By : Matt Traub
he COVID-19 outbreak and its resulting variants from delta to omicron has forced two years of cancellations, postponements and adjustments for the sports-event industry. Events have come back online and as destinations, venues and event organizers determine capacity limits for fans along with health and safety protocols for their events, here is a daily look at where things stand and the storylines that have been emerging throughout the industry.
You can also stay updated on spectator capacity and entry requirements this season for the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League and see our past reporting on the daily twists and turns that the sports-event industry has had to address. To stay updated on this and everything else that happens in the sports landscape, you can also subscribe to the SportsTravel newsletter.
OLYMPICS: Covid Remains Dominant Storyline for Beijing Games
Posted: Tuesday, February 8
U.S. men’s figure skater Vincent Zhou, less than 24 hours after winning a silver medal in the team figure skating competition, announced that he will miss the singles competition after testing positive for COVID-19 at the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing.
Zhou was often in tears during his Instagram video announcement. He had tested positive as part of a routine COVID-19 screening before additional testing. The 21-year-old had struggled through a poor free skate during the team event.
“I have tested positive for COVID-19 and unfortunately I will have to withdraw from the individual event starting tomorrow,” said Zhou. “It seems pretty unreal that of all the people it would happen to myself, and that’s not just because I’m still processing this turn of events but also because I have been doing everything in my power to stay free of COVID since the start of the pandemic. I’ve taken all the precautions I can. I’ve isolated myself so much that the loneliness I felt in the last month or two has been crushing at times.”
Zhou’s positive test comes days after bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor was forced to skip the Opening Ceremony, having been elected as one of the two U.S. flag bearers, for her own positive test. Meyers Taylor was released from isolation on Monday and will be able to compete.
U.S. speedskater Casey Dawson, meanwhile, is hoping to compete after arriving in Beijing from Salt Lake City after testing requirements kept him in Utah last week. Having tested positive for COVID three weeks ago, Dawson thought he would need two consecutive negative tests to begin his journey to Beijing before he found out that he needed four consecutive negative tests. He missed the 5,000-meters and landed just hours before the 1,500-meter event. Dawson will also compete in the men’s speedskating team pursuit beginning February 13 with Emery Lehman and Joey Mantia, reuniting the trio that broke the world record in December.
COVID, regardless of the IOC’s and Beijing’s wishes, has remained the dominant storyline in the opening days of these Games. A sample of the issues since Friday’s Opening Ceremony include:
- Sunday’s women’s hockey game between Russia and Canada was delayed for an hour because Canada refused to take the ice until Russian COVID test results were processed. The International Ice Hockey Federation reached a compromise to have players from both teams wear masks. The Russians, in the midst of a 6-1 loss, were allowed to remove their masks at the start of the third period after test results showed no one was positive. Finland’s players also wore face masks during its game on Tuesday against Russia, which had forward Polina Bolgareva test positive the day after playing against Canada.
- Polish speedskater Natalia Maliszewska, who was forced to miss the 500 meters short track event on Saturday, said “I cry until I have no more tears” while in an isolation ward after testing positive for COVID. Maliszewska tested positive for coronavirus on January then was released from isolation on the eve of the 500, only to test positive a few hours before it started and was put back into quarantine. The next day, she was released after again testing negative. “People got me out of my room at 3am,” she said on social media. “This night was a horror, I slept in my clothes in my bed because I was afraid that at any moment someone would take me back to isolation. Then a message that unfortunately they were mistaken, that I am a threat, and should not have been released from isolation. … To me this is a big joke, I hope whoever is managing this has a lot of fun. My heart and my mind can’t take this anymore.”
- Finland men’s ice hockey player Marko Anttila has been confined to his room for two weeks after testing positive upon arrival to Beijing. Reuters reported that Anttila tested negative before leaving to the Games but more sensitive tests used by Chinese health authorities have produced positive tests. Finland coach Jukka Jalonena said Anttila was “not getting good food” and was suffering with mental stress. “We know he’s fully healthy and ready to go and that’s why we think that China, for some reason, they won’t respect his human rights,” Jalonena added.
