Nathan Chen could have given a blandly optimistic answer to a question of whether he had any concerns over the long flight (with a connection) to get him from Los Angeles to Stockholm for next week’s World Figure Skating Championships.
Chen could have given a similarly anodyne response to a question about his concerns about staying safe and healthy once he is on the ground in Sweden for nine days.
But during a Zoom teleconference last week, the two-time defending world champion chose not to do either a Pollyanna or a Pinocchio about issues related to travel and the competition environment at a worlds taking place during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Much as he is “happy and grateful” to have the opportunity to compete at worlds, especially given the 2020 event scheduled for last March in Montreal was cancelled at the outset of this pandemic, Chen hesitated when asked if any part of him thinks it is a bad idea to have the 2021 worlds.
“Um…I don’t necessarily want to say,” he answered. “But I want the event to happen. As an athlete, you want to have these opportunities to compete. It’s just, like, safety. As long as they can ensure safety, then that’s all we can ask for.”
Parts of Europe are being hit with a third wave of the pandemic. Italy announced a new national lockdown Monday. The Czech Republic Monday added Sweden to its list of countries with the highest risk for COVID-19. Sweden’s daily case numbers have remained high, by its statistical standards, for the past month.
Chen, 21, on leave from his junior year at Yale, has not flown since the middle of last March, when he returned from the university in New Haven, Connecticut, to his home in Southern California. He drove from LA to Las Vegas for Skate America in October and the 2021 nationals in January, when he won a 12th straight individual live competition and a fifth straight U.S. title.
Next week he will face his stiffest competition in more than a year in rival Hanyu Yuzuru, the two-time reigning Olympic champion from Japan whom he last skated against at the Grand Prix Final in December 2019 (which Chen won).
Chen’s trip abroad is likely to take some 14 hours from takeoff to touchdown in Sweden. The overseas flight will be about 11 hours.
“I’m not going to lie and say I’m not [concerned about the trip],” Chen said. “I know in theory airplanes are safe due to the HEPA filter [air filtration system], but connections are still an issue…and on international flights, people will be taking off their masks to eat. Bathrooms are always sketchy.
“I have my anxieties about the travel. I’m sure it should be OK. I’ll do my very best to prevent my mask from slipping. Obviously, I will be double masking throughout the flight and just praying I don’t get sick.”
Since the International Skating Union council decided Jan. 28 to go ahead with worlds, it has worked with the organizing committee to create a tight bubble environment with no event spectators like the one U.S. Figure Skating was able to establish at its events in Las Vegas.
With that in mind, the ISU’s choice in June 2018 of Stockholm as 2021 host has turned out to be a stroke of good luck.
It is among few host cities in the world that could provide a main arena (Ericsson Globe), two practice arenas and a hotel for skaters and meet officials all so close to each other that no bus transport is needed. Everyone will be able to get from one place to the other on dedicated indoor walkways. The only time athletes will need a bus is to get to and from the airport.
No one without particular level accreditation for the event will be allowed into the official hotel, and everyone who asked for a single occupancy room received one, Ulrika Molin, project manager for the World Championships, said in a Monday email. All media interviews and press conferences will be virtual.
On COVID-19 safety plans, there are five ISU documents that cover everything from the federation’s general approach to having events during the pandemic to specific details about the way the Stockholm bubble will work.
The “bubble group” of accredited “Level 1” and “Level 2” participants, including skaters, ISU meet officials, ISU officials, team staff and organizing committee staff, are to arrive Saturday or Sunday. Official practices start Monday, and competition runs from March 24 through 27, with the exhibition gala the 28th.
To enter Sweden, each person must have evidence of a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within 48 hours of arrival. A second PCR test will be given at the official hotel before accreditation is issued, and another test is mandatory no later than four days after that.
Molin said there had been no consideