Feature16 Jul 2020

NACAC President Sands: ‘The pandemic is far from over, so we are adapting quickly’


NACAC Athletics Association President Mike Sands (© Getty Images)

Many have likened the Covid-19 pandemic to a natural disaster. And in many ways, that’s exactly what it is.

But even for a region such as the Americas and the Caribbean – a part of the world that has seen its fair share of hurricanes and floods – facing the challenges hasn’t exactly been plain sailing.

“When I took over this wonderful body, this storm was not on the radar,” says Mike Sands, who was elected President of the NACAC (North American, Central American and Caribbean) Athletics Association little more than a year ago. “We were getting ready to sail. And, as you know, in our area we are so used to hurricanes. But at least with hurricanes we have warnings when they’re tracking. This one was not on the radar, so we had to quickly adapt to find ways of managing it.”

And adapt they did. Like many areas, they had to cancel or postpone the majority of competitions that were due to take place during their summer season. Staff at the NACAC offices had to work from home, and all meetings and development courses moved to digital platforms.

“It has created a different set of opportunities for us,” says Sands, who is based in Nassau in The Bahamas. “Although we’re distant from one another, this form of communication has allowed us to come closer together as members and colleagues and friends, so this may very well be the new norm.”

But while most NACAC staff have recently returned to the office, there still remains a lot of uncertainty for athletes in the region. The infection rate in some countries, the US included, is still rising rapidly and many training facilities remain shut. And while some of the smaller island nations have had a relatively low number of cases, travelling between countries in that region poses a significant challenge.

“A percentage of our membership has been able to resume active training now that their respective countries have started lifting their restrictions, so the process is starting to unfold gradually,” says Sands. “But many of our athletes attend colleges and universities in the United States, so their training is directly affected because the university system is completely shut. There are some universities that are talking about extending the eligibility of their athletes, so that’s a plus for them.”

Elite athletes outside of the collegiate system have also been affected, as NACAC General Secretary Keith Joseph explained.

“A significant number of our elite athletes live and train in Florida for most of the year,” he says. “Whereas those in Florida had the opportunity to engage in some training and competition earlier in the pandemic, we’re looking closely at what is happening currently now that Miami and Florida have been really badly hit.”

Jump-starting plans for development

Although many competitions in the area had to be cancelled, the NACAC Athletics Association realised that many of their other plans for 2020 as a federation could still go ahead, albeit in a slightly different format.

Commissions were established and, through online meetings, they started laying out their programmes for their tenure. Coaching courses are being conducted in Spanish and English via Zoom, YouTube and Facebook, while NACAC’s working relationships with ConSudAtle and Pan-Am Sports continue to go from strength to strength.

“We’ve had meetings with CADICA (a sub-region of NACAC comprising some of the smaller nations in Central America) because there have been challenges with the pace of development with track and field in that area,” says Joseph. “We’ve also established monthly meetings with ConSudAtle to enhance our collaboration in the Americas.”

“The pandemic forced us to jump-start our plans, simply because people are very keen for things to happen,” adds Sands. “We’ve been very fortunate and very impressed with the support and attendance. Some of the numbers are mind-boggling.”

Along with the Athletes’ Commission, which had been previously elected, NACAC now has commissions for governance, development, competitions, and medical & anti-doping.

“Given what we’re going through, we realised it was very important to establish our medical commission,” says Sands. “Dr Adrian Lord has graciously agreed to chair that. One of our major mandates for the medical commission was education for coaches, athletes and all stakeholders. I’m very excited about the work that they’re doing.

“I can’t say that had Covid-19 not come along that we’d have been this far advanced in doing that, so this is one of the things I’m most proud of.”

Sands also beams with pride when he talks about how some of the top athletes in the area have helped with various relief efforts.

“This area heavily relies upon tourism and we’ve not had a cruise ship in these ports for months, so a lot of people have lost their jobs as a result. Several companies have been distributing food to those who are experiencing economic hardship. A number of athletes are brand ambassadors for these companies and have been helped to distribute these things. Seeing the athletes engaged in this way has helped to put a smile on the faces of the people collecting this assistance.

“Other top athletes, including Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, will be involved in our gender leadership workshops, which start this weekend. Had the pandemic not happened, she’d have been so busy focusing on competitions that she wouldn’t have been able to take part.”

Getting back on track

About three quarters of NACAC’s member federations had to cancel their national championships for 2020. Various other international championship events in the region have also been cancelled or postponed, along with many invitational meets.

“Among all the cancellations, the one that really hit us hard was the Carifta Games,” says Sands. “It’s the most preeminent junior championships, and the longest-serving one, and this year’s event would have been the 49th edition. But we took the decision that Bermuda will still host the event next year.”

Sands hopes to stage what he calls the ‘New Life Invitational’, which has been very lightly pencilled in for 26 September, so that athletes in the region have something to aim for.

“We’re still holding on to a glimmer of hope that we’ll be able to stage it, but it is all dependent on what the restrictions are in the various member federations,” he says. “We canvassed the member federations, coaches and athlete representatives and a lot of them are anxious for competition. We hope against hope that we’re able to pull it off in some shape or form.”

Logistics will be one of the biggest obstacles in staging the meeting. Even at the best of times, travelling from one country to another in the NACAC region isn’t always straight forward. With many airlines facing financial hardship, it’s far more complicated now.

In one recent trip, for example, Sands needed to take a combined total of seven flights for a return journey from The Bahamas to Guyana. Athletes in the CADICA nations, meanwhile, often don’t even have the option of flights. Even before the pandemic struck, travel between countries in that particular part of the world could often involve bus journeys of 16-18 hours and long boat trips.

“If you saw, for example, what it’s like to get from Nicaragua to El Salvador, your heart would go out to these kids,” says Sands. “Transportation is a huge challenge for many in this area, so we have to address it in some way, shape or form. We’re about to make an official request at a higher level to see what kind of support we can get for our athletes throughout the region.”

Looking ahead

The pandemic – not just around the world, but in the US and the Americas especially – is still far from over, meaning there are still many challenges to overcome.

But Sands says the past few months have instilled in him – and the association as a whole – a deeper sense of gratitude.

“It has given us an appreciation for the way things used to be,” he says. “We cannot take things for granted. We need to take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves.”

This may not have been the start to his tenure that Sands envisioned when he took over the ship at NACAC 12 months ago, but he is hopeful that he can help steer the region into calmer waters over the next few years. After all, if any part of the world knows how to rebuild itself following a natural disaster, it’s the Americas and Caribbean.

“As we move towards competition mode, I can see that we have come together in the spirit of cooperation,” he says. “There is a lot of sharing and reaching out to each other to try to help us all return to a level of normality.

“This has really brought us together. We always refer to ourselves as being part of the World Athletics family, and we feel a real family spirit – or kindred as we say on this side – because we’ve been able to talk to each other more frequently. We’re looking forward to having a lot of fun times as we go on.”

Jon Mulkeen for World Athletics