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For many Canadian sport administrators, a global pandemic seemed the stuff of history books or science fiction movies. However, in March 2020, with COVID-19 sweeping the globe, a number of major sport events were cancelled in Canada. This article shares the experiences and lessons learned from the 2020 Arctic Winter Games Host Society, Skate Canada and Volleyball Canada.

March 7, 2020 – 101,927 confirmed COVID-19 cases globally; 51 confirmed cases in Canada (WHO Situation Reports)

2020 Arctic Winter Games Host Society – Arctic Winter Games, Whitehorse YT

The 2020 Arctic Winter Games were scheduled for March 15-21, 2020 in Whitehorse, Yukon, marking the 50th anniversary of the Games. Preparing to welcome 2,000 athletes plus staff and volunteers from delegations across the circumpolar region (Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia; in addition to Nunavik, Nunavut, Northwest Territories, Northern Alberta, Yukon and Alaska), briefings with the Yukon’s acting Chief Medical Officer (CMO) relating to COVID-19 began in February. Questions from the CMO’s office slowly escalated, from standard public health protocols in early February; to details about the delegations and sleeping arrangements in mid-February; to inquiries about specific travel routes through international airport hubs in early March. Moira Lassen, General Manager of the 2020 Arctic Winter Games Host Society, recalls the unexpected conversations amongst staff and volunteers, including an emergency hand sanitizer meeting when only 6 of 75 jugs were delivered. “I remember thinking, ‘this is getting weird.’ But even then, we were confident that we had the necessary precautions in place.” 

Late morning on March 7th, Lassen was called to a meeting at the office of the Minister of Community Services – the CMO was recommending the Games be cancelled. After discussion about the health considerations, the consequences of cancellation and key communication messages, the decision was clear. By midday, the Host Society, with the support of the Yukon government and the City of Whitehorse, officially announced the 2020 Arctic Winter Games had been cancelled following a recommendation from Yukon’s acting Chief Medical Officer of Health.

At the time, some criticized the decision. There were no COVID-19 cases in Canada’s territories, minimal cases in the circumpolar region, and no athletes from any delegations had tested positive for the virus (although one did test positive on day the Games were to open). As the situation worsened, and with the declaration of the outbreak a pandemic, the decision to cancel the event was applauded.

March 11, 2020 – 118,319 confirmed cases globally; 93 confirmed cases in Canada (Pandemic declared by the World Health Organization)

Skate Canada – ISU World Figure Skating Championships, Montreal QC

On March 11th, Debra Armstrong, CEO of Skate Canada, received a phone call giving her seven minutes notice before the Government of Quebec would announce the cancellation of the International Skating Union (ISU) World Figure Skating Championships scheduled for March 16-22, 2020 in Montreal, Quebec.

Preparing to host the 200 best figure skaters from 50 countries for the World Championships, and with Canadian athletes and staff travelling to international events, Skate Canada had been monitoring the COVID-19 situation. As the Montreal event drew closer, and concern over the spread of the virus increased, Skate Canada worked with the ISU to create and refine a COVID-19 plan to manage and monitor the health risks for 400 athletes, coaches, staff and volunteers through multifaceted protocols involving temperature checks, hand washing stations, and isolation rooms.

What Skate Canada could not control were the thousands of spectators expected throughout the week. Millions of dollars in tickets had been sold for the event, with spectators expected from around the world, including an estimated 25% of ticket purchases from China, Korea and Japan. While Skate Canada and the ISU could impose safety protocols on athletes, their entourages, staff and volunteers; they did not control the facility so could not control spectators. The Government of Quebec had been discussing the risks associated mass gatherings for a few weeks, and the ISU World Championships were by far the biggest event to be held in the province. In the end, public health officials made the ultimate decision to cancel the event.

March 24, 2020 – 372,755 confirmed cases globally; 1,432 confirmed cases in Canada

Volleyball Canada – 2020 Nationals, Edmonton AB

Volleyball Canada’s Nationals event, which would have brought 10,000 athletes to Edmonton, Alberta,  for U15, U16, U17 and U18 events on May 10-20, 2020, was cancelled on March 24, 2020. Concurrent events in Halifax, Ottawa and Abbotsford were also cancelled. What surprised CEO Mark Eckert was how quickly the pandemic situation changed. “In early March our gaze was focused internationally – concerned with how to get Canadian athletes who were training and competing abroad home safely. Conversations at that time with Edmonton Public Health focused on risk mitigation – handwashing, signage, and spectator guidance. Within days, restrictions were in place and we were forced to consider a new reality.”

Initially, Volleyball Canada had set April 13th as their deadline to make a decision about whether or not they would proceed with hosting Nationals. However, with other domestic events being cancelled, Eckert said it would have been careless to delay the decision any longer. Volleyball Canada’s announcement on March 24, 2020 was made shortly after the International Olympic and Paralympic Committees announced the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Games. The Edmonton Expo Centre, where 55 volleyball courts were planned to host the Nationals event, was repurposed as a temporary health centre to help vulnerable people through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We were incredibly prepared; and we weren’t ready at all.”