- Russian biathlete Valeria Vasnetsova posted on Instagram from a quarantine hotel: “My stomach hurts, I’m very pale and I have huge black circles around my eyes. I want all this to end. I cry every day. I’m very tired.” She posted a picture of what she said was “breakfast, lunch and dinner for five days already,” a tray with plain pasta, an orange sauce, charred meat and a few potatoes. Vasnetsova’s post was deleted after it circulated in Russian and international media; Russian team spokesperson Sergei Averyanov later shared a photo of a new meal given to Vasnetsova, with salmon, cucumbers, sausages and yogurt.
For its part, the International Olympic Committee has said the issues have been addressed. IOC Olympic Games Executive Director Christophe Dubi said Sunday. “It’s a duty, a responsibility we have, to make sure that the expectations are met. … the situation has been addressed. The conditions were not good enough that night and it should not happen. We want to make sure that it does not.”
Beijing organizers were more succinct: “We of course pay very close attention to these issues and will respond quickly and effectively and address all these problems,” BOCOG Vice President and Secretary General Han Zirong said. “That concludes my remark.”
Dr. Brian McCloskey, chair of the Beijing 2022 Medical Expert Panel, said Tuesday morning that the number of cases within the closed loop system is doing down and “the situation inside the closed loop is extremely safe and there is no signs of infection spreading.” He added that the average length of isolation for positive individuals has been just under seven days.
In regard to Russian and Canadian women’s hockey players wearing masks, McCloskey said “the medical evidence of the risk of infection on the field of play is such that masks are not necessary and probably will not help. But wearing them is an individual choice.”
NFL: Politicians Emphasize SoFi Stadium Mask Mandate, Which Many of Them Ignored
Posted: Friday, February 4
Los Angeles County officials held a press conference this week to try and encourage fans to follow health and safety protocols at SoFi Stadium during next week’s Super Bowl — protocols that were widely ignored during the NFC Championship game, including by some of the politicians making the case on Wednesday.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and San Francisco Mayor London Breed were all photographed without masks at the game, won by the Los Angeles Rams over in-state rival San Francisco. Newsom and Garcetti both said they only briefly took off their masks during the game.
When taking a photograph, “I’m holding my breath literally for two seconds,” Garcetti said. “There is a zero percent chance of infection from that. I put my mask right back on … to make sure that there is no spread. And I think that we should all follow that advice until we’re out of this period.”
Fans are required to always wear a mask at SoFi Stadium except when eating or drinking, regardless of vaccination status. But officials acknowledge there is no way to police 70,000 people.
“You can’t force everybody to wear a mask all the time,” said James Butts, mayor of Inglewood. “In the end, it’s the responsibility of the people to take care of themselves, their families and their friends. And that’s the simplest way I can put it.”
All attendees will be given a KN95 mask upon entry to the Super Bowl and attendees ages 5 and up must either show proof of full vaccination or a negative test up to 48 hours before a game — and if a fan is not vaccinated but has a negative test, it must be from a lab or official clinic with at-home tests not accepted. SoFi Stadium has an on-site clinic where you can get test results within 30 minutes the day before the game for $59.
Slipping off a mask to take a bite of a snack “doesn’t mean buy a bucket of popcorn and eat it for two hours,” said Russ Simons, senior adviser of facilities at the stadium. “The staff is on hand to remind people to mask up.”
But as social media showed, reminding fans of the rules and enforcing them are two different things. Given the number of fans who ignored the mask mandate at SoFi Stadium, Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger this week called for a reassessment of the mandate, saying “they don’t make a difference when they’re not consistently followed or enforced.”
Los Angeles County has some of the most restrictive pandemic rules in the nation, yet it also has seen among the highest rates for infections and deaths in the state of 40 million. Los Angeles Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer did not rule out the possibility that the county could drop or amend mask rules ahead of the Super Bowl but “transmission is super high here. And we’ve got to get to lower rates before it makes sense to be taking off our masks.”
