Like all other sports organisations, the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports Federation (IWAS) has felt the impact of COVID-19 on many levels.
Most importantly as the governing body for wheelchair fencing and powerchair hockey and the organisers of the IWAS World Games, one of the biggest Para sports events in the world, we have tried to minimise the effects on athletes.
In early 2020 at the start of the coronavirus outbreak, IWAS made the difficult decision to postpone the 2020 IWAS World Games from February until April. At the time we were fielding questions from concerned members and a two-month delay felt about right.
However, around a month later the severity of the situation had become very clear and the World Games were postponed until December. The cancellation of the remaining wheelchair fencing qualifiers for Tokyo 2020 followed, as well as the powerchair hockey Europeans. At this point, the Paralympics were still scheduled to go ahead this year.
We heard from athletes who needed to compete at our events hoping to climb the world rankings. They were veterans and debutants alike, sharing the heartbreak of potentially missing their one chance to compete on the biggest stage of all or end their careers on a high. However our decisions were well-supported despite the impacts, something we have been struck by.
In the meantime we focused – and continue to focus – on sharing uplifting and useful content on social media. This included video messages from our President, replays of competitions, athlete training videos and interviews as well as a recently launched history campaign for wheelchair fencing.
Subsequently, of course, Tokyo 2020 was postponed. IWAS was able to secure agreement with the International Paralympic Committee to extend the qualification window until 2021, allowing us to reinstate the cancelled competitions as athletes and coaches had asked us to do.
This was great news for athletes and IWAS but there are still questions to answer. We now need to organise three regional Championships and one World Cup – all of which must take place in the next 12 months. Whilst we are fortunate to have local organising committees ready to go, we think people will recognise that there is still uncertainty around when the best time to have them is – and if they will make it over the line in the end.
Without a vaccine, can we reasonably and responsibly stage events? Will host countries allow access for all competing countries? Will athletes have the funding they need to attend? What measures might we need to put in place and how practical would they be?
As a responsible federation, we can only deal with what is in front of us and plan accordingly. But at the same time we are trying to be open with our community and take them with us. We are operating on two guiding principles:
- Safety of participants
- Quality of competition – ensuring everyone can compete
Using these we have been able to sketch out a return to competition, which starts in late November 2020 and into December with the World Games. We are cautiously optimistic that we can adhere to this timetable, but are keeping everything under constant review. We are also looking at what happens after 2021 – holding regional Championships and the Paralympics next year will mean we will need to make changes to the cycle in the following period.
Everyone at IWAS is hugely grateful for the understanding and grace shown to us by our membership and the athletes. The effects of this crisis will be felt for some years to come but we will return the support we have been shown in the last weeks. We are in no doubt that it has been a rollercoaster in personal and career terms for everyone, especially athletes, and it is not over yet. We keep this at the forefront of our minds when planning our collective futures.