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COVID-19 lockdown; the perfect moment to reflect on the past and plan for the future.

COVID-19 is having a huge impact on the sport industry, with major sport events, leagues and competitions canceled or postponed. The 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games is the biggest example. While the world is in lockdown and governments are using strict precautions to minimize the spread of the virus, the sport business is trying to look to the future. Clubs, national governing bodies, international federations, leagues and event organizations are trying to plan their next season’s or next year’s events or - in a few cases - planning for their sport later this year. All this within an environment of great uncertainty.

Coping with COVID-19 requires a different way of working. Instead of meeting face-to-face or coaching athletes on the field, we stay in touch through digital meetings, while we are working from home. It has required some adaptation in our way of working, particularly on the daily tasks that require direct contact, when because of lockdown restrictions, you are not surrounded by your athletes and your multidisciplinary team members. Even though nowadays we have a lot of technology at our disposal, it’s not the same and the training outcomes will be different. With all competitions on hold, it’s important to keep the athletes healthy and in functional condition, in order to be ready to perform the moment, it’s safe to resume.

There have been numerous, creative examples of how to keep athletes in shape, shared through social media by coaches and sport organizations. Fitness equipment delivered to the athletes’ homes, guided through online consultation with their coaches; one-on-one sessions between coach and athlete in an isolated training environment or using applications to provide athletes with specific training or nutrition schedules that can be monitored through wearables and other advanced technologies.

Definitely not ideal situations, but COVID-19 has forced us out of our comfort zone and to find solutions. But this situation is an opportunity for sport organizations. An opportunity to reflect the past and plan for the future; Staff and sport administrators can use the hiatus to review their current organizational structure, functions and programs; find elements for targeted improvement; work on long-term planning and development; implement personal growth and development plans for staff and athletes alike; evaluate and (re)structure athlete pathways, talent identification and talent development programs. All things that often get less attention due to the chronic pressures of managing increasingly congested training and competition schedules.

Just as the development of long-term strategies for athlete and system development is critical for the success of NFs, it is also critical for sport nations with ambitions to host major multi-sport events. Nations need to think about investment in the long-term planning of a particular sport program or an entire sport system in order to be successful during the games. Bidding for and staging major events involves enormous investments for host countries. Of course, they bring festivities and national “feel-good”, stimuli for the local economy, tourism and job opportunities; they develop the country’s infrastructure and can be powerful agents for regeneration. But amongst all the related festivities and in front of visiting fans from around the world, you also want your home team to perform like never before. You want to avoid sporting humiliation on home soil. From the moment the games are awarded, host nations have approximately seven years to prepare for the events themselves and equally critically, to get their national teams into the best possible shape. That seems like plenty of time, but it is still insufficient - for countries that need to develop a sport system from a low starting point - to produce medal contenders in enough sports and events to have a significant impact on the medal table.

With Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028 already having been awarded, there is now a long-list of potential candidates for the 2032 Olympic Games, including some proven high-medal contenders like Germany, New Zealand, Korea, Italy, The Netherlands, Australia and the United Kingdom. These countries will most likely use their bids to generate more resources through governments and sponsor-partnerships to maintain their existing sport systems or improve and develop the athlete pathways in less popular/successful sports or events to also become serious medal contenders in these events. Even for these nations, starting now – with a 12-year window – there is only just enough time, as the lead time prior to being able to start training in earnest, is considerable.

Indonesia and India, both sport-minded and large countries in terms of land-mass and population, are on the long-list for the 2032 Olympic games. Based on history, neither country can claim convincing multi-sport performances on the world stage. For them, a seven-year window will be very tight, given that most of their sport programs need a lot of enhancement or to be built from scratch. Just sending a large number of athletes by using the host-nation quotas won’t deliver medals; for these and other similar nations, the starting gun has already been fired and they are in a race against the clock.

The majority of the athletes who will participate in the 2032 Olympic Games are currently in their early-to-mid-teens and should already be in talent development programs, however informally or inexplicitly; “talents” already identified as such, or young athletes who are currently participating in grassroots programs within current sport systems. The development and identification processes for young athletes to represent these nations needs to start now. In general, the time from identification to the first world-level performance takes at least eight years of hard training and preparation. It will take four years to plan and implement the right level of training programs. Therefore, with 12 years to go until the 2032 Summer Olympics, now is the right time for them to activate and enhance their sport systems to develop a large group of athletes to be in their prime in 2032. In other words, the foundation to build a legacy for a sport system has to start now.

The London 2012 Olympic Games can be used as an example. The London 2012 games were awarded on the 6th of July 2005 but the development of an elite sport program in The United Kingdom started 10 years earlier, in the mid-‘90s, so by the time The UK bid for the 2012 Games, they had already demonstrated serious intent. In comparison to other host nations, the United Kingdom also continued investing in its sport programs after the home Games, which resulted in an even better performance during the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. Clearly a legacy of the strategic planning sessions in the mid-’90s.

Based on the size of their populations and land-mass - and passion for sport - countries like India and Indonesia can seriously aim for a place in the top 10 of the medal rankings at an Olympic Games in 2032. With the right planning and decision-making, they can become serious top 10 contenders. The question is: when might they start with the planning? A similar question can be asked of some other sleeping giants like Nigeria, Saudi Arabia – bidding to host the 2030 Asian Games (the second-biggest multi-sport event after the Summer Olympics) - Vietnam and Turkey. Will COVID-19 precautions be their planning opportunity?

APEX Global Sport Group would like to discuss how we can help you with the evolution of your current programs. Through our APEX365 Model, we always consider the short and the long-term, so your organization and your programs will contribute to a sustainable sport system. Contact us to start a conversation.

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