In a massive logistical feat, surfers from across the world are heading to Australia to face a two-week COVID-19 lockdown ahead of the world surfing tour, which is due to start on April 1.
- International surfers will arrive in Sydney on Monday and begin hotel quarantine
- 108 surfers, support staff and World Surf League officials will go into a 14-day lockdown
- The number of spectators at the Newcastle event will be capped at 3,000
The overseas competitors — many coming from coronavirus hotspots around the world — face a tough few weeks of isolation, travel, and quarantine, which has led some to predict the local Australian surfers will gain a slight competitive advantage.
News of the lockdown follows major disruption to surfing events over the past few months with key competitions such as the iconic Bells Beach event being relocated from Victoria for the first time in 60 years, as well as the Gold Coast Corona Open having to relocate to Sydney.
Last month, the world watched as Australian Open tennis officials coordinated a massive operation involving mandatory hotel quarantine for more than 1,000 players and their entourages — with many competitors devising novel ways to train in their rooms.
Surfing’s biggest names from Brazil, the US and Europe might have to come up with some equally creative training ideas when they arrive in Australia next week under strict pandemic protocols.
At the moment, they are converging on Los Angeles, where they will isolate, get a COVID test, and then board a charter flight to Sydney.
So how will it work?
A total of 108 surfers, support staff and World Surf League (WSL) officials will arrive on Monday and immediately enter Australia’s two-week hotel quarantine system.
The WSL’s Asia Pacific General Manager Andrew Stark said they closely watched how the process was handled for the Australian Open tennis tournament, and had learnt from the mistakes.
“Absolutely, we took a lot of lessons out of that,” he said.
“Our athletes and staff will be in full quarantine lockdown, but they’re all aware of that and I think the surfers are excited to actually put a jersey on and compete again.”
Mr Stark said there would be no “practice allowances” for athletes to train outside their hotel rooms, but basic exercise equipment would be provided.
They will be released from quarantine 10 days before the first event at Newcastle’s Merewether Beach, a time frame deemed long enough to allow the surfers to get back in the water and ready for competition.
The WSL’s championship tour was cancelled early last year as the pandemic hit, with only the Pipeline event in Hawaii running in December.
That event was suddenly suspended due to an outbreak among the WSL staff, including CEO Erik Logan, and subsequently all surfing competitions in Hawaii were cancelled, including the Sunset Open and Jaws.
The WSL is now desperately hoping for a fresh start for the world tour in a relatively COVID-free Australia, with a string of four events at Newcastle and Narrabeen in New South Wales and Margaret River and Rottnest Island in Western Australia.
With the majority of surfers arriving from the world’s two biggest COVID-19 hotspots, the US and Brazil, Mr Stark said every precaution was being taken to prevent any outbreak among arriving athletes and staff.
“It’s obviously a charter (flight) restricted to our group, but that also means there are a lot of excess seats so we can have really good social distancing on the plane, compulsory mask wearing and masks changed every couple of hours,” he said.
“And once they land, the NSW Health quarantine system will pick up any cases if there are any.
COVID rules are also set to vastly alter the look of the WSL events in Australia, with limited spectator numbers and restricted public access to the beach.
Mr Stark said organisers were planning for a maximum capacity of 3,000 people at the Newcastle event.
“The number at the moment is 3,000 and that could go up and down depending on the COVID situation,” he said.
“There’ll also be some fencing and QR codes to access areas, but people are used to that.
He said the event would still be free for spectators and organisers were still working out the details of the ticketing system.