OLYMPICS: Chief of Beijing Medical Panel Details Olympic Testing Protocols
Posted: Thursday, February 3
Dr. Brian McCloskey, chief of the Beijing 2022 Medical Expert Panel, said a day before the 2022 Olympic Winter Games officially open that “there are very few places in the world where the risk of COVID-19 is as low as it is in here.”
A total of 200 positive tests have been recorded at the Olympics since January 23 through Monday. Sixty-seven were athletes and officials with “stakeholders,” a group that includes workers and media, making up a majority of the numbers. The positive test rate so far is 4.2 percent for athletes and officials compared with 0.66 percent for stakeholders.
McCloskey said in a media briefing the numbers are “the sort of level of positive tests we would expect to get. They’re being managed, so the risk has been reduced, so the risk within the closed loop is very low.”
McCloskey’s briefing came on the same day that Belgian skeleton racer Kim Meylemans was permitted to enter the Olympic village after she tearfully posted on social media about being in isolation over coronavirus concerns.
Meylemans tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival, which meant she had to enter isolation and return several negative tests before being cleared to move into the Yanqing Olympic Village. She thought that was happening Wednesday and boarded an ambulance for what she thought was a ride to that village.
“But the ambulance went to another facility,” Meylemans said in an Instagram post.
Belgian Olympic officials and the International Olympic Committee intervened and Meylemans was brought to the Yanqing Village, where she will be in an isolated room and still needs seven days of testing before she can be released.
“Our main goal was to get Kim to the Olympic Village in Yanqing as quickly as possible,” Belgian Olympic delegation leader Olav Spahl said. “We are therefore very pleased that this has now been successfully achieved. We understand that the COVID measures are necessary to safeguard the safety and health of participants in the Games, but we believe that the athlete should always be at the center of such an approach.”
IOC President Thomas Bach said “We have a lot of sympathy for all the people who are affected and in isolation, or direct contact persons. … The other day we had a meeting with the Athletes Commission. The IOC executive board and commission said maybe it should be considered that in such cases one should not wait until an athlete is calling for help. For the athletes, it’s terrible. I do not want to ignore it, or if it’s happening to somebody from the media, from the IOC or from the federation or to everybody. But for the athletes, it’s really the worst.”
Beijing’s closed-loop system was designed to lessen the risk of transmission of the coronavirus — although critics of Beijing’s hosting of the Games would hint that there are other reasons for the restricted movements. Once inside the “closed loop” system, no one will be able to leave a network of official venues.
“I’ve learned over the past few years with the pandemic never to relax around COVID-19 completely because it always has the capacity to surprise,” McCloskey said. “But so far, we are seeing that the system is working and the system is doing what it should do.”
McCloskey said there were not many changes made in Beijing’s protocols even after the omicron variant began spreading around the world because of the implementation of all the basic public health measures associated with COVID were already in place. “But it does mean we are more vigilant because omicron can come in more quickly,” he said. “And therefore it is even more important that the vaccination rate — because the vaccination does work against omicron — is higher than we had in Tokyo, which is an advantage for us.”
Vaccination rates ahead of these Games are significantly higher than for the 2021 Olympic and Paralympic Summer Games in Tokyo not only because of the increased availability worldwide of vaccines, but also because of Beijng’s mandate that any unvaccinated attendee for the Games would have to quarantine 21 days.
Regardless of vaccination status, all athletes, team officials and journalists need to provide two recent negative tests before heading to China. They will be tested at the airport upon arrival and everyone will get daily throat swabs for PCR lab tests, with results coming back within a day.
If anybody tests positive during the Games, there will be a confirmatory test. Should that test also be positive, anyone who has symptoms will go to a hospital while those without symptoms go to a hotel for isolation. To get out of isolation, people will need two consecutive days of negative tests and no symptoms.
