The impact of COVID-19 on sport for athletes with disability
In Think Tank 8 Paralympics Australia CEO Lynne Anderson will discuss the implications of COVID-19 on athletes with disability. Lynne is the Chief Executive of Paralympics Australia and has been recognised as the best leader in Australian sport, earning the Award for Leadership at the Australian Institute of Sport Sport Performance Awards in 2019.
These are extraordinary times, the presence of COVID-19 means that each and every one of us, each and every one of us, is facing our toughest ever opposition, although we stand apart.
If we work together as a team, as a team, and play by the rules, and play by the rules, we'll soon get back to playing and watching the sport that we love.
We need your support now more than ever, more than ever. Wash your hands and listen to the advice. If we play by the rules, we'll all get through this together.
Hello, welcome to Think Tank eight in our Play by the Rules series, addressing Post COVID-19 Community Sport Issues. My name is Peter Downs and I'm the manager of Play by the Rules.
Welcome to this final one in our in our series for the moment. We will be doing an evaluation of this. And I, I suspect that we will be revisiting and doing some more think tanks later on in the year. So stay tuned. Stay tuned for that. I'd like to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the lands on which I'm sitting today, the Ngunnawal people and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging. Today, we'll be talking to Lynne Anderson, who is the chief executive officer of Paralympics Australia. Hi, Lynne.
Can you. Can you hear me? Yes, I can Pete. Good morning.
Good morning. Good morning. Hope you are well, thank you. Yes. Good to see you all again.
To to kickstart this, we'll get straight into it. The same format as usual. Lynne will talk for around 12 to 15 minutes or so and then we'll open for questions and answers. So please do send in your questions and comments. And I'll relay to Lynne as we go now, now, Lynne I'll start with a very obvious question, really, that just to kick start. Tokyo has been postponed for 12 months. For those of us on the outside of that, it's it's, uh. It's well, wow. Okay. That's okay. We'll just keep on training and we start again in twelve months. I suspect it's not quite as easy as that for for athletes as well. How they've been adapting and changing to the changing circumstances.
Thanks. And before I start, I just want to say that I Paralytics Australia is a huge fan of Play by the Rules. So really happy to be here with you today. I will preface my talk today by saying that I'm aware of much of what I will say is, is more of the high performance end of sport. But I hope there are some insights that certainly can be applied to the community level. So I'm conscious of the audience here today. And I also want to start a little bit differently. I'd like to start by reading a note from one of our Paralympians, a beautiful young, vision impaired athlete, Jared Clifford. He's a distance runner. Jared is a 17 year old rookie at Rio Olympics in 2016. Since then, he's been on a huge upward trajectory. He won bronze in 2017 world's, in 2018 he became the first Paralympian ever to compete in the able bodied under 20's world championships. And then at the end of last year. He was crowned a duel world champion and duel world record holder at the 2019 World's. He was primed to perform at Tokyo, yet he wrote this note that was published on our website. Now for those who want it, but I just love to read a little bit of a extract of it just to let you know what the impact has been for our athletes.
I found out at my kitchen table I thought I was ready. I wasn't. All night I couldn't sleep. There was no panic. No despair. Only numbness. Each passing hour felt like a year. All those years of willfull suffering. Thousands and thousands and thousands of kilometres.
All for one moment. A split second in life. As the sun rose, I moved from my bed to the couch. I stared at the black television screen in front of me. Mom sat down and began to talk. I struggled to reply, fearful of the emotion that threatened to overwhelm me. A message flashed on my phone.
It was from my running hero and now training partner Michael Roeger. It read, It's been tough, mate. I feel like the world has been turned upside down. This year was supposed to be my year, thinking of you too. Finally, the tears rolled down my cheeks. After weeks of speculation, the 2020 Paralympic Games had been officially postponed. It was the correct decision. It had to happen. For some, my reaction to this news might seem irrational or lacking perspective. After all, the dream is not cancelled. It is only delayed, at least for now. However, when you obsess over a single moment for the entirety of your teenage life and then that moment disappears, there is no rationality or explanation. There is only hollowness.
