Champs cancelled as coronavirus fear grows
A section of the crowd at the 2019 ISSA/GraceKennedy Boys and Girls' Athletics Championships at the National Stadium.
The 2020 Inter-Secondary Schools Sports Association (ISSA)/GraceKennedy Boys and Girls' Athletics Championship has been cancelled amidst a global coronavirus, Covid-19 outbreak that the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a pandemic on Wednesday.
While the championship has not been held for various reasons in the past, this marks the first time in the 110-year history of the event (Boys Champs started in 1910) that it has been cancelled because of public health concerns.
The writing was on the wall since President of the Jamaica Athletics, Administrative, Association (JAAA), Dr Warren Blake said on Sunday that the highly anticipated event could be held without spectators. However, Blake noted that there was no confirmed case of Covid-19 in the island up to Sunday and said Champs organisers would have to assess the situation on a daily basis.
The five-day spectacle which attracts tens of thousands of spectators, many from overseas, was scheduled to run off from March 24-28 inside the National Stadium.
However, plans were upended on Tuesday when the Minister of Health and Wellness Dr Christopher Tufton, announced that Jamaica had diagnosed its first case of the feared Covid-19. He told a hastily-called press conference at his ministry's New Kingston offices that announcement would be made Wednesday, following meetings with Champs organisers, the Inter-Secondary Schools Sports Association (ISSA) and main sponsors GraceKennedy.
A release issued by GraceKennedy on Wednesday stated that "following a meeting today with Government officials, ISSA and GraceKennedy; ISSA and ‘Champs’ title sponsors, GraceKennedy, are now advising that this year’s staging of the ISSA/GraceKennedy Boys and Girls Athletic Championships will be cancelled."
“This was not a decision taken lightly,” said ISSA President, Keith Wellington. “We have been watching the developments with COVID-19 keenly, with a view to making the right decision should it ever present here. Now that it is here, and the Health Ministry is discouraging mass gatherings, we feel strongly that this is the best decision,” he added.
Don Wehby, Group CEO of the GraceKennedy, reiterated Wellington’s sentiments. “We have to act in the nation’s interest. It’s a tough situation because you have athletes who are ready, coaches who have worked hard to prepare them, workers who were ready for the event, and many expectant fans across the world. As title sponsors, this is GraceKennedy’s single largest sponsorship worldwide, but at the end of the day, the risk is too great, and the health of the country is paramount."
Dr Tufton, signalled his solid support for the decision taken to cancel the event. “This is now a public health issue. Covid-19 has been declared a global pandemic which changes the rules of engagement. We must take all steps possible to curtail community spread and as such we should not have any such event,“ he said.
Education Minister, Karl Samuda was firm in his agreement with the decision to cancel. “We have to take all the necessary precautions to keep our young people safe, inside and outside of the school environment. I have been having meetings with my principals as to how to do this, even as this situation quickly evolves,” he said.
Sports Minister Olivia Grange agreed, stating, “We know the importance of an event such as this and know that it is highly anticipated on the sporting calendar every year. However, our only obligation at this point is to act responsibly, and the decision to cancel, tough as it may be, is the right and most responsible one."
The cancellation is far more drastic than what Blake was hoping for, which is Champs without spectators. However, such a scenario would have placed hundreds of athletes, coaches, school officials and Champs organisers together inside the national stadium.
It has come at a time when health authorities across the globe are increasingly recommending the banning of all large scale sporting, religious, social, political, and entertainment activities as part of efforts to contain the coronavirus.
Globally, more than 126,000 people have contracted COVID-19 and 4,633 have died, the vast majority in mainland China.