“The reality is there is very little evidence in the scientific literature around the world of the spread of COVID-19 on the field of play for any sport,” McCloskey said. “An individual freestyle skier, for example, who could be brought to the start, can ski down the course entirely on their own and brought away at the finish is much less of a risk of spreading infection than ice hockey, where the team has to get together and train together, two teams to compete together. So the risk of something spreading is, theoretically at least, higher for those who have team sports than for the individual.
“The challenge is not to make sure we keep the participants safe from being infected in China — it’s that we keep them safe from infecting each other, that we stop them infecting the Chinese population,” McCloskey added. “So those two things are why we do the closed loop and the testing so much.”
OLYMPICS: U.S. Star Elana Meyers Taylor Out of Opening Ceremony with COVID
Posted: Wednesday, February 2
The COVID health and safety protocols at the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing are already being implemented as organizers said Tuesday that athletes and team officials who come to China are testing positive for COVID-19 at much higher rates than other people arriving for the Games.
Beijing organizers claim that 16 athletes and officials tested positive on Monday out of 379 screened. All of those who tested positive have been taken into isolation hotels to limit the spread of the infection.
One of the most notable athletes to go public with their positive test is U.S. World Cup champion Elana Meyers Taylor, the only woman to win three Olympic bobsled medals for the U.S. “After arriving to Beijing on January 27, on January 29 I tested positive for Covid-19,” Meyers Taylor wrote on social media. “I am asymptomatic and currently at an isolation hotel- and yes I am completely isolated.”
Meyers Taylor was planning to stay in a hotel and not the Olympic village, since she is traveling with her young son.
“This is just the latest obstacle that my family and I have faced on this journey, so I’m remaining optimistic that I’ll be able to recover quickly and still have the opportunity to compete,” Meyers Taylor wrote.
USA Bobsled and Skeleton remains hopeful that Meyers Taylor will be able to compete at the Games since bobsled does not begin until February 13 with the monobob. The two-person event starts February 18. Josh Williamson, a push athlete who was picked for his first Olympic team, revealed last week that he tested positive at a team camp in Chula Vista, California.
One moment Meyers Taylor will miss is the Opening Ceremony — for which she and curler John Shuster were selected by their fellow U.S. athletes to be the flag bearers of.
Shuster is a defending gold medalist and five-time Olympian. He will lead the U.S. delegation on Friday with speedskater Brittany Bowe, a three-time Olympian who was the first runner-up and will walk in place of Meyers Taylor.
The announcement of the flag bearers came shortly after competition at the Beijing Olympics began Wednesday with the opening games of mixed doubles curling at the Ice Cube, a reconfigured venue where Michael Phelps won a record eight swimming gold medals at the Summer Olympics 14 years ago.
A total of 200 positive tests for COVID-19 have been recorded at the Olympics since January 23. Sixty-seven were athletes and officials with “stakeholders,” a group which includes workers and media, making up the majority of the numbers. The positive test rate so far is 4.2 percent for athletes and officials compared to 0.66 percent for stakeholders. On Monday, the rate of infection from tests of those inside the closed loop system was 100 times higher for athletes and officials compared to workers.
All athletes, team officials and journalists need to provide two recent negative tests before heading to China. They will be tested again at the airport upon arrival and everyone will get daily throat swabs for PCR lab tests, with results coming back within a day. If anybody tests positive, there will be a confirmatory test. Should that test also be positive, anyone who has symptoms will go to a hospital while those without symptoms go to a hotel for isolation. To get out of isolation, people will need two consecutive days of negative tests and no symptoms.
COVID-19 is not the only controversy ongoing at the Games. The FBI this week issued a warning for U.S. athletes traveling to Beijing use burner phones and not bring their personal devices.
Nearly everyone attending this year’s games are required to download the My 2022 app to track their health while in Beijing. The FBI’s notice comes on the heels of last month’s report by the Citizen Lab, a group based at the University of Toronto, which found the app could be easily hacked with sensitive information of the users stolen.