I'm glad I got through that without cracking, because I didn't in any rehearsals.
But I think it's a really beautiful insight to what he's doing. It's, as he said, it's postponed. It's on the next year. That is directly from an athlete. And I know many other athletes share this despair. On the flip side. The others who were injured there is now hope. And I think that just sums up our COVID world at Paralympics Australia and indeed Paralympic world everywhere where there's winners and losers. But if there's one thing I've learnt in my 5 years being at PA it is that resilience and overcoming hurdles is in our DNA and we have drawn on that to support not just our athletes and our staff, but all of our stakeholders in this challenging time. We've supported a range of organisations and individuals to adapt to rapidly changing environments and in collaboration with our sports, our athletes, our funding partners and our supporters.
I've really loved these increasing collegiate nature of sport in our world. Collaboration is happening on a far greater scale than I've ever seen. And I'm adamant we can't lose that. I'll be really working hard to make sure we don't. Now we continue to monitor the impact of COVID on all the stakeholders in the communities in which we operate. We're committed to ensuring that the Paralympic movement and para sport not only survives this crises, but that it thrives beyond it. So a few of the initiatives we found that have worked really, really well. We have a fantastic program called Paralympic CONNECT. It's a Web based remote coaching platform, and it was launched recently on the Apple App Store in collaboration with our project partner Optus. Now, that's just for our athletes and sports. A long list, but for obvious reasons. I think we had a few sports using beforehand. The fact that it's now a remote coaching platform has seen its use sky rocket. We also had just launched a Paralympic education program prior to COVID launching. But very quickly we adapted that 100 percent online delivery, including virtual school visits and online letter writing and artwork competition.
We've encouraged and engaged our Paralympians to promote social media posts and in particular supporting the government health, safety. And training key messages. And I'll talk a little bit later on. We've launched a beautiful digital and interactive campaign called Oz Adapt. So there's some of the just the tangible things that have been launched almost, you know, of the pack of not much because the moment demanded it. But to be specific around the impact on our Paralympians and para athletes, you know, the social distancing rules have had a significant impact. You talked earlier. Well, they just get on my training, Will actually. No, they can't necessarily. They've got to adept at training methods, modes, you know. Do they have weights in their back yard, in the garage, whatever. That was a lot of transformation. They said they could continue to train. And because if there's one thing we can't lose sight, we have to assume the games are going ahead. It would be criminal not to have these athletes in our sports as ready as they can be should they keep going. So we've seen incredible examples of resilience. Some great videos of, you know, athletes training with their babies on their back or whatever it might be. But some really fun engaging moments.
And at the same time, as I said earlier, encouraging everyone to stick to the government regulations. But one of the key things we obviously were very aware of and concerned about was the potential impact on athlete mental health and wellbeing. No. What we have done is we've set up a a ready set Tokyo Facebook group, which is for our long list of athletes and staff and coaches. And we keep posting mental, financial, physical health resources updates on that alone. We have an athlete welfare team for Tokyo that has specialists in nutrition, strength and conditioning, et cetera. And they are posting updates as well to facilitate athletes working at home and in isolation. A few years ago, we engaged a position of a full time Athlete Welfare Engagement Officer, and she's clearly working overtime. We also have a great relationship in partnership with Beyondblue, and the AIS has a really good mental health referral network.
So we really put a lot of effort and time into that part of it. How will they be returning to sport? You know, it is our expectation and we know that it's happening that our athletes and our Para sport programs will return in a manner consistent with the AIS framework for rebooting sport. We were we had a seat at the time for that which we are thrilled about. Our chief medical officer, Dr. Rachel Harris, was able to provide what we see as the all important disability, you know, Para links. When you're making the criteria and regulations, because obviously for some of our athletes with underlying medical conditions, like, they can be more vulnerable, not all of them. And every athletes impairment is pretty unique. So you can't be prescriptive for it. But as long as we're out front saying, hang on, we have to make note of the potential challenges, then at least we know they'll be considered. And Rachel presented to the framework to our Paralympics, Australia's staff. But also to our unique Para sports, a wheelchair rugby, Boccia and Goalball. So we've done as much as we can to ensure that everybody is aware of those as frameworks and that we are absolutely advocating they stick to it.
