English, Govt, Sports

Covid-19: High performance sports in the new normal

By Steven Sim & Muhammad Syakir Che Mansor

In Steven’s first article, he articulated the need for the Malaysian government to rethink sports in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In this article, we will deal with issues faced by high performance sports given the new normal due to Covid-19. 

We will look into four key areas, namely:

  1. Training 
  2. Mental health
  3. Competition
  4. Finance 

Training: Gradual recovery strategy needed

Training is a core part of an athlete’s life. They spend an average of five to six hours a day with 2 days rest but some have 7 days a week to train, depending on the season. Even on the days they are resting, they do “active rest”, meaning light workouts. 

With the Covid-19 pandemic, however, the regular athletes training schedules are affected. The National Sports Council (NSC) and National Sports Institute (NSI) were shut down together with their training centres for the last three months. As the Ministry and national sports associations (NSAs) are currently working to resume training, these are some of our suggestions.

First of all, the resumption of sports training should be gradual. There are still new things we are learning about the virus. Any reopening should be in stages, to familiarise stakeholders to the new normal, but also so that we can monitor and fine-tune the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) where necessary once activities resume and we have newer knowledge of the situation.

Secondly, while the NSAs are tasked to come out with the SOP for resuming their games, the NSC and NSI should provide overall guidelines to ensure SOP by NSAs has certain minimum requirements. 

For example, every training centre should implement public health measures such as regular sanitizing, temperature scan, social distancing, Covid-19 handling protocol (e.g. regular testing, how to manage a suspected case, isolation), a public health officer on duty etc. 

Thirdly, training for elite athletes in all sports can essentially be resumed if the parties involved can create a safe domestic environment, where athletes, trainers, and officials who have been tested negative for Covid-19 are grouped together in a facility with hostels and training ground preferably in the same compound. 

Covid-19 test should be done on a regular basis, preferably once every week. Nevertheless it cannot be stressed enough that reopening strategy must be gradual, even in a domestic environment, training in the first phase should avoid contact as much as possible. 

Fourthly, athletes who are not able to resume training at proper training centres should be advised on self-training regimen, including issuance of basic equipment, scheduling, goal-setting, diet etc. There are now apps such as Rouvy and Strava which allow athletes to develop and do home-based self-training. 

A daily teleconference with coaches and other sports officials, for example, therapists and dieticians, to discuss progress and problems, should be part of the self-training schedule. 

Mental health: Expand National Sports Medicine Centre

Many sport authorities have warned of mental health consequences on our athletes due to the pandemic. 

The lockdown, suspension of training, the uncertain competition schedule, and the disease itself lead to further anxiety and fear among our athletes. Some authorities have pointed out that the unintended interruption is akin to those who had to stop sports due to injuries or retirement. If the situation is not handled carefully, it will lead to severe mental health issues. 

NSI has to boost its sports psychology and counselling programme to monitor our athletes and assist them to deal with the situation. This is also an opportunity to expand the National Sports Medicine Centre, thus not only increasing the country’s capacity to deal with the pandemic but also creating more jobs. 

Competition: Strategise and communicate with all stakeholders

Sports competitions around the world, including in Malaysia, have been canceled and postponed since the beginning of the pandemic. The situation will not last forever. The postponed Tokyo Olympics will be held next summer in July 2021, SUKMA will be held in about nine months’ time.

While the German football league Bundesliga has resumed in May 2020, the English Premier League, Italian Serie A and Spanish La Liga are expected to resume this month. Football Association of Malaysia is expected to announce further SOP and details in the coming days. 

This is the time for NSAs to play their leadership role, not only in redrawing their respective national games schedule but also to ensure their regional and world federations act speedily but responsibly to decide on the next course of action. 

From Syakir’s experience as an athlete, having a clear timeline is important to set the rhythm of competition, training and rest to maximise an athlete’s performance. The disruption must be handled properly and communication must be clear, and constant. Athletes, coaches, all stakeholders need to be consulted and updated regularly, and not left in the dark to guess what will happen next. 

Since we are not the first to kick-start our games, Malaysia must quickly analyse best practices from around the sports world to adapt the most suitable way forward for our own country. 

Since most games will not allow for spectators perhaps till the end of the year if not longer, the government must utilize the new dedicated sports channel in RTM to broadcast, and even share broadcasting rights with private sports channels. 

Again, rechannelling sports broadcasting is also a way to rechannel ticketing and other spectator sports revenue to new platforms, cushioning the economic impact on the sports sector. 

Finance: PENJANA left out the sports sector

Many aspects of professional sports are affected. One key area is finance. Sports revenue will be affected substantially. Steven’s previous article had outlined several measures for the government to assist sports as an industry. The focus of this article will be on high performance athletes and NSAs. 

Both NSC and NSAs have to project a sort of anti-cyclical situation where they will have to spend more despite receiving less revenue. NSAs must learn to be lean, and it goes without saying, to have good governance. 

Recently, Sim spoke to an office-holder from the Squash Racquets Association of Malaysia (SRAM) and he shared how the association does not condone practices of footing the travel bill of office bearers who travel along with athletes to games or even to federation events. No wonder squash is doing so well in Malaysia!

The Ministry of Youth and Sports under Saudara Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman has received an approval for another RM30 million from sugar tax on top and above of the existing annual Ministry budget. 

This fund, together with unused budget due to cancelation of sporting programmes for the year, should be redirected and dispensed to assist NSAs and athletes to deal with these economically challenging times. Olympic Council of Malaysia (OCM) has also come forward to offer RM300,000 financial assistance to affected NSAs. 

Disappointingly, the RM35 billion PENJANA economic recovery plan which was announced by the Prime Minister, left out the sports sector. We hope the Ministry will mitigate this quickly and fight for an additional budget for the sector.  

The government can take this opportunity to increase the TRACK programme introduced last year to help athletes with jobs placement even while they are still in training. 

This is also the time to allow some athletes to pursue their studies. The training interruption can be fully utilised to help our athletes to gain new knowledge, new experience and perhaps even additional income.

New normal for high performance sports: More government money but more strategic and good governance

We hope the government will take a more drastic action to assist sports in Malaysia. Over the years, the sector has come to be dependent on government funding and brand sponsorship. 

With the latter potentially reduced substantially due to economic slowdown, the government must increase its spending, but cannot merely stop at spending more money.

It must insist on good governance without compromise to ensure money is spent to achieve targets, not wasted through leakages. NSAs must be assisted financially but they must also be assisted to be independent, to function more efficiently and definitely to function with greater accountability.

There must be a proper strategy and route map so that athletes and other stakeholders are not left in a guessing game, thus increasing anxieties in the sector. 

Steven Sim is the MP for Bukit Mertajam and former Deputy Minister for Youth and Sports. Muhammad Syakir Che Mansor is a former officer at Ministry of Youth and Sports. He is currently active in triathlon events. 

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