“The FBI urges all athletes to keep their personal cell phones at home and use a temporary phone while at the Games,” said a notice by the agency. “While there were no major cyber disruptions, the most popular attack methods used were malware, email spoofing, phishing and the use of fake websites and streaming services designed to look like official Olympic service providers.”
The FBI said during the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, there were more than 450 million attempted cyber-related incidents and that in Beijing, the use of digital wallets and mobile vaccination cards “could also increase the opportunity for cyber actors to steal personal information or install tracking tools, malicious code or malware.”
The FBI also revealed in its note that during the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Pyeonchang, South Korea, that Russian cyber actors “conducted a destructive cyberattack against the Opening Ceremony, enabled through spear phishing campaigns and malicious mobile applications.”
While the controversy over China’s hosting of the Games continues to be a subplot of the event, Olympic officials in Taiwan announced that it had reversed a decision to skip Friday’s opening ceremony of the Beijing Games, saying they were pressured to do so by the IOC.
Taiwanese athletes compete as Chinese Taipei at the Olympics as part of a decades-old agreement with China brokered by the International Olympic Committee. The IOC said Tuesday “the Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee has confirmed its participation” in the Opening and Closing Ceremonies; officials in Taiwan said the country would “adjust” its plan not to attend.
One more note: Japan, which hosted the delayed Olympic and Paralympic Summer Games in summer 2021 in Tokyo, will now host the swimming world championships in 2023 after the event was postponed for a second time. FINA, the world governing body for the sport, said the event will be July 2023 in a third attempt to have the Japanese city host the event, which was scheduled for July 2021 until that was pushed back 10 months to make space for the Tokyo Games.
Fukuoka first hosted the world swim championships in 2001, and the original date was meant to celebrate the 20th-year anniversary. FINA said as part of the adjustments that the 2023 worlds, originally scheduled for Qatar, will be in January 2024 — putting two world championships plus the 2024 Paris Olympics within a 12-month span.
AUTO RACING: Formula 1 Mandates Vaccination to Avoid Djokovic-Esque Drama
Posted: Tuesday, February 1
On the heels of tennis’ drama over Novak Djokovic trying to get a medical exemption to the Australian Open — a request that was granted before the country’s immigration authorities revoked his visa and dramatically deported the star ahead of the tournament — another worldwide sports league is getting ahead of any potential drama by mandating full vaccination with no exemptions.
Formula One’s regulations going forward will apply to drivers, teams, media and hospitality guests, multiple reports said on Monday. The Guardian and Reuters said the series’ current roster of drivers are all vaccinated already.
“Formula One management will require all travelling personnel to be fully vaccinated and will not request exemptions,” an F1 spokesperson told The Guardian.
The series is going into the 2022 season with a surge of popularity, especially in the United States, thanks to its hit Netflix series. The dramatic end to last season, in which Max Verstappen passed Lewis Hamilton on the final lap of the final race to win the championship.
F1 was the first global sport to restart following the pandemic, completing a 17-race calendar in 2020 almost exclusively in Europe before last year’s 22 race schedule, which included more events outside of Europe including in Austin. This year’s 23-race season is scheduled to start on March 20 in Bahrain and last nine months with four races in North America, including a return to Austin plus a new race in Miami and the first Canadian Grand Prix since before the pandemic.
“Formula One has done an outstanding job in getting these races in and bringing fans back,” said the McLaren Chief Executive Zak Brown told The Guardian. “We have a challenge, unlike most other sports, where we go to lots of different countries. What works in England might not work in France, and might not work in Singapore, for example. We have to continue to be flexible and adaptable and open up responsibly as the world opens up.”
The issue of a vaccine mandate is centered in Formula 1 around FIA’s medical car driver, Alan van der Merwe, who is not vaccinated and has been on social media debating the merits of vaccination. Van der Merwe is well-known throughout Formula 1 for saving Romain Grosjean when his car burst into flames at the Sakhir Grand Prix in 2020. The FIA did not immediately respond to Reuters’ request for comment about the vaccine mandate or Van der Merwe’s future.
