COVID-19: Impact of a “Global Player”—A Reflection 1 Year On

in International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance
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  • 1 Philipps-University Marburg, Germany

It is about a year now that the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) has been dominating our private and professional lives across the world causing changes in “game rules” in all situations of daily life. We all had to experience and adjust to things like social distancing, wearing a facemask, strict hygiene precautions, lockdown, and so on. All such measures—as annoying as we may perceive them to be—had to be implemented to save peoples’ lives. But they also massively influenced the way we live, socialize, work, . . . and play and watch sports. In his International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance editorial, “You’ll never walk alone,”1 Jos de Koning already envisaged some of the challenges the virus would not only require us to rise to, but also the opportunities the crisis could bring us.

A year ago, everything came to a standstill. That lockdown had a massive impact also on the world of sports. Organizers had to cancel or postpone events because of the pandemic, and the list of sporting events moved from 2020 to 2021 got longer on a weekly basis. The rescheduling of the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo to 2021 with remaining uncertainty are probably the most prominent examples. In its 124 years history so far, the Olympic Games have been disrupted only by worldwide tragic events like the 2 World Wars in 1916, 1940, and 1944.2 At a national level, for example in team sports, the leagues were interrupted mid-season. In the English Premier League 2019/20 season, we all remember the FC Liverpool’s winning streak and then suddenly the safe-believed title win at risk. While there was considerable debate about the restarting of professional sport during the COVID-19 pandemic, for many players and clubs, it was a sign of relief that following the successful return to men’s football competition in the German Bundesliga, other leagues could also adopt the developed health and safety procedures3 and return to competition.

Professional football/soccer and other events like Formula 1 are characterized by a huge media presence and consequently big money is involved. They can afford the cost incurred by changing schedules, logistical challenges, and repeated SARS-CoV-2 PCR testing. In contrast, niche sports neither have the infrastructure nor the money to implement the same strict policies in terms of polymerase chain reaction testing and player management. Given the smaller or even missing media coverage, there is no income in these niche sports to compensate for the lack of revenue from spectators attending events. A similar imbalance probably exists for professional versus semiprofessional and amateur sports of the same event.

While professional football/soccer could start and continue through the 2020/2021 season even during lockdowns associated with the second COVID-19 wave, semiprofessional and amateur football was treated differently and was significantly interrupted again. This interruption comprised not only competition but also training in amateur team sports and all indoor sports. As a consequence of the pandemic, membership numbers in amateur sport clubs and gyms in Germany dropped substantially. Training facilities like swimming pools and local sports halls were temporarily closed, and some were even at risk of closing permanently because towns and counties had to reallocate money to help secure peoples’ jobs. Therefore, the SARS-CoV-2 virus is making an immense impact on semiprofessional and amateur sports, in particular at grassroots level. While elite athletes, especially those who compete at the Tokyo games or similar prestigious events, are now allowed to continue their training in the best possible way under the given circumstances, regional-level amateurs and young athletes face massive obstacles in their training infrastructure. Whether this will lead to problems developing a new generation of elite athletes and/or possible reduction in participation, mental and physical health status, development and ultimately performance as identified during and following both World Wars,4 only time will tell.

Huge media interest can be a blessing and a curse. To use the professional football/soccer example again, the broadcasters with the media coverage rights are very powerful and influential in the game schedule of events. Because in many countries the 2020 season ended quite late, there was hardly a break for players before the start of the new season. In particular, for successful teams, which also participate in international competitions (eg, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Champions League), the game schedule is incredibly tight. Furthermore, the successful teams have a high percentage of players also competing for their respective national teams. So, in addition to their very dense club schedule, they have extra matches with their national team increasing player load even further. Every additional match, with its related travel, increases not only the injury risk substantially, but also the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection or quarantine, as well as reduces the time available to recover. It is questionable how many matches at short intervals a player can tolerate without compromising their physical and mental health. In numerous top teams, the corresponding toll seems to have materialized already. Furthermore, not only in football but also across all disciplines, the number of athletes who contracted a SARS-CoV-2 infection is steadily increasing. While guidelines regarding return to play in elite athletes after COVID-19 are already in place, knowledge about potential long-term effects such as, for example, potential cardiac, pulmonary, or even cerebral pathology after SARS-CoV-2 infection with only mild symptoms is still very limited.57

But not only the day-to-day training was affected by COVID-19, the disturbances appear on a larger scale. For example, training camps were canceled for several months in selected national teams. Furthermore, in Para-/Olympic athletes, the “normal” 4-year preparation cycle has changed to a 5-year cycle. In team sports, COVID-19 is an incalculable influencing factor: some matches are simply postponed due to Corona infections, whereas others are counted as time lost for the team unable to play. The Würzburger Kickers, a second-division German football team, had to play a goalkeeper on the field because they ran out of field players. The German women’s national handball team had to start the European Championships without their Head Coach, who was not allowed to travel due to corona restrictions. The United States of America and Czech Republic withdrew from the Handball World Championships because they ran out of healthy players and/or members of the support teams. Furthermore, it remains uncertain whether there is still something like a “home advantage” with no spectators in attendance. In winter sports, athletes have to adapt to unusual event schedules, preparation, and travel arrangements. At present, we can only speculate about the impact of these changed conditions on athletes’ performance, health, and future lives.