Event cancellation because of a global pandemic was admittedly something these three sport leaders had not imagined. When asked about her overall experience of the cancellation, Armstrong said she was of two minds. On one hand, the Skate Canada team learned how incredibly prepared they were. Efficient project management processes meant they were able to adjust as early public health measures were suggested. Once the cancellation decision was made, staff knew where every contract was, every line item, and who they needed to talk to. Their three-year communication plan included crisis communication protocols with holding statements and clear guidance on who needed to be notified, in what order and by who. Strong financial and project management meant event files where closed in May 2020, whereas other organizations might take a year or more to wrap things up. On the other hand, Armstrong reflects they weren’t ready at all – “In a million years we wouldn’t have predicted this.”

The cancellation of the Arctic Winter Games and ISU World Championships required immediate action from the host committees. Partners, suppliers, funders, sponsors and staff needed to be informed. With the imminent arrival of athletes, both organizations needed to work with other sport organizations to ensure no one boarded planes to Canada and wound up stranded if international travel was restricted. One international volunteer for the Arctic Winter Games saw the cancellation announcement upon arrival at Vancouver International Airport, and immediately changed her travel plans to return to the United Kingdom on the next flight.

Unlike Skate Canada and the Arctic Winter Games Host Society, whose events were shut down with little notice by health authorities, Volleyball Canada took the lead in the decision to cancel Nationals. Internally the decision was made on Thursday, March 19, 2020; the public announcement was made on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. This gave Volleyball Canada time to work with staff, partners and key stakeholders to consider logistics and craft their communication messages. “We didn’t want any partners to hear about the event cancellation through a press release,” said Eckert. “Taking the time to meet with partners and engage them in the decision-making helped ensure they were on board to support the necessary short-term actions, but also long-term plans for rescheduling and return to play.” The extra time also allowed Volleyball Canada to coordinate cancellation announcements with their provincial associations, helping to manage any negative feedback.

The financial impacts of cancellation

From a CEO perspective, the immediate financial implications of the cancelled events were perhaps the most stressful. Each event involved dozens of contracts worth millions of dollars. With less than one week to go until the start of their events, some of the contracts associated with both the Arctic Winter Games and the ISU World Championships had already been delivered, including merchandise and decorations. These costs were sunk, and with dates included on everything, the items were not considered reusable. Something that helped all three organizations was a force majeure clause in many contracts, which frees parties from liability or obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties prevents the fulfillment of contractual obligations. Overall, Volleyball Canada reported a net income loss close to $1M and Skate Canada $1.035M. The Arctic Winter Games Host Society had cancellation costs of approximately $710K.

For Volleyball Canada, strong partnerships and communication practices were a key factor in limiting the financial impact of Nationals cancellation. For example, travel partners waived attrition clauses for the 24,000 rooms reserved for the event; others were willing to either take on part of the costs or move money forward for future events. Eckert said, “Our strong relationships meant partners were invested in a successful event. Involving them in decision-making relating to the cancellation invested them in a new way.” With only three cities able to host a volleyball tournament of such scale, local partners could be confident the event would soon return.

Lost legacies

For all three organizations the event cancellations represent significant opportunities lost. Both Skate Canada and Volleyball Canada rely on event revenues to support athlete, coach, official and infrastructure development for years to come. The legacy plan from the Arctic Winter Games was similarly designed to deliver benefits throughout Yukon. It would be difficult to recreate that legacy without hosting another event. 

The cancellations also had economic impacts in the host communities. The three events would have brought significant tourism revenue. Skate Canada and the Arctic Winter Games Host Society spoke about the missed opportunity to host the world, highlighting the best of our country and supporting local hotels, restaurants and shops.

After cancellation, the Arctic Winter Games Host Society faced a decommissioning task quite unlike that of Skate Canada or Volleyball Canada. With limited storage space available, the Host Society had to make arrangements to gift, sell, recycle or dispose of a wide variety of materials, from office equipment, to merchandise, to bunkbeds and sleeping bags for the expected 2,000 athletes. The gifting of materials aligned with the legacy plan for the Games, informing decisions that would benefit Yukon as a whole. Teams were given the choice of having Games swag shipped at their own cost and proceeds from anything sold were invested into the legacy fund for the next Arctic Winter Games in Yukon.

The cancellation of the Arctic Winter Games also meant that initiatives introduced by the Host Society to make the event more inclusive than ever before were not fully experienced. These historical firsts included a Reconciliation Action Plan focusing on Yukon First Nations; gender neutral bathrooms and shower spaces; and the first Arctic Winter Games Pride House. These initiatives were included in the Host Society’s final report and recommendations to the Arctic Winter Games International Committee, and will be shared with the next host society as part of transfer of knowledge processes. Lassen hopes the initiatives will be part of the 2020 Games’ legacy.