FOOTBALL: Why the NFL is No Longer Testing for COVID
Updated: Monday, January 31
The NFL will almost assuredly not have any issues with Super Bowl between the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals being disrupted by COVID-19 because once the playoffs came around, the league almost completely stopped testing for the virus even among unvaccinated players.
The change, made before the divisional round, means that unless a player exhibits symptoms of COVID, they will not be tested. In a memo, the NFL wrote: “This comprehensive, symptom-based approach to testing reflects our recent experience with the omicron variant and conforms to current public health recommendations and best practices employed in healthcare, and offers the best opportunity for identifying and treating cases promptly and avoiding spread within the facility.”
That will be good news for the Bengals and home team Rams ahead of the game at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. The Rams were one of three teams that had to have a game postponed in December, with a Sunday night game against the Seattle Seahawks moved to Tuesday and forcing the team to play two games in six days. At one point, the Rams had 27 players on the NFL’s reserve/COVID list.
The Bengals meanwhile did not have many COVID-related issues this season. Quarterback Joe Burrow even took a mild shot at his home city during the NFL’s surge, saying the Bengals stayed clear of major issues because “fortunately, there’s not a ton to do in Cincinnati, so nobody’s going out to clubs and bars and getting COVID every weekend.”
The league changed course for multiple reasons — partially because of a rapid decrease in the number of players testing positive after an end of regular season surge, and partially because the percentage of vaccinated players on the remaining teams was high enough to give the league and union comfort in changing its protocols.
Between December 12 and January 8 this season, 756 players and 478 staff members tested positive. A majority of them were asymptomatic, according to the league, but three games near the end of the regular season were postponed multiple days.
Two fans of the Buffalo Bills, meanwhile, have more pressing issues than overcoming their sorrow at losing last weekend to the Kansas City Chiefs in a dramatic divisional playoff game.
Amber and Michael Naab, 37 and 34, were charged with one count of criminal possession of a forged instrument this week in Orchard Park Town Court after posting on social media how they were able to attend Bills home games this season with fake vaccination cards.
Erie County District Attorney John Flynn said he would not send the couple to prison even though it is a Class D felony thanks to a state law signed in December.
“I readily admit this is not the crime of the century,” Flynn said Wednesday. “I hate to be the guy that says, ‘I need to send a message.’ I don’t like being that guy, but you can’t do this. There’s a law. We’ve got laws on the books.”
Flynn said the team learned got an anonymous tip from someone who saw the couple bragging on social media about using fake cards to attend Bills games. They were removed from their seats in the second half during Buffalo’s playoff home win against the New England Patriots.
The Bills required proof of vaccination at home games this season; the Erie County Department of Health said in October that at least 250 people were denied entry on the first weekend the mandate went into effect.
Even if the Bills had been able to win and eventually reach the Super Bowl, those fans would have had issues getting into many of the events planned in Los Angeles ahead of the title game at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood.
Fans attending the game need to show proof of vaccination or have a negative test. Fans attending Super Bowl LVI will be issued with KN95 masks, the Los Angeles County Department of Health said this week. Free COVID-19 rapid tests and vaccinations will be offered at the Super Bowl Experience attraction at the Los Angeles Convention Center ahead of the game on February 13.
That the Rams were playing at home two weeks ahead of the Super Bowl did not mean that Sunday’s game served as an operational test run for February 13 — in fact, in many ways it was the opposite. Multiple SoFi parking lots were closed and crews have been building Super Bowl-related infrastructure around the stadium, which for some fans going to Sunday’s game may have meant having to leave for the game even earlier than usual.
And for the NFL, The Athletic reported, what would be a five-week build around the venue and surrounding area now will have to be compressed.
“We have been continually adjusting schedules and coordinating on a daily, even hourly basis, as the team advanced in the playoffs,” said Katie Keenan, the NFL’s senior director of live event operations. “Now we are consolidating our schedules, adding crews and working with the Rams to make sure we are ready for Super Bowl Sunday.”