Article by Jamie Brew

For the past year, we have all lived in a climate of uncertainty and fear as families attempt to protect their loved ones from COVID-19 by isolating or shielding. Life and careers have been placed on hold for most people until it is safe to return to normality. However, for elite athletes, their sporting lives and careers are diminishing in front of their eyes, and for many, by the time normality can return, their time in elite sports will have run out, potentially ending their career prematurely.

Athletes give their whole lives to the pursuit of Olympic success. It is common that swimmers wake up at 4.30 am from the age of 12 to go to their training sessions, and they often miss school for competitions, whilst experiencing extreme fatigue when they are in school. Day to day life is not pretty for an athlete.

Sport is mentally and physically draining; however, athletes find the strength to constantly exceed expectations every day because they are consistent. An athlete will rarely go more than three weeks without training; thus, they find themselves consistently at peak fitness. Sadly, this is no longer the case. On average, the majority of elite athletes will have been consistently training for years until March of last year, when everything came to a standstill. Although training was permitted, it was extremely limited for athletes. Athletes may have lost years of mental and physical preparation as their race timelines change continuously in our current climate.

So, what are the effects of COVID-19 on Elite Sport?

In the short term, our British athletes will be attempting to get back to World Record speeds in record time, having been forced to restart and reduce traditional four-year training plans down to a maximum of just five months. This task is simply unattainable for the majority of athletes. Around the world, each country’s top athletes will have faced different situations at different times, meaning that the racing field will be more varied than ever before, with unfair disadvantages for many.

Athletes who have faced tighter restrictions may then be looking for anything that can give them an edge in a competition. Unfortunately, this means that many could look towards drug use and doping to rebuild the stamina and strength that they once possessed. This is a very real possibility because as the world came to a halt, science did not and new, untested drugs will have been designed that will not be caught by the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA’s) current equipment. Further to this, WADA has always been unable to apprehend doping athletes. Whilst high-profile cases are created by WADA against doping athletes, these are often created with very minimal evidence because WADA needs to reinstall our faith in its abilities, which therefore leads to weak cases which are often easily dismissed.

My fear is that as a consequence of COVID-19 and so many athletes missing an entire season of racing and training, many will turn to drug use to get them back to their top forms for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, and we may well be facing the most drug-tainted Olympics yet.

The future of Disability Sport is most at threat because of COVID-19 as it encompasses people who are already at a much greater risk if they contracted the disease, meaning many have had to shied all year; thus, they have had no real chance to get back in shape for the Paralympics in 2021.

COVID-19 has also greatly affected the rest of the sporting community as developing athletes did not receive the same liberties as the elite athletes, meaning our future stars may not have raced for almost an entire year and a half. Many athletes will have lost faith in the process as they have had to start almost entirely from scratch not once but three times with each lockdown imposed on Britain. 

In swimming, the normal percentage of athletes who stop racing between the ages of 16-18 is almost 80% and this is without a pandemic. Thus, clearly, the future of Elite Sport looks somewhat fragile as we can expect this percentage to be far higher now.

Is the continuation of Elite Sport more difficult now because of the current climate?

The world has been in intermittent lockdowns for almost an entire year. During this time, the world’s scope has drastically changed, with multiple significant social and political protests highlighting injustice and discrimination. Thousands of people have lost their lives as a consequence of the Coronavirus pandemic, and everyone has endured mental turmoil. With a light finally at the end of the tunnel, we must focus our attention on the future of sport.

In conclusion, it is undoubtedly true that the resumption of Elite team sports such as Rugby and Football has created a sense of normality in our lives. However, I believe that we should postpone the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics for another year and allow everyone a fair and equal year of training. This would discourage the use of drugs and make elite sports more inclusive, as all those involved in Paralympic sport would be able to perform better in a safer environment. In the new world that is emerging from the Coronavirus Pandemic, we must encourage safety and inclusivity to all.