We continue our Area in Focus series with an interview with European Athletics interim President Dobromir Karamarinov, who spoke with World Athletics a few hours after attending the funeral of EA President Svein Arne Hansen, which took place near Oslo on 1 July.
“I never cease to be amazed by the strength of our athletes and our athletics community.”
That’s how Dobromir Karamarinov, the interim President of European Athletics, summarizes how the sport has managed to negotiate the coronavirus pandemic that brought the world to a standstill less than four months ago, a period defined by lockdowns, quarantines and closed borders, event postponements and cancellations, illness and death. In the short time that he’s been at the helm of the organisation, given the task to navigate it through an unprecedented historical moment, Karamarinov has been impacted by it all. He readily admits how difficult it’s been.
“This has been particularly challenging for us and for me personally with the loss of our president on 20 June, after a period of three months when he wasn’t well.”
On 15 March, just as the pandemic was taking hold of his continent, EA President Svein Arne Hansen suffered a serious stroke and was hospitalised. By 18 March, more than 250 million Europeans were under lockdown. A week after that, as the organisation’s First Vice President, Karamarinov was leading a meeting of the European Athletics Executive Board as its interim President. As Hansen’s condition weighed heavily on the meeting, among the agenda items was the fate of several EA competitions for the year, including the European Athletics Championships, the Area’s biggest event, which was set for 25-30 August in Paris. The championship survived that meeting, but its postponement was ultimately announced on 23 April.
A rough period indeed, but Karamarinov, who is also a member of the World Athletics Council, was once again heartened by the resilience his sport and its athletes displayed.
“I was very proud by the positive reaction by the European athletes, in particular to the postponement of all athletics events, including the Tokyo Olympics and the European Athletics Championships in Paris,” he said. “They coped very well.
“But let’s congratulate everyone in athletics for adapting so well to this pandemic - our member federations, athletes, coaches, and event organisers.”
For administrators, virtual meetings quickly became the norm. EA Council, its Executive Board and its commissions all communicated and met regularly by video conference. “We have actually found that it is not so hard.”
Karamarinov said he was particularly proud of the initiatives that kept the sport going, giving it time in the limelight and keeping it relevant across the altered sporting landscape.
“We saw some great (European) initiatives from the athletics world,” he said, beginning his list of examples with the Bislett Impossible Games in Oslo on 11 June, the first outdoor meeting of the 2020 season, highlighted by Karsten Warholm’s world best in the 300m hurdles.
The ‘Back on Track’ initiative to celebrate the end of lockdown in the Czech Republic, with 17,000 athletes taking part across 130 locations, was another.
“It was a huge campaign and very well organised by the Czech Athletics Federation.”
Now, with athletes in each country able to train again under more normal circumstances, he sees some light at the end the proverbial tunnel. But he urges caution.
“We must be careful of a second wave,” he said. “Athletes must stay alert and practice social distancing and follow the correct guidelines.
“Each of our federations will adopt the back to athletics guidelines, but according to advice and direction of their national government.
With the postponement of its marquee event, the only continent-wide competition remaining on the 2020 calendar is the Spar European Cross Country Championships on 13 December in Dublin, Ireland. Those plans, he said, are going well.
But, he added, “It’s important to note that more than 90% of our national federations have already scheduled their national championships. Most of them will be in the window proposed by World Athletics on 8-9 August. We also have many one-day meetings scheduled. Hopefully they’ll go on in August and September.”
The Balkan Championships, a regional competition that brings together athletes from 22 countries, will also take place in September with U18, U20 and senior athletes taking to the track on three consecutive weekends in Kraljevo, Serbia, Istanbul and Cluj-Napoca, Romania, respectively.
Coping with travel restrictions
The primary obstacle organisers face at the moment, and for the foreseeable future, he said, are travel restrictions between countries - and their fluid, ever-changing and sometimes confusing nature.
“This is our biggest headache,” he said. “Coordinating travel for competitions is a big problem. It’s a big challenge because all countries have their own rules. In some cases, will athletes face quarantines when they return home?” He can’t always be sure.
While the world has grown more comfortable with virtual meetings during the lockdowns - “we have learned that we don’t necessarily need to travel so much”- Karamarinov said it’s also become clear that nothing can ever replace real live athletics action.
“One lesson that I think we have all learned is that you cannot replace the feeling of real live athletics - for the athletes, for the spectators, for the organisers. At the end of the day, what we hope for when things return to normal is to return to real live sport. Because real athletics can show us many examples, like friendship, like solidarity - but only in live sport. Nothing virtual can replace the real thing.”
That’s certainly what the athletes want and need, he said.
“Athletes are really hungry for competition. But not only for competition - they are hungry for the spirit of sport. For the spirit of competition.”
Bob Ramsak for World Athletics