Dashed dreams and missed opportunities

The event cancellations were devastating for the athletes. Within the international figure skating community, the ISU World Championships were to be the event of the year – the culmination of athletes’ training and competition, and for many an important step in qualifying for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games. Skate Canada met with Team Canada athletes prior to the cancelation to talk about the status of the event, and walk through the consequences. Key to their approach was avoiding any speculation. Armstrong said, “We told the athletes what we knew. Unfortunately we didn’t know a lot then…and we still don’t. We’re all going to have to be flexible until we figure it out.” Skate Canada and the ISU are still determining how to make up for the missed World Championships.

In the volleyball community, Nationals are a huge event, bringing together U15, U16, U17 and U18 athletes from across the country. The cancellation was heartbreaking for athletes that would be aging-out. Nationals swag is a source of team identity, pride and status within the volleyball community. Within weeks of the cancellation, Volleyball Canada was able to work with its merchandise partner, VolleyballStuff, to create “Rally Together Apart” 2020 Nationals merchandise. Proceeds from each purchase went to Food Banks Canada – just over $25,000 was donated through the campaign. Volleyball Canada also heard of teams donating their refunded registration fees to local charities.

Beyond competition, cultural exchange and social interaction are key values of the Arctic Winter Games. The Games would have been the first time some athletes traveled outside their territory, province or country. The opportunity to visit new places, meet new people, and experience new cultures is part of what makes participation at the Arctic Winter Games a life-changing experience. In Whitehorse, Team Yukon hosted a parade on March 15th (before any public health measures were introduced) as a way to honour the commitment and dedication of their athletes. 

Experiences of grief

Athletes weren’t the only ones experiencing grief relating to the cancelled events; staff and volunteers were also grieving. The events were many years in the making, requiring thousands of hours of staff and volunteer time. In Whitehorse, the territorial Minister of Community Services and acting CMO met personally with the Arctic Winter Games Host Society board members and staff (gathering restrictions were not yet in place). The meeting provided an opportunity for people who had invested so much time and effort in the event to share their emotions and to hear from the decision makers about the seriousness with which the decision was made, and how it impacted them as well. Lassen reflected, “It helped having the Minister and CMO there, to explain how the CMO came to the recommendation to cancel the event, and to show they were just as disappointed by the cancellation.”

For Skate Canada, the cancellation meant a missed opportunity to bring the world to Canada. As one of the oldest members of the ISU, hosting exceptional events is a point of pride and contributes to Skate Canada’s international reputation. Along with Montreal partners, staff and volunteers grieved the missed opportunity to showcase Canada for international competitors, sport federations and spectators. Armstrong joked, “It was the greatest World Championships that never was.”

July 12, 2020 – 12,552,765 confirmed cases globally; 107,126 confirmed cases in Canada

Final Reflections

Wrapping up the interviews, the three leaders were all asked about advice they would give to other sport organizations. The leaders were consistent with their advice:

  1. Ensure all contracts include a force majeur clause. While Skate Canada, the Arctic Winter Games Host Society and Volleyball Canada had to enact this clause to varying degrees in relation to the March 2020 cancellations, it is now something they would not go without.
  2. Communication is key. The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic was swift, requiring organizations to be incredibly nimble. Communication before, at the time of decision, and after the cancellation with key stakeholders, including public health officials, partners and member organizations, and athletes, was key to successfully navigating the dynamic landscape. As time allowed, the sport organizations worked to control the messages, recognizing the financial and emotional impacts, but prioritizing the safety of Canadians and visiting international delegations.
  3. Time to ramp up contingency planning. The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the need for event hosts to think through the unthinkable. The lessons learned and protocols developed to manage the spread of COVID-19 can help inform contingency plans for future events. Lassen reflected, “Even if the risk is low, even extremely low, event hosts need to take the time to discuss the issue and put a plan in place. Pandemic contingency plans will be an unexpected, and important, legacy of these events.”

Armstrong confessed, “I’m glad to see 2019-2020 in the rear-view mirror. The opportunity now is for us to integrate these learnings into the future.”

From little leagues to international competitions, the global pandemic brought a halt to sport in Canada. With ongoing public health restrictions in many communities and the implementation of return to play plans in limbo, COVID-19 continues to impact the Canadian sport system. Despite the unknowns, many sport organizations have focused their attention on new strategies to support their members. Reflecting the sentiment across the entire sport community, Armstrong said, “Seeing the increasing toll of the pandemic kept things in perspective. The attention of the Canadian sport sector is now on how we can help with recovery in terms of contributing to physical and mental health, and building and maintaining community.”

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About the Author(s)

As SIRC’s Manager of Content Strategy, Sydney Millar solicits, supports and curates content from researchers, experts and thought leaders from the broad sport and physical activity sector, and provides leadership on key national projects. Sydney stays active with her dog Shadow, and exploring the roads of Watopia on Zwift.

The information presented in SIRC blogs and SIRCuit articles is accurate and reliable as of the date of publication. Developments that occur after the date of publication may impact the current accuracy of the information presented in a previously published blog or article.