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How the WA Half Marathon Championships handled COVID-19

Event organizers took great care ahead of the world championships in Poland, and their cautious approach paid off

IAAF World Half-Marathon Championships Photo by: IAAF/Twitter

Originally scheduled for March 2020 in Gdynia, Poland, the World Athletics Half Marathon Championships were postponed until October 17 due to COVID-19. With months to design a race that could be run even if the coronavirus persisted into the fall, World Athletics and the Gdynia 2020 local organizing committee got to work. Organizers ultimately pulled off a massively successful event, and they believe their race could be used as a template for future competitions and championships held in the age of COVID-19. 

Beside the amazing racing at the world championships (won by Peres Jepchirchir and Jacob Kiplimo), the event was a success because of the precautions organizers took to ensure everyone involved would be safe while in Gdynia. World Athletics health and science director Stéphane Bermon helped in the preparation for the world championships. He and his team created a medical clearance protocol that he says “everyone who wanted to be accredited for the event” had to follow.

“Teams, media, everyone — they were asked to run PCR tests [a common COVID-19 test] within 72 hours of travelling to Poland,” Bermon says. “We also asked them to have medical exams to prove they were symptom-free.” Finally, everyone travelling to Gdynia for the championships had to sign a waiver acknowledging they were aware of the risks of travelling to an international event during a pandemic. Individuals had to provide officials with these three documents (proof of a negative test, a medical exam and the waiver) to be welcomed by World Athletics staff at the airport in Poland.

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When groups arrived, they were escorted to their hotel, of which there were three (one specifically for athletes and race and team officials; another for World Athletics staff, family and athlete reps; and a third for media). The hotels were not closed to the public, but Bermon says there were “fewer than 15 guests who had nothing to do with the competition” staying in the same building as the athletes. Even though the risk of contact with other guests was low, there were entire floors dedicated to the race, which lowered the possibility of chance encounters even more. 

In two of the three event hotels, there were testing labs. Once groups arrived at the hotels, they had to undergo another test before they were permitted to check in. “This was a test for the genetic material of the virus,” Bermon says. “We used a technology called LAMP — loop mediated isothermal amplification — that gave us the results in 60 to 75 minutes, whereas it normally takes six to eight hours or more to get the results.” After an individual received confirmation that their test was negative, they were allowed to check in and get their event accreditation. 

Bermon says the LAMP technology was “a game changer.” World Athletics conducted approximately 650 tests on about 550 people at the event, and had they been forced to wait six hours before receiving results, it would have been a much more difficult process. “Everything is about flow management,” he says. 

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Of the hundreds of tests conducted, Bermon says two came back positive. “One was an athlete representative and the other was a broadcaster,” he says. “They were sent to quarantine in dedicated places and their results were confirmed with classic tests.” Fortunately, neither individual experienced many symptoms, and after quarantining, they returned home safely. 

After that, there were no more cases reported until the completion of the event, when two more individuals — both of them athletes — recorded positive tests, which they had to take before they could be permitted back into their home countries. Once again, these athletes quarantined and made it home after recovering. 

“In total we had four cases, which I still believe is a low number,” Bermon says. “With people coming from all over, I was much more expecting 10 to 12 positive cases.” He adds that there were technically only two positive cases that came as a direct result of the event, as the first two individuals were infected before their arrival in Poland. 

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Overall, Bermon took many positives away from the world championships, and he says he can see more events finding success using this formula in the future. “What was very important for us is that we were able to set up our own lab using new technology,” Bermon says. “We would like to use that in upcoming competitions.” 

While he admits it would be a much bigger operation for a multi-day or even multi-week event, he says it isn’t too expensive to employ, and he believes it would be doable for future championships. “There is some light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “We have to be innovative. It won’t be like before, and we have to accept that.”