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Jon Tibbs: Olympic federations proving adept at imagining the new normal

Some things already seem to have returned to normal in the world of Olympic sports. Simone Biles is back in the gym, sharing video clips of previously unimagined skills. Many elite athletes are quite literally back on track, training and also competing. At the grassroots level, however, there is clearly a long way to go. Here in the UK, it will be quite some time before pub teams are playing Sunday league football again.

Social distancing, meanwhile, is significantly changing the way national and international sports federations work. In some cases, the changes are accelerating practices that have been glimpsed before. Online video competitions are a good example. Entrants submit video clips of their performances, which are then judged from afar. The technology had already been proven at an Olympic debut two years ago, where it served as the basis for the qualifying pathway to the Buenos Aires 2018 Youth Olympic Games. Now, however, it is being expanded beyond artistic sports.

Online competitions have already been shown to work well in mass participation sports too. Nearly a quarter of a million people had signed up for the 2020 CrossFit Open prior to the pandemic. As with previous years, scores were either recorded at local franchisees or on smartphones, before being uploaded. International and national federations, whether large or small, have showed varying degrees of agility when adopting these new models.

Emulating the success of the #SkateInside challenge laid down to its two million Instagram followers by Street League Skateboarding, Skate England successfully adopted the video judging model too. Of course, skateboarding owed much of its growth in the 1980s and 1990s to the circulation of grainy VHS tapes featuring skaters pushing the boundaries with new tricks. So the format was resonant long before the advent of YouTube.

In the absence of events, or even access to skateparks, #SkateMyHouse was a great solution for the English and Welsh national governing body. It engaged not just skaters, but even an appropriate commercial partner: British home lending broker Habito. Some national federations even went far, far beyond standalone online campaigns like these. They have moved huge parts of their work online. USA Weightlifting is a great example.

With a revenue model largely dependent on providing professional development for weightlifting coaches, USAW’s leaders reacted to the pandemic not by throwing their hands up in the air but by rolling up their sleeves. Coaching certification courses were moved online almost overnight, drawing the participation (as paying clients) of even NFL strength and conditioning coaches looking to learn throughout lockdown.

Qualifying for major USAW competitions went online and the federation is now holding its first ever online selection camp. The junior lifters who participate successfully will find themselves on track to wear their country’s colours at the next Youth Olympic Games. Rather than just relying on new engagement, the high levels of participation in all these online programmes seems to have owed much to a carefully-fostered sense of community. USAW’s member gyms lent weights and bars to their local lifters during lockdown.

Whether transforming the majority of their operations, as in the case of USAW, or just moving meetings online, there are clearly some changes introduced over the past months that will last. It will be some time before it is possible to fly half way around the world to make a 45-minute presentation. And even when it does become possible again, there will be many who think twice or even three times before making the trip. Across sport, many of the planet-friendly practices recently adopted out of necessity are likely to be maintained out of efficacy.

Federations have been obliged to concentrate on the delivery of core services and the welfare of stakeholders, with athletes key among these. That cannot be a bad thing. The clearer focus on product will ultimately ensure greater value is delivered for broadcasters and sponsors in the long term, too.

It’s always hard to learn the lessons of a crisis while still in the throes of it. But it is already apparent that the federations which run and deliver Olympic sport are capable of imagining and implementing change more quickly and more completely than many might have thought. This can only bode well for the way they navigate the remainder of this pandemic, for the new normal to follow and, Heaven forbid, for any future crisis on this scale.

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