble was very good. We felt safe all the time. We followed all the protocols, tested every second day. That helped us a lot. We couldn’t do much in the bubble because of the situation outside. To play in this manner, I think that was the safest way to do it.”
Then, they returned to home cities with limited number of fans in the seats.
The NBA and the NHL, which restarted in August, also had few, if any, cases. Now, for the new seasons, they are trying to play in home arenas without fans. The NBA is trying a 72-game schedule—rather than 82. Because of Canada’s travel restrictions, Toronto will be playing home games in Tampa. The NHL is also playing a truncated 56-game slate—as opposed to 82—in home cities with four geographical divisions with American teams playing eight games against each team in their own division to limit travel. Canadian teams will play nine or 10.
“We’re super happy we can go back to playing,” said Mats Zuccarello of the Minnesota Wild. “There are hockey fans around the world missing the NHL and maybe we can provide a little positivity on TV. We’re lucky that we get to go to work. If the divisions are the best way to get this done, we’ll do it.”
Barely 10 games in, the NBA, after no cases in the bubble, have had outbreaks. The NHL started on Jan. 13. As of this writing, the National Football League has made it through the first round of the playoffs, but statistics have been as important as the latest COVID-19 reports.
I must admit it was nice to be able to watch games. Teams found creative ways to present a “game” experience.
In Norway, Eliteserien, and Toppserien managed to complete their soccer seasons, which were delayed in starting, in home stadiums. There were strict protocols, including how to travel to the stadium. At the time, I wondered, “Is it worth it?” Toward the end of the season, there were some cases that forced Eliteserien to cram the final schedule of games into a few weeks. The final games in Toppserien were delayed two weeks because of an outbreak on the Avaldsnes club.
Conflict occurred when the government-imposed quarantine guidelines for Norwegians traveling outside the country and when they return. Some members of Norway’s national men’s team play for clubs outside the country and return to play a game for the national team, then have to return to their club. They were given an exemption.
However, on Jan. 11, the Trondheim municipality rejected a quarantine exemption for the men’s ski jumpers to participate in the Norwegian championships in Granåsen, Jan. 21.
Now, it’s Norway’s favorite sports time of the year. These are not sports conducive to a bubble situation.
Cross-country skiing trails are different, pose varied challenges, which is the attraction. Alpine slopes may have different angles, some creating faster speeds. Further, many of the competitions are in small mountain towns, not large cities with many hotels that would enable athletes to be housed spread out. Maybe, these towns can make accommodations for a weekend, but for a few months?
These competitions are called World Cups for a reason—all the events are international. With countries having different rates of coronavirus, protocols, quarantine guidelines when crossing borders, it has complicated things further. A few months before the season, Lillehammer was among venues that lost a World Cup. Norway conducted a sort of national championship the weekend of Dec. 3-4, but how much different was that than Norway’s traditional opening the weekend before at Beitostølen?
The International Ski Federation website lists schedules and results of the disciplines at different levels. Sometimes, it seems there are more cancellations than actual events happening. Why are some happening and some not?
Norway isn’t consistent in its decisions. They joined with Sweden and Finland in not participating in cross-country events in 2020, thinking something would be different in 2021. That removed three of the world’s top cross-country nations. Norway then asked the Tour de Ski at Val Müstair, Switzerland, Toblach, Italy, Val di Fiemme, Italy and Alpe Cermis in Cavalese, Italy Jan. 1-10, to reduce the number of venues. Tour de Ski said no. Sweden and Finland went.
Health of athletes comes first—and the coronavirus could potentially create career-ending injuries—and hopefully everyone who attended Tour de Ski will be fine. But Therese Johaug won the Tour de Ski last year, and over the last two seasons has been the world’s most dominant women’s cross-country skier. She won the World Cup the last two years, last season by 811 points over teammate Heidi Weng. The Americans also placed on the podium. Jessie Diggins won the Tour de Ski, and Rosie Brennan was sixth. Diggins is on top of the World Cup standings, Brennan third. This is great for American women’s cross-country, but might it be a bit more impressive if Johaug were there? That’s not Diggins problem. The powerful Swedes and Russians were there. Johaug is 16th, over 600 points behind Diggins.