What are the major risks for us? Clearly, we do have a cohort of athletes are considered more vulnerable, in particular to infection. So that's a major concern for us as we start to open up. We believe there'll probably be greater delays or that have been already for some of that para athletes just through the night truth of their work and conditions. So they may be take longer to get back to the sport and training than able bodied sport. There's obviously the chance of another setback. And the last thing any of us want it to be is, see, sport, be the trigger for another spike. So we're certainly being overcautious. One of the major concerns I know is playing on not just our athletes, but their coaches minds is the lack of competition. They're all thinking, well, is America, or is someone else started. So there's always this temptation to push to getting there. And we have to make sure that we're aware of that and guarding against any negative rush. The uncertainty, that's clearly a major risk still. We can't control that, but we can manage. And and as I said earlier, pur focus is absolutely unwavering on Tokyo going ahead next year. We have to. At the same time, we've also got our winter Paralympians with Beijing just around the corner after that.
For us at Paralympics Australia. We've had significant challenges. You know, we've we've had to. The biggest one I can see coming is what I call the tsunami of games, so by postponing Tokyo for 12 months. We literally have twenty five weeks from closing ceremony, Tokyo to opening ceremony Beijing. Like that is unheard of. From closing ceremony Beijing is only 19 weeks to the Comm Games in Birmingham. And while we don't deliver the Comm Games we're very much a partner side by side with them, they're a great organisation. And then it is two years from the I think from the opening of Birmingham two years to Paris. So we will have potentially supporting four major events in barely three years. For anybody that knows what is involved in games delivery, that's massive. And is a real challenge for us.
And probably this last one, I think, is something that affects all of our community sport listeners here today as well. There's a real risk and potential for losing ground on the drive for equity.
Yeah, we are aware that in times of crisis, there is a trend for people to default to the safe. The common denominator, which clearly hasn't always been including people on disability here in Australia. We've heard the last few weeks how women and younger people are being disadvantaged economically. The changes. I'd love to reference Paula Tesoriero.
She's a New Zealand Paralympian and she's also the chef de mission for their Tokyo team. But she's significantly is New Zealand's disability rights commissioner and she wrote a really lovely paper for the International Paralympic Committee. And she had a great phrase in there that where she said it became apparent very quickly that existing gaps in services and policy approaches were exacerbated now in our world.
We're on the lookout for moves back from the hard earned ground we are making. I've heard of programs in Canada or sports where they made the cut, but they only cut the Para programs.
So we're fortunate we haven't seen that. But we're obviously really conscious that when decisions get made, as I said earlier, there is a default to go to the stronger side of program, and we're very much on the lookout for that. At the same time, we also, I think, as well as it can be, a negative. There's opportunities to get a greater share. And we're certainly lobbying Sport Australia keenly.
They are the key risks I suppose, about the return to sport at the same time, the rewards and benefits? We know the physical mental benefits. I don't have to go into competitive performance. Our coaches and athletes are itching to get back to their PBs and doing what they do best. And those games are just getting closer each day. We do believe that this increased focus on hygiene and monitoring the signs of illness will be good practises the future, particularly in our world. For us as staff, it was great to see. It's great to see the athletes and sports get back when they smile, that brings a smile to our face. There our reason for being the glue that binds them, binds us and motivates us. So there was a nice spin off. I could really feel it in the staff once it had started to go back. And obviously, for us, commercially gives us a boost because now we start to give back. We have assets simply can sell. I was telling you earlier Pete, what it has done to us in terms of delay of a year. It means that we have that Paralympic cycle for Tokyo that is five years of expenses and four years of revenue.
The flip side is taking into Para cycle. There's still four years of expenses because the same costs have to go through, but only three years of revenue because we lose year one. So it has a massive commercial impact so for us to be able to see the gains happening in sport to come back. That's a really good opportunity for us. A couple of the other challenges that COVID has presented for us and our athletes. Classification leading into Tokyo. The international federations were struggling to have capacity to do all the international classifications. This delay is just going to exacerbate that issue because we we don't know when we're going to be able to travel and when the athletes can get seen.
