SU expert makes sports events safer

Professor Wayne Derman

A sports and exercise medicine expert from Stellenbosch University (SU) is a member of a high-level international Outbreak Prevention Task Force that has developed a free online tool to help event organisers to assess and mitigate the Covid-19 risk during endurance sports events.

This online tool was developed in record time by a group of experts from a number of the world’s leading sports organisations, including World Athletics, the International Cycling Union and the International Institute for Race Medicine. The World Health Organization (WHO) was involved in the project in an observer capacity.

“According to the saying, necessity is the mother of invention. At the beginning of 2020, none of us thought that a pandemic would bring about an abrupt halt to many forms of physical activity and the sports industry,” said Professor Wayne Derman, director of the Institute of Sport and Exercise Medicine (ISEM) at SU’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS).

“Being active keeps people healthy and there are also many people employed in endurance sports – from professional athletes to the organisations that deliver mass gathering races.

“Therefore, for the last (few) months, those of us with a responsibility for endurance sport have been trying to help with the return of sports in an environment that will be as safe as possible,” said Professor Derman, who is also a representative of the International Paralympic Committee.

“The tool is intended to help organisers assess the risk of staging an event, establish the preparedness of the community and the event organisation for the risks of Covid-19, and clarify any necessary steps to further mitigate and reduce the risk,” he explained about the Infectious Diseases Outbreak Management (IDOM) tool that
was launched internationally.

To use the tool, sports event organisers enter details about a planned event online, after which a customised report is produced that can assist organisers to make decisions to protect the local community, the participants, the volunteers, the workforce and the staff involved.

It does not advise on spectator management.

The tool was developed by the medical task force and is based on WHO tools and documents.

“We wanted to help organisers understand the varying risks posed by the pandemic. The tool recognises the status of the pandemic where the event is taking place, for example whether it is active, receding or subject to additional waves.

“Until a vaccine is found, there is never going to be zero risk.

“Instead we look at mitigation strategies that can be employed to lower that risk as much as possible,” he said.

The tool is applicable and free of charge to all mass participation endurance events, regardless of the sport, competition level and size.

It outlines mandatory mitigation measures to be undertaken by the event organisers, based on their particular circumstances, as well as recommended and desired measures, and emphasises that all of the mandatory measures and most of the recommended measures should be adopted if the event is to take place.

“It’s a pushing and prompting tool that examines things like: Does the event include athletes from parts of the world where the pandemic might be more active, or is this just a local event?

“Will spectators be present or not? What is the plan in place in case there is an outbreak during the event and can people be safely referred to the local hospital?

“Are the feeding and watering tables, and the people using them, adequately protected?

“So, it’s a tool of education and a tool of risk mitigation, said Professor Derman.

“Use of the tool doesn’t guarantee an event can take place, because every meet will be subject to local conditions, laws and approval by necessary authorities.

“Current regulations in South Africa states that no mass endurance sport is allowed. But once these regulations are lifted, event organisers can use the tool to assess the risk, and go to local authorities to present a considered plan,” said Professor Derman.

The template for this online tool can be used by other endurance sports.

“Using the tool will not solve the Covid-19 outbreak or other infectious diseases, but it will guide event organisers through a process that should become a habit and should be followed before every event,” said Dr Paolo Emilio Adami, World Athletics’ medical manager.

“There will never be zero risk for infectious diseases, but we want to help event organisers to reduce the risk to an acceptable level.”

The tool is available at idom.worldathletics.org

Wilma Stassen is a science writer at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Stellenbosch University.