On the men’s side, Johann Høsflot Klæbo’s nemesis, Alexander Bolshunov, won his second straight Tour de Ski. In the15-km freestyle, the Russians took the top five places, seven of nine, French sixth and eighth, Germany 10-13. In the 15-km pursuit, Russians were in the top five and seven of nine. In the 15-km Mass Start, the Russians had seven of the top nine places. Meanwhile, Johaug, Klæbo and the deep Norwegian teams were in yet another intracountry competition with no World Cup points. Klæbo is 13th, 1,001 points behind Bolshunov.
Yet, the ski jumpers went to the Four Hills Tournament in Obserstdorf and Garmisch Partenkirchen, Germany, Innsbruk, and Bischofshofen, Austria, Dec. 29-Jan. 6, then went to Titisee-Neustadt, Germany for Jan. 9-10 competition. The alpiners and biathletes went to their competitions.
“Cross-country skiing is doing well, even without Norwegian runners on the starting line,” said Norwegian cross-country legend and head of the cross-country committee of the International Ski Federation Vegard Ulvang to VG. “The only ones who fail are Norway. They are not able to arrange races, and they do not set the style start. Now there are other runners who get to show off, it’s good. Cross-country skiing is also practiced outside Norway. The sport is alive and well.”
According to Norwegian ski president Erik Røste, each discipline made the decision about participation.
On the ice—or off—the situation is getting dire. A number of hockey games from the first week of January to the 17th were postponed, seven involving Sparta Sarpsborg, who has played 19 games, compared with 27 by Narvik. The entire slate on Jan. 9 was scrapped, and the league went on pause. Stjernen reports more than 20 positive corona cases among the team, there are positive results at Storhamar, Sparta Sarpsborg, Frisk Asker and Manglerud, a total of at least 50 people in the league. Some referees have been affected. “The infection situation now is so complex and difficult to handle, that we see the need to pause the league until we can once again conduct matches in a responsible manner,” the Norwegian Ice Hockey Association wrote on Twitter.
A few hours later, Stavanger reported seven new cases, for 15 total, all players, and Vålerenga its first two pending other results. Grüner, Lillehammer and Narvik are the only teams infectionless, for now.
Last season, Stavanger was having a historic season when the playoffs were canceled due to COVID-19. A tight race was developing this season with more than half the games played.
An emergency committee was set up with people from clubs, associations, and Norwegian top hockey. The first division men’s and elite series women’s seasons have been added to the suspension of play.
“We want to play as many matches as possible, both in terms of sports and finances,” said Secretary General Ottar Eide of the Norwegian Ice Hockey Association to NTB on Jan. 11. “We are working on a plan and will go on a tour with the clubs during the week about how the situation is, and about when we can start up again. We have agreed on a basic principle with Norwegian Top Hockey that we will try to complete 36 rounds. That is, the teams have met each other four times. Then, we have to see how long this takes. We have also discussed playing best of five games in the quarterfinals and semifinals (playoffs) instead of the best of seven,” says Eide.
In handball, the federation said it would comply with the restrictions on indoor sports for children until Jan. 19 imposed by the government, but it would not affect the top leagues. Then on Jan. 19, the government asked the top leagues to halt play for at least two weeks, beginning Jan. 20, further hindering handball and hockey. Norwegian Ice Hockey Association President Tage Petterssen told NTB there was no way a full schedule could be completed and worried about the fiscal health of several teams.
Norway was scheduled to cohost the European women’s championships with Denmark, Dec. 3-20, but pulled out about a week and a half before the start. Denmark hosted the whole tourney, and Norway won the title. That was conducted in a bubble atmosphere and there were some breaches.
In the women’s Champions League, Kristiansand has had six games postponed and played its first CL game since October on Jan. 9. Phase 2 of the Norway men’s qualifying games for the 2022 European Championships resumed on Jan. 7, the first game since Nov. 8. Norway had to use a secondary team because the top guys were preparing for the World Cup in Egypt, Jan. 14-31. Hopefully.
It’s hard to come to a conclusion. We have never faced a pandemic like this, and we don’t know assuredly what to expect. Flexibility is important, because things change daily if not hourly. Play or not play?
One suggestion. Wear a mask and read the Winter Sports issue.
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 29, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.