We also know that we've been told that the IPC will prioritise classification for those athletes who are seen as Tokyo candidates. Now, that will exclude any athlete who might come out of left field closer to the games. And we know that happens in the Paralympic arena. But we just have to have to allow for it and. I'm sorry, my computer going off. But as we know in this challenge, there's also opportunities. And one of the really exciting things to push through is the Talent ID and Pathways program that we we just have just had approved. And for us. We're thrilled about that because it will allow us to classify the next generation of Para sport hopefuls, as well as supporting broader community participation.
And that will actually see us going back to having state development officers on the ground in this local state based needs so for us. I think that's a really important part. We know the pathway needs support. We know that we want to support people with a disability just getting into community sport. And as that happens, we know we need to be ready and have opportunities upstream for them.
So that's a really exciting one. We can't wait to roll that one out and probably finally the only other one I did mentioned earlier is Oz Adapt. If you get a chance, check it out on our website. It's an interactive, digital based hashtag campaign that calls upon all Australians to undertake a challenge each week. And the whole theme is turning the I can't into I can. So again, another I think, example of what the Paralympic movement does so well. So it's been a busy few months, but while there's been lots of downs, we had to make some redundancies in our business. We lost really, really good people and they were really tough times. But at the same time, I feel really strongly that we're, we're positioning the PA and certainly the movement to be in a really good place to come out of it and keep going forward.
Fantastic stuff. Thank you very, very much for that. I love the Oz Adapt. I had a look at it the other day. Their thoughts went through my head. That's a perfect thing. Paralympic athletes and people with disabilities are experts at adapting and modifying and changing stuff. And I strongly urge people to have a look at the Oz Adapt there especially. I've got a couple of questions. Come in, please send your questions into Lynne. Now we've got about 10 minutes or so for that.
So so please do send any comments to questions and I'll just relay them to you. I've got lots myself, but I'll refrain from me doing my questions and I'll look at the questions that are coming in, OK? From from. From Greg. I know you've touched on some of these some of these things, but from Greg, is there a plan B if Tokyo doesn't happen? What's is it? What happens if Tokyo doesn't go ahead?
If it doesn't go ahead with. It allows us to really focus on Beijing Paras we would normally be doing. You know, we need putting this timing where we would be finishing the Tokyo games in September this year. If they'd gone ahead and say later on this year, we would be full steam ahead on Beijing and Paris planning. So that that has to happen anyway. What it will mean is that we might have to split resources as much.
A question around the support to the para sport organisations in the States, have Paralympics Australia got any plans to support the Paralympic para sport organisations in the States, their ongoing viability? Because that's where a lot of Paralympians first get involved.
And that was the reason we're so excited about this Talent and Pathways program that actually allows us to get back into states. We used to do that, but when we had our own set of challenges six years ago, we pulled back from that and with was very much focused on just delivering the games team. So I'm really excited now that by putting development officers back in there our aim is to work with the state based organisations and help in this area. When I say that we'll be looking to do Talent Pathways development. It absolutely will be done side by side with the NSO and the SSOs where relevant to make sure that we know we won't deliver the programs. But what we can do is help unearth, whether that's come and try days with athletes and then obviously point them to the relevant sports.
Yeah, yep, yeah. Keep keep keep the questions coming in, people. I want to expand a little bit on how you talked about a limited amount of mental health issues, because reading only this morning around the study that says this has been a significantly bad poor mental health. As for not being involved in sport and lack of physical activity during this time. And we know the importance of sport and physical activity for people with disabilities. What kind of advice would you provide or any thoughts around how a local club can welcome, really quite that welcoming environment for people with disabilities who may be a bit nervous about coming back into sport?
