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Feature: What the lockdown announcement means for elite athletes in Wales

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Elite Welsh athletes have been urged to show patience and understanding as they start to resume training over the next few weeks.

As lockdown restrictions in Wales continue to be eased gradually, the prospect of getting back on track, in a gym, pool, court or mat is starting to give itchy feet to the nation’s top competitors.

But rather like shoppers queueing at a social distance outside a supermarket, the country’s leading Olympic, Commonwealth Games and Paralympic hopefuls have been told: Don’t worry – you’ll get what you need in the end.

The continued lifting of certain lockdown rules– announced by Welsh Government in its latest review - has given the green light for elite sports people to get back to training.

 

But set against that are the over-riding safety requirements as the UK still grapples with the coronavirus pandemic – as well as the limits on capacity in trying to restore mothballed venues to working order.

The return of athletes will be gently paced, steady and cautious.

It will also be entirely voluntary.

As Owen Lewis – Sport Wales’ assistant director of sports systems, strategy and services – says: “There is no compunction on any athlete to return to training. That is central. It is genuinely a free choice.”

If 50 elite Welsh athletes can be back training within six or seven weeks, those who have been involved in planning will view that figure as a resounding success.

Athletes have been divided into groups or “cohorts” depending on their sport’s suitability for returning, the practicalities of new protocols, and also how pressing the need in terms of competition.

The first cohort is likely to include a small number of athletes across no more than five sports where it’s deemed possible to provide the right facilities, medical structure and specific training environment.

Sports earmarked for cohort one are swimming, athletics, boxing, squash and gymnastics – but it will still depend on a number of factors being put in place.

Judo, rhythmic gymnastics and track cycling are likely to be in cohort two, with team sports – like hockey and netball – in cohort three.

“If this was easy, we would bring everyone back straight away,” says Chris Jenkins, chief executive of Commonwealth Games Wales, who, like Owen Lewis, has been liaising with Welsh Government over the return of elite sport along with others within the sports sector, including the Welsh Sports Association.

“But it’s very complex and it’s different for each sport, each location, each facility, and each age group.”

 

As well as the various sports being placed into cohorts, performance directors in each sport have been asked to provide a list of athletes they would like to see back as a priority.

Efforts will then be made to get those names back up and running (or swimming) as soon as is safe and practical.

Those practical considerations involve not just the readiness of a training venue, but also the obvious need for medical supervision.

With social distancing and limits on the numbers of athletes and coaches, then training venues are quickly going to reach a new, low level of capacity.

Likewise, the level of medical support is also going to make the return of athletes a trickle at first, rather than a broad flow.

Those obstacles, insists Lewis, apply equally in England, even though the phased return of elite athletes over the border, has, in theory, happened at a quicker pace than in Wales.

“The safest way of reducing the risks is to come back slowly and with as small a number of athletes as possible,” he says.

“There needs to be medical oversight and there just aren’t that many sports medics in Wales to allow us to bring back lots of athletes.

“That is not a uniquely Welsh problem. It is the same in England. In ratio terms of medics to athletes, they are no better off than us.”

The guiding principle in the return of any athlete in any sport will continue to be mitigating the risks to public health.

That, insists, Jenkins, is something that athletes, coaches and officials are all agreed upon, even though he admits there may be some envious glances from budding young athletes who see others up ahead of them in the queue.

“Not everyone is going to go back straight away,” he says. “And there just isn’t the capacity.

“Also, we are not New Zealand. The infection rate is still too high. Athletes do not want to pick up the virus and take it back to a partner or a parent. Neither do coaches.

“The message is to be patient and keep safe. Everyone is working really hard collaboratively to get athletes back safely. Work with us and be patient. You will get back training and in safe circumstances.”

If that sounds a frustration for those athletes desperate to get back, then Lewis offers two further bits of advice.

Firstly, flat out hard graft on the training field has limited value if an athlete has no competition date ringed on their calendar.

And secondly, learning to be shrewd and resourceful by home-based training in the time of a global pandemic could turn out to be a very wise move.

“No-one knows how this is going to progress, but being really good at training from home might become a competitive advantage,” he says.

“If this pandemic sticks around for a while, the best way you prepare for Birmingham 2022 might not be training at an elite centre for a short period, but to get as good as you can be at training from home.”

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