Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley spoke to the Beacon on Tuesday about the fate of sports in the territory admist the Covid-19 pandemic.
When do you think sports federations and associations can start hosting games and competitions again?
We really are not at that point right now. We are evaluating the situation. It’s a fluid situation. We are monitoring the population in terms of the [Covid-19] cases. I couldn’t really give a time, because we have to evaluate. Let’s say we get a cluster of cases, that may change how we approach it. So, unfortunately, this situation is one where you will have to evaluate as we go. But we’re hopeful that at some point we can start to have some level of activity.
What do you think fans in athletes should expect when sports do return?
It can’t be the same. So, we’ll have to put some specific protocols in place for sports. You have sports where you have contact and you have sports without contact. So certainly I would expect the sports without contact to be a little easier. We’re not going to be encouraging crowds. You have the option through technology now to be able to watch remotely. In this Covid-19 era you must be prepared to be creative and to use technology as much as possible. The Department of Youth Affairs and Sports have already put out some videos teaching persons techniques for warming up, for exercising and you can expect that they’ll have more information coming out about sports. We are making the use of technology to be able to support sports in this new era.
Do you think fans should be permitted to attend sporting events in the early stages of reopening?
I don’t think immediately you will see fans at games when we do reintroduce sports and activities. I think you can perhaps expect that we’ll still be emphasising social distancing. At some of those events, it may be difficult to practice or police social distancing. But perhaps at some point we will get there because we’ve been phasing our reopening.
Has the ministry or yourself been in contact with any sports federations or the BVI Olympic Committee?
I have a Zoom call scheduled with the BVIOC.
How important is sports to the territory?
Sports are extremely important to us right now. We have been promoting good health. The Ministry of Health has a programme called the Complete Health Improvement Programme. They have partnered with my ministry. … Sports have also provided lots of scholarships to talented athletes, so that they can go abroad and get their education. It has also actually provided careers and it’s been a source of recreation. It helps persons to de-stress. Right now persons might be in stressful situations, and it would be important for them to find ways to de-stress. We do want persons to be able to engage in sports and activities at some point, but we just asked for their patience as we go through a difficult period because we want to make sure that we control the spread of Covid-19.
Talk about the impact on the economy by not having sports in the territory.
Sports tourism is really the diversification of our tourism product and the BVI. Given the troubles before Covid-19 with financial services and even in the traditional areas of tourism, because of the recovery from Hurricane [Irma] there was a need to diversify the economy. … It is concerning because of the impact on our economy. … If we manage it well here there’s a greater likelihood that we could accommodate events in the future. But we have to pay attention to what’s happening outside the Virgin Islands as well, because we don’t want to place our people at risk. This is a challenge we’ve never seen in our lifetimes. We just have to use wisdom and be diligent. Pay attention to the science. The playbook hasn’t been written on this one. We’re basically writing the playbook as we go.
There were programmes and initiatives, like establishing a National Sports Council by July 31, in the budget. Are we still going to see some of these projects completed this year?
The sports council will go ahead and those are the types of things that will be able to happen despite Covid-19. In addition to that, you will see some construction projects that deal with recreation facilities, like the Jeffrey Caines arena [on VG]. We are looking forward to the completion of that facility soon. We’re gonna keep pushing on construction projects and any type of legislation that we have to pass that the sports council will require. We’ll push hard on those things so that we can meet our targets for this year.
How much priority is being put into sports to ensure that it is getting up and running right now?
Well, because of the nature of sports it’s not going to be directly at the forefront in our health pandemic, because of the need to socially distance.
The number one priority during the Covid-19 period is a person’s health and not spreading the virus. After we’re confident that we have mitigated against the spread and we’ve put measures in place then we can start thinking about some level of normalcy. I have to give the caveat that normalcy has a new definition now. There’ll be a new normal.
Have there been any silver linings or benefits to come out of this pandemic in regards to sports?
Well, yes, I mentioned the Department of Youth Affairs and Sports and the outreach that they’re currently doing through technology. We’re finding with the technology it’s allowing us to reach people that we perhaps have never reached before. And I think it’s going to help us to become more efficient, more creative and to have more reach. So, I do think that there’s a silver lining in this and even in terms of sports we have an opportunity now to reflect and to reevaluate. We certainly will have an opportunity to focus on legislation and focus on some construction projects since the facilities won’t be in use. I do think that there are opportunities, even in the midst of this crisis.
With this new normal that sports teams and federations are going face, there’s probably going to be some costs. Is the ministry willing to step in and help, especially federations that are already cash strapped?
I think we’ll have a conversation among the federations in terms of what protocols will need to be put in place for sports to be able to function — different sports have different requirements. … I would say we’d be willing to have a conversation with these organisations to see what can be done to help facilitate them.
Will all sports be treated the same or will we start seeing some sports back in action before others?
I can’t say right now all sports will come back at the same time, because it’s a fluid situation as we know. That’s a discussion we have to have. I think the main concern is safety. So, I don’t think any sport should feel as though they’re being targeted or treated unfair. The key is to make sure that persons are safe. And certainly some sports it is more difficult than others. I can conceptualise having different requirements for different sports, but I can’t say right now whether one sport will start before another sport.
During this pandemic, what advice would you give the sporting community?
I would say, do what you can to stay active within your household. We’ve also opened up with this curfew for a little while so persons can go jogging and they can do what they need to do in a limited capacity to stay fit. I know persons want to make sure that they remain on the cutting edge. You can also study your craft right now. Watch training videos on YouTube or on Facebook. That will allow you to take your craft to the next level. I think now is an opportunity in many different spheres of life to be able to improve. Use this time productively, as opposed to just giving up.
(Interview conducted and condensed by Todd VanSickle)