Look, I think the first come first serve thing to have on your mind is just be aware that they could be some negatives have to come out of the COVID environment, and which is why we've gone so active in putting up, you know, being proactive, sorry, in terms of our initiatives. We have a great relationship with BeyondBlue as well. So I think it's just really understanding that because of that, you may not even get into the front door much. You say it's almost how do you get beyond that to sort of make people aware and get them, as I said, on the point of just staying indoors, it has been for now. So it's not an easy thing. I think just being aware that it is a massive challenge more than ever now. And as I said, I think there's some really nice initiatives out there with Beyondblue is a great partner. They came on board initially just to talk to athletes to have them as speakers and advisors, it's been it actually has been a nice two way program because we were able to get we met them and say, well, you know what, some of your policies, we need to adapt to be better people with disabilities, said Danny DeToro, our Athlete Engagement Officer has been providing really specific advice there. So I think I would certainly point people in the direction of those organisations as well.
And. Good, good, good. A great question from Carlos. Next, Lynne, do you believe that this COVID-19 crisis will create positive legacies for the management of Paralympic sports in Australia in terms of policy, implementation and operations?
Absolutely, as I said, with the few programmes we put out already, like the Talent ID, I'm one way of looking at delivery of classification, for opportunities to an online portal, cetera. So we have some really nice project ideas. I think that will be fast tracked through this area. But yes, absolutely. We're working really hard to make sure that we do come out of this as a new organisation. We've created a committee within we haven't called it the Innovation Committee because I think that has a bad rap sometimes called the Creative and Curious Committee, where we've actually looking at opportunities both within the way we do our own business, as well as what opportunities might as we know, crises like these. Do you have to adapt? We can't get back to doing the way it was before. So know there's better ways of doing what we do already. We're looking at it, but also opportunities like this, talent ID pathways, like collaborations with other sports. I can see two really good, um, good forward advancements there that we certainly don't want to miss on.
There are positives to come out, come out of this for sure, like a lot of things. Okay, from Ayden. Does Paralympics Australia plan to put a particular focus on regional areas versus metropolitan?
Well, the state based allows us to actually to consider regional, which up until in times last four or five years, we haven't really been able to do a whole lot of work at all, let alone in regional areas. But not one of the reasons when we pitch for this grant was the focus that we would be looking at regional areas. So absolutely.
And we have a couple of programs, I'm sorry, just because we've done the last two years where it got a beautiful one in Indigenous areas, where we do do a bit of remote regional area travelling. But I think now we can actually have a little state based plan that allows us to. Because a lot of our athletes come from the regional district. We know that. And I think off the back of the games, one of the things we do really well is we take the athletes and you get support selected. We will go back to their local regions, a local newspapers and press, use that opportunity to have a Paralympian who might have come from Ballarat, actually, really, you know, engage with that community. And hopefully there's more opportunities.
Yeah. Yeah. You'll be pleased to know where questions are coming streaming in now, which is good from Kathy. Hi Kathy, how can Paralympics Australia support other national sports organisations that are really struggling at this time?
We do a lot of work for our NSOs, and they are very much out as much as our athletes, they are our partners. Side by side. Not the least of which most of them are our members. So we have a unique model, not like Comm Games or AOC, say, Olympic Committee, where we have a high performance unit that is absolutely world class. You know, we have skill acquisition experts. We have the latest in research analysts where we do some really cool projects. That unit is about seven or eight people in that. All they do is work with sports. So whenever we come up with research projects, whenever we come up with new ideas, we do it based on the fact we ask our sports, what do they need? And that's how actually our Optus CONNECT remote coaching app came out as Para Table Tennis had the best chance of a medal. Sammy? lived in Adelaide, need to stay in Adelaide for his condition. But the best coach was in Victoria. So we were able to link them up through this app. And that was a very raw first stages of it and they won a medal, first medal, I think in 30 years in Rio. So we're constantly working with our sports and providing that. That's literally and as I said, seven or eight people that is available to all of our NSOs essentially 24/7 and not just in engaging, that is everywhere.
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Well, I have a couple more questions as a follow on to the previous one. One last question, adding to what Kathy is saying. What is the role of state based disability sport organisations in partnering with Paralympic Australia to develop pathways for disability?
