Making sports happen requires a massive investment of resources and isolation which is cool until you look at a COVID-19 dashboard

An American sports league may show the way forward for the Olympics, but is it even worth it at this point?

To complete the 2019-20 National Hockey League season 24 teams worth of players, staff, and personnel are isolating themselves in hotels in two Canadian cities where they will play out the season’s playoffs and championship on designated rinks away from fans.

Each team chartered transportation from their home market and tested rigorously beforehand ensuring that the teams entered their respective “bubbles” COVID-free. It worked?

The NHL will now go into its bubble COVID-free and with its continued testing and tracing, it seems that it can weather a multi-month tournament where athletes are constantly on top of each other in a cramped indoor space breathing heavily during an airborne pandemic.

To do this all it required was tens of thousands of rapid tests available to athletes, and not the public at large, in the midst of a rapidly escalating situation throughout the United States.

It is not hard to see how the Olympics could easily adopt a “bubble” approach if things get dire before the 2021 Games.

Unlike other sport events the Olympics are relatively contained in a few cities in one country. Athletes could congregate in centralized locations, quarantine, have access to tests and have meals provided to them before travelling on chartered transportation options to the bubble of the Olympics.

I’ve often said how the Olympics take place in a bubble, and some of the best experiences I’ve had as a journalist were purposely putting the Games behind me and exploring the city’s culture and scenery outside the Games. Quickly you can get away from the massive spectacle and just remember that daily live continues while the world is tuned into the Olympic broadcasts.

Olympic leaders said last week that the Games likely won’t take place if there is no vaccine in 2021 for COVID-19. Even with a vaccine, experts say that the pandemic will likely force a “new normal” for the Games, given the uncertainty of scalability with any first vaccine and whether it will just mitigate COVID-19 in the world’s population or eradicate it.

Tokyo 2020 held an inspiring scaled down 15-minute “One Year to Go” celebration amid the current state of the world, creating the surreal spectacle of an event having one-year countdown events two years in a row. This came right after the IOC held its annual session, which was supposed to shore up business right before the start of the 2020 Olympics. The session was held virtually, and did very little to clear up any uncertainties about the next year of preparations.

In an absence of answers, reporters have been forced to speculate about what the 2021 Olympics could look like, and my friend Michael Pavitt started looking at successful resumptions of sport around the world to apply it to the Olympics.

In areas of the world where the pandemic has been mitigated and under control, sports allowed for teams to travel safely, yet it took a massive investment of resources to do so. In the United States, where the pandemic is decidedly not under control, successful resumption of sports have come in “bubbles”. Both Major League Soccer and the National Women’s Soccer League have held or are currently holding knockout style tournaments in contained locations. The National Basketball Association has created a permeable bubble in Florida, a major coronavirus hotspot in the United States, but has strict protocols for entry and exit, which has proven the endeavor successful so far. The NHL is entering its bubble containing an outbreak amongst its ranks after bringing players back from all around the world.

One outlier amongst these leagues is Major League Baseball.

After baseball returned in South Korea, Taiwan, and finally Japan there was hope that MLB could return in the United States. Players and owners fought bitterly about agreements to resume play. After starting the season late in July without fans, it only took three games for everything to be thrown into turmoil.

The Miami Marlins have a full-blown outbreak within the team, and managed to play a full game after learning at least four members of the team had contracted COVID-19, thanks to a group text message making final decisions.

In wake of this, multiple games have been postponed and the future of the season is uncertain, as it should be!

I mapped out a lot of this breakdown/column/whatever writing in the time of COVID is while watching a MLB game, I won’t lie. Athletes have put themselves at risk for our entertainment, and Americans are starving for entertainment as the extended pandemic has bled every one of our days together and shows no sign of stopping amidst a very bitter election. Basically, everything is kind of depressing these days here, in my opinion.

Just over a month ago my partner had to travel home to see her family. It was a benign trip, but one she couldn’t put off any longer despite the pandemic.

The trip itself was not noteworthy, thankfully, but the scary part was when she returned. After waiting a week to see if she developed any COVID symptoms, my wife went to get a COVID-19 test. It would be 12 days before she received a response. During that time she went to get tested again, having no clarity on her situation and worrying about spreading an airborne disease despite wearing a mask and limiting trips outside to only essential needs. It took three days to get a test because she could not wait three hours during the work day, and testing sites were overloaded. After a week she finally received a test result: negative.

This is the normal routine here in Georgia, in the U.S. where we live. I was able to get a COVID test for free while my wife was out of town and get results within 24 hours, but by the time I told my partner and our roommate to go to that testing site, it was closed and we have no idea if it will ever re-open. I got lucky with my test, my partner and roommate did not. We don’t know what the testing situation will be like in the coming months because currently our Governor is squabbling with our Mayor in court over a mask mandate, the country’s President brags about scaling down testing so our case numbers look better, and hoards of people are about to be evicted from their homes because they cannot make rent payments.

It is in this backdrop I think about sports. The NHL will tout its success by having no COVID cases going into its bubble, and from an administrative standpoint that is a success. Yet, how many tests did it take to make that happen so quickly? Were these tests processed at labs that also process civilian tests? For workers still going to work every day, knowing your COVID status just one day earlier is so vital and can save lives. Is this the best use of our resources?

The Olympics are supposed to be a project of our shared humanity, reminding the world that we can in fact come together every four years and supersede our differences, whether it be conflict or ideological differences, and get together and play some sports. It sounds naive and silly when distilled down, but a lot of people have invested a lot of money in this endeavor. Yet, where we are right now shows there is both a way forward to holding this event, and inherent costs to doing so, which will affect every country all over the world.

So, just because sports have shown us the Olympics can take place, what happens if the costs of doing so take away from the shared humanity we need to confront a global pandemic? What then?

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