Elite athletes are allowed to train, travel and compete. But the opposite is the case for thousands of recreational athletes as the pandemic worsens in the UK

Ten months ago the English Schools Cross Country Championships tentatively went ahead in Sefton Park in Liverpool. There were no restrictions on the number of spectators, some young athletes hugged each other post-race and there were even a few nervous handshakes between elderly officials at the end of the day.

Yet who could blame them? The first official death from Covid-19 in England had been recorded only nine days earlier, the Government was suggesting ‘herd immunity’ as a way to beat the virus and the first national lockdown was still more than a week away.

The New Balance-sponsored event turned out to be pretty much the final major athletics meeting in England to take place before the pandemic caused the sport to grind to a standstill last spring. Since then almost an entire year has passed and now, this week, the English Schools Athletics Association (ESAA) is expected to make a decision on whether the 2021 championships will take place at Hop Farm in Kent on March 13.

The signs are not good. The ESAA describes the championships as “doubtful” and this month England has been plunged into a further lockdown with the Government resurrecting its ‘stay at home’ message.

All grassroots competitions are currently suspended, with training opportunities severely limited. However, different rules apply for elite athletes and a small number of competitions in the UK are set to go ahead.

So, how is the pandemic presently affecting non-elite and elite athletes?

Non-elite athletes

All competitions – whether indoors or outdoors – are currently suspended throughout the UK. Training is also difficult with indoor and outdoor training venues closed. Even relatively ‘open’ track and field facilities that have, for example, only a small fence around them, are off limits according to Government rules.

As for training, you can exercise alone or with people you live with or those within your support bubble (if you’re legally allowed to have one) once a day in a public and local outdoor place. One-to-one coaching is also allowed in England as long as social distancing is maintained, whereas disability sport is still allowed too.

As was the case during the first lockdown in the UK last spring, runners will find it easier to train than field eventers. Sprinters and endurance athletes are able to get outdoors to put in the miles or tackle sessions such as hill reps or grass sessions in public spaces. But throwers, jumpers and hurdlers in technical events will be forced to improvise due to facilities being closed.

Not surprisingly the restrictions have been the subject of big debate and this week the House of Lords is holding two evidence sessions with sports journalists – including former athletics specialists Martha Kelner and Anna Kessel – to discuss whether enough is being done to support grassroots sports.

Elite athletes

Unless elite sport is suddenly banned, there are a number of athletics events in the UK that are set to be held in coming weeks. One of the most significant on the calendar this month is a BMC Elite Races events at Lee Valley in north London on January 30.

Events range from 400m to 3000m, including a para 1500m, with six athletes in each race in a Covid-secure environment with no spectators. Entries so far are impressive, too, such as Isabelle Boffey, Ellie Baker, Keely Hodgkinson, Georgie Hartigan, Zak Curran, Archie Davis, Ross Millington, Sol Sweeney, Ieuan Thomas, Jess Judd, Rosie Clarke and Verity Ockenden.

Keely Hodgkinson and Ellie Baker by David Lowes

Elsewhere another of the Bryggen Sports Invitational meetings is set to be held in Manchester on February 13, again solely for athletes with an elite exemption, with races over 800m, 1500m and 3000m and entries that include Hodgkinson, Baker and Millington plus Ciara Mageean, George Mills, Jamie Webb, Spencer Thomas, Charlotte Arter, Jenny Nesbitt, Katie Snowden, Jip Vastenburg and Holly Archer.

Of course the biggest domestic event on the horizon is the British Indoor Championships, which is set to be staged in Glasgow on February 20-21. As far as AW understands the meeting, which acts as the trial for the European Indoor Championships in Poland on March 5-7, is still set to go ahead, although due to the virus spinning out of control in some parts of the country no event is 100% guaranteed.

On the roads, once again only elite events are allowed and these include the Fast 5K in Ashton-in-Makerfield near Manchester on February 26. It follows the successful first edition of the race which was won by Laura Weightman and Eric Jenkins in October. One month later, on March 26, the British Olympic marathon trials is also still set to take place in Richmond.

A large number of British elite athletes have been training in Dubai this week. However, travel restrictions relating to that country – which includes isolating on return to the UK – are not required for elite athletes and essential support staff as they are exempt from the rules.

Outside the UK, competitions continue to take place around the world. The international indoor season is poised to get going fully at the end of this month in Fayetteville in the United States and Karlsruhe and Dusseldorf in Germany. The Karlsruhe meet on January 29, for example, includes Andy Pozzi (below), Dimitri Bascou and Pascal Martinot-Lagarde in the sprint hurdles.

In addition, Fayetteville is staging four meets as part of the American Track League in late January and early February. However, the US Indoor Championships, which was due to happen on February 20-21 in Albuquerque, has been called off.

The RAK Half Marathon in the United Arab Emirates is due to take place on February 19 featuring a number of the world’s top distance runners such as Ababel Yeshaneh, Brigid Kosgei, Kibiwott Kandie and Jacob Kiplimo. Elsewhere on the roads the Osaka International Women’s Marathon is set to take place in Japan on January 31.

Despite evidence of the virus not being transmitted as easily outdoors, cross-country running has been particularly badly hit with national championships in countries like the United States (February 6 in San Diego) and England (March 6 in London) called off.

As for the Olympics, the big question is: will it be postponed again?

This week a month-long state of emergency has been declared in Tokyo amid a rising and record number of coronavirus cases with a reported 80% of people from the Japanese capital saying in a poll that the Games should not go ahead.

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