Door is now open, as I say, with this new program again. Up until now, she's been resources, but we say the state by state organisations is pivotal. And so many of our Paralympic athletes, as I think alluded to before, came from SSODs and just love them, you know, still speaks out highly of them. And that's rare. You know, if you get an athlete talking about a former coach, the way they fit it started still, you know, 30 years into their career, they're doing something right. So, you know, we worked really closely with our state ones up until now, but have had minimal resources. I'm hoping that in a years time, we'll say a whole lot more opportunities coming through. They're really important to us, those state based disability areas, because we can't deliver what they deliver.
OK, I'll squeeze. This was an interesting question. I'll squeeze this one in before we close out. What issues has Paralympics Australia encountered with the indoor sport athletes versus outdoor sport athletes? How have you overcome that the issue, if any?
Well, they certainly were issues. And I think the main one was in aid is being dictated by the framework Return to Sport. So that very clearly outlines what each sport can and can't do. In the case of our wheelchair rugby athletes. They just got back onto the court in, um, we share facilities with Essendon and Essendon obviously had a positive COVID test last week. So I think they'll be back in training together for one week and they now are in mandatory 14 days, quarantine and all being tested. Now, you know, that's just the nature of this beast. You know, we we we're not complaining about it, but I think that's the challenge is where it is in an indoor facility and in particularly in wheelchair rugby because it's a contact sport. So the nature and risks are higher. So we're back.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I wanted to thank Hannah here for giving me the closing out question. I always struggle to think that the closing question about Hannah has given me a perfect one here, says Lynne. What is one of your lessons learnt through COVID in relation to para sport?
Two, I suppose one is just reinforce this amazing resilience of this movement. And and just their commitment to the objectives. And, you know, I mentioned earlier that we we had to sadly let some people go. All of them were amazing, you know, because I understood that, you know, this was all about keeping the movement alive and that I will forever hold as one of you know, a down time, but certainly a highlight of my career? I think the other one I've been very we've been very fortunate. We have a fantastic high powered board. And their advice from day one was they thought we had to go where we can go hard in terms of really making some tough decisions to restructure. Hold on to our cash and have it's ready for coming out of it. And while it was a really tough three months, emotionally emotionally draining, I feel now I look back and I think we really in a groove again and we're really going forward. So I really thank the board for that direction, it was advice that was certainly well heed.
And I feel really confident that we will come out of it knowing for what we were in a great place. It was one of the grieving processes for us. We were primed for Tokyo, we had a great we still do have a great partnership with Channel 7, but it was in a great place, ready to go. We had the digital Oz Adapt campaign. Our athletes were starting to get more profile and recognition. And Tokyo is a home games for us. It's a virtual home game. So I just feel like we were there. And no matter what we do now and how good we come, it's really hard to get it back. So that's one of our challenges that we're focusing on. But, you know, I said I feel really strongly that I think the hard decisions, the quick decisions we've made have have left us in a really good price.
Well said. Well said. Thank you very much. Then I'm gonna close it out. We're bang on time, which is great. There's lots of positive comments coming in. Also congratulations and things like that, Lynne. So obviously you do a fantastic, fantastic job and I'm sure everybody wishes all the best over the next twelve months and cross fingers it happens. It happens big time in Tokyo next year for sure. So thank you very much, Lynne Anderson. Thanks, Peter.
And that concludes our final Think Tank series for the moment. I will be sending out an evaluation survey to all participants in these Think Tanks. We think we'll continue, but we really want your feedback and ideas about how we can improve all of what you like or not about the Think Tank series. So watch out for that. So I'd just like to thank you again for your participation today. A recording of this will be available on Play by the Rules, usually within the week there with the full transcript as well.
So look out for that and I'll send that notification out for that, too. So thanks very much. And I hope to see you again in the future on Think Tanks towards the end of the year. Thank you.
These are extraordinary times, the presence of COVID-19 means that each and every one of us, each and every one of us is facing our toughest ever opposition, and although we stand apart.
If we work together as a team, as a team and play by the rules, and play by the rules, we'll soon get back to playing and watching the sport that we love.
We need your support now more than ever, more than ever. Wash your hands and listen to the advice. If we play by the rules, we'll all get through this together.