At last, the hammer came down. There will be no world figure skating championships this year, for the first time in 59 years when a plane crash killed the U.S. team and scuttled the most important event of the year.
The Quebec health ministry decided to spare spectators and competitors and officials and media the risk of contracting the ebullient coronavirus that is quickly spiralling about the earth, killing people and terrorizing global economies. All the work that went into the event in Montreal – awarded three years ago – came to naught. A virus respects nothing.
The International Skating Union left open the possibility of staging the world championships several months down the road, but not earlier than October. Interesting, because usually the Grand Prix season starts in late October. But the makeup of the Grand Prix entry lists depends on the results of the preceding world championships for seeding. And the important pre-Olympic world championships of next season depends on the results of this event to determine how many skaters and entries a country may field to the next event. And this all could play a role all down the line to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
What a tangled heap that coronavirus has left the skating sport in.
“As timing goes, it wouldn’t be ideal,” said U.S. champ Nathan Chen, who was to dazzle Montreal audiences with an intense battle with two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu next week. Chen was to have competed at his fourth world championship.
It makes sense, he said, for the ISU to try to establish a benchmark for upcoming events by staging that world championship, whenever it happens. “But it’s right before the Grand Prix season,” he said. “It’s a very strange situation, whatever the decision ends up being.
“I think we’ll all be ready for it and do the best we can,” Chen said. “It’s completely abnormal for this to happen. It’s going to be an interesting situation if it does happen….If that’s the case, then so be it.”
Nothing is written in stone, yet. Alexander Lakernik, the vice president of the International Skating Union, told Russian newspaper Tass that the ISU had not yet discussed the ramifications of the cancellation, but “there will be many consequences,” he said. “So many things are based on the results of the world [championships].” He added that it would be difficult to stage the world championships later this fall, “no earlier than October.” The first priority is to preserve the quotas that the world championship establishes. But “maybe there will be some other options,” he said. It will all be discussed in coming days or weeks.
Chen admitted that the decision to cancel was “upsetting.
“All of us athletes have prepared long and hard for this competition and I think that the majority of us are ready to compete,” he said. “However, given the current situation and everything that has been going on, I think this is the right decision. I think that given how quickly this virus has spread across the world, this is definitely the right move. So whatever happens with skating, it’s the right move for the populace as a whole.”
Before the decision was made, Chen said he was concerned about his coach, Rafael Arutunian, who has been travelling a lot, including a jaunt last week to Tallinn, Estonia for the world junior championships. “I was concerned about his health, and of course, all the people around me,” Chen said. “Ultimately, I’m glad people are able to stay at home and stay where they are to prevent the spread of the virus.”
He rather wishes the decision had been made just a tad sooner, even a day would have helped because it’s so important to have the right mindset going into a world championship. Training mate Michal Brezina of the Czech Republic tweeted that his motivation to train was at its lowest (while waiting for the decision.) “I’ve been in this situation nine years ago [following the tsunami that hit Japan] and it’s not a fun one,” he said. “If you don’t know what’s happening, it’s hard to train.”
Canadian champion Nam Nguyen said he had never been training so well as he had in the past two weeks. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in this positive, like super, super positive in a long, long time, or ever,” he said. He learned of the cancellation when he pulled off a road after training and constantly refreshed his twitter account.
“Holy moly,” he tweeted when he saw the word “cancelled.”
While pair skater Kirsten Moore-Towers said she’d rather have a cancellation than to have to skate with no spectators, ice dancer Piper Gilles said she would have found it in herself to skate in an empty Bell Centre.
Moore-Towers said she understood the decision, but was “gutted” nonetheless.
Paul Poirier, whose dance partner is Gilles, said he was prepared to compete at an alternative world event later in the schedule, as long as they had enough preparation time. “All we can do is take the competition opportunities that are presented to us,” he said.
A Japanese television crew couldn’t wait on a decision; they had already decided to scuttle the trip, cancellation or not, even though they are regular fixtures at any skating event, what with skaters such as Hanyu and Rika Kihira. Japan has been rocked by the coronavirus.
And ironically, the cancellation of this world championship happened on the ninth anniversary of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown that struck the north-east coast of Japan, killing 18,000 people and causing them to cancel their world championship in 2011.
Japan has just shut down public discourse in the country, to quell the rising spate of coronavirus victims. Yesterday, as the Quebec Ministry of Health was announcing the cancellation, Japan suffered its highest one-day report of new COVID -I9 cases (59.) Japan also cancelled a memorial service from the 2011 tragedy that was to have included the Imperial family.
A trip to Seoul for the Four Continents Championships had already scuttled the chances of Han Yan of China to compete in Montreal; he had to undergo a 14-day quarantine when he returned to China, which didn’t allow him to train. He was not on the starting list for Montreal. Many Chinese skaters had been training in Canada.
But outside China, no country has been hit harder by COVID-19 than Italy, which imposed a country-wide lockdown on Monday. Italy recorded a staggering 200 deaths in a 24-hour period yesterday, bringing their total of deaths to 897 in an excellent medical system that is entirely over-taxed.
Coach Lorenzo Magri, who had just accompanied Italian skater Daniel Grassl to the world junior championships in Tallinn, and was set to head to Montreal with him, expressed fear about attending the world championships in an Instagram on Tuesday while awaiting a decision about the fate of the world championships.
“I’m out from Italy since more than two weeks with other Italian coaches and skaters,” he wrote. “In our country, the situation is really bad. I hope you will come to a decision soon regarding worlds. In Europe, it is clear that not all countries are doing the same kind of controls, worldwide could be even worst. [sic]. I honestly think the risk of contagion would be huge. We would all pass through many airports and fly for hours all sharing the same air. We would then be in a full arena of more than 20,000 person sitting so close.
“I don’t want to see the same kind of situation all around the world. Our families are risking so much. Our country is blocked. Our economy collapses because of the virus. Are we sure we should proceed competing? I don’t have a solution but I have thousand questions and I’m scared.”
The solution having presented itself yesterday, now the task will be to find out how to go home to a country in lockdown. “I think they made the right decision,” said Italian pair skater Nicole Della Monica, five-time Italian champion, three-time Olympian, and eighth at the world championships last year with partner Matteo Guarise. “Now we need to figure out how and when we can get back home.”