Our roles as sports scientists include assisting coaches and athletes with advice on performance-improving and health-protecting issues. The examples above indicate that in COVID-19 times, we face new challenges in both sport science support and research. Obviously, the pandemic offers new research questions. However, due to expenses caused by the global player COVID-19, access to research funding might be even more limited in the short to midterm. With all countries in debt and facing challenging economic times, a scientific niche area like Sports Science may encounter similar problems as a niche sport. However, in the same way as results in sports competitions are never 100% predictable, we hope that the future turns out to be much brighter once the vaccination program continues. Let us be optimistic that sometime in the near future we can say: Sports (as representative for all aspects of life) 1 versus COVID-19 0.

References

  • 1.

    de Koning JJ. You’ll never walk alone. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2020;15(5):597. PubMed ID: 32240974 doi:10.1123/ijspp.2020-0217

  • 2.

    Bok D, Chamari K, Foster C. The pitch invader—COVID-19 canceled the game: what can science do for us, and what can the pandemic do for science? Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2020;15(7):917919. PubMed ID: 32570215 doi:10.1123/ijspp.2020-0467

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 3.

    Meyer T, Mack D, Donde K, et al. Successful return to professional men’s football (soccer) competition after the COVID-19 shutdown: a cohort study in the German Bundesliga. Br J Sports Med. 2021;55(1):6266. PubMed ID: 32972979 doi:10.1136/bjsports-2020-103150

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 4.

    Berthelot G, Sedeaud A, Marck A, et al. Has athletic performance reached its peak? Sports Med. 2015, 45(9), 12631271. PubMed ID: 26094000 doi:10.1007/s40279-015-0347-2

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 5.

    Kim JH, Levine BD, Phelan D, et al. Coronavirus disease 2019 and the athletic heart: emerging perspectives on pathology, risks, and return to play. JAMA Cardiol. 2021;6(2):219227. doi:10.1001/jamacardio.2020.5890

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 6.

    Wilson MG, Hull JH, Rogers J, et al. Cardiorespiratory considerations for return-to-play in elite athletes after COVID-19 infection: a practical guide for sport and exercise medicine physicians. Br J Sports Med. 2020;54(19):11571161. PubMed ID: 32878870 doi:10.1136/bjsports-2020-102710

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 7.

    Heming M, Li X, Räuber S, et al. Neurological manifestations of COVID-19 feature T cell exhaustion and dedifferentiated monocytes in cerebrospinal fluid. Immunity. 2021;54(1):164175.e6. PubMed ID: 33382973 doi:10.1016/j.immuni.2020.12.011

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 1.

    de Koning JJ. You’ll never walk alone. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2020;15(5):597. PubMed ID: 32240974 doi:10.1123/ijspp.2020-0217

  • 2.

    Bok D, Chamari K, Foster C. The pitch invader—COVID-19 canceled the game: what can science do for us, and what can the pandemic do for science? Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2020;15(7):917919. PubMed ID: 32570215 doi:10.1123/ijspp.2020-0467

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 3.

    Meyer T, Mack D, Donde K, et al. Successful return to professional men’s football (soccer) competition after the COVID-19 shutdown: a cohort study in the German Bundesliga. Br J Sports Med. 2021;55(1):6266. PubMed ID: 32972979 doi:10.1136/bjsports-2020-103150

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 4.

    Berthelot G, Sedeaud A, Marck A, et al. Has athletic performance reached its peak? Sports Med. 2015, 45(9), 12631271. PubMed ID: 26094000 doi:10.1007/s40279-015-0347-2

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 5.

    Kim JH, Levine BD, Phelan D, et al. Coronavirus disease 2019 and the athletic heart: emerging perspectives on pathology, risks, and return to play. JAMA Cardiol. 2021;6(2):219227. doi:10.1001/jamacardio.2020.5890

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 6.

    Wilson MG, Hull JH, Rogers J, et al. Cardiorespiratory considerations for return-to-play in elite athletes after COVID-19 infection: a practical guide for sport and exercise medicine physicians. Br J Sports Med. 2020;54(19):11571161. PubMed ID: 32878870 doi:10.1136/bjsports-2020-102710

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 7.

    Heming M, Li X, Räuber S, et al. Neurological manifestations of COVID-19 feature T cell exhaustion and dedifferentiated monocytes in cerebrospinal fluid. Immunity. 2021;54(1):164175.e6. PubMed ID: 33382973 doi:10.1016/j.immuni.2020.12.011

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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