GAA Football

Sport NI publishes framework guidance for return to sport

Sport NI CEO Antoinette McKeown.

SPORT NI’s framework for a return to sport begins to answer one question – How? – but not the one most people are asking: When?

That aspect will depend on the Northern Ireland Executive, with Peter McCabe, Sport NI’s Interim Director of Performance, explaining that “the framework is designed to help sport implement the executive’s five-step pathway.

“It plots a path for how sport can safely return here, in Northern Ireland. It’ll be important to help governing bodies develop their own sport-specific protocols, and these will help guide their members on a safe return to sport.”

Despite the extensive work put into the framework, McCabe points out that coping with the continuing Covid-19 crisis takes priority at present:

“This framework tells us how it’s possible for sport to return in Northern Ireland – but it doesn’t tell us when.

“At the moment it’s important not to divert resources away from the National Health Service but when the Executive decide that the time is right, this framework provides a way for everyone to return to sport safely.”

Given the unusual geographic context within which sports operates here, with some sports operating on an ‘island of Ireland’ basis and others on a UK basis, with a few sports being NI governing body led, there has been extensive engagement with Sport Ireland, UK Sport, and the UK nations’ sports bodies.

Sport NI has also taken into consideration other international responses from proven sporting systems (e.g. Australia and New Zealand) and representative groups (e.g. European Network of Outdoor Sports).

The framework also provides for all sports, including outdoor recreation, from grassroots level to high performance sport and professional athletes.

As regards those at elite level, McCabe revealed that “a high level group has been looking at this specific issue.

“We’re aware that in other countries high performance athletes are already back at training, because that country is further along in its management of the Covid outbreak. If and when the Executive were to give permission for our athletes to return to train, this framework will provide guidance as to how that might happen.”

The guidelines within both sections of the ‘Elite sport return to training’ guidance would need be met in order to be confident that the approach taken to returning to organised training could be considered healthy, safe and in line with current guidance and best practice.

Sport NI stressed that “it is critical that all sports must maintain awareness of the evolving COVID-19 environment and align current practices with informed decisions for athletes/other personnel safety.”

Apart from the over-reaching ‘high performance’ sector, there are five categories of sports, listed in likely order of ability to return to action, as follows:

Outdoor Recreation e.g. hill walking, orienteering, mountain biking, angling;

Water sports e.g. canoeing, rowing, sailing, surfing, swimming;

Non-Contact e.g. golf, tennis, bowls, archery, cycling, athletics, equestrian, motorsports;

Contact (lower risk) e.g. football, Gaelic football, hockey, netball, basketball;

Contact (higher risk) e.g. rugby, boxing, wrestling.

Interim Director of Performance McCabe acknowledged that some sports will be better prepared than others to return:

“We know sports are in different places in terms of their thinking on this: some sports have used their international federations and are fairly well down the road with development of protocols; others sports perhaps haven’t even started.

“We’re encouraging all sports to use this framework to check anything they have against it to ensure it maps to the Executive’s five-step pathway.”

Antoinette McKeown, Sport NI CEO said “There is a huge appetite across sports; athletes, coaches, fans and spectators to return to sport and many sports are actively planning how to implement the first step on this pathway.

“Sport NI’s Framework aims to facilitate that and acts as an important bridge between the NI Executive’s document and the more detailed protocols that sports will need to develop on an individual basis.”

The Framework is published on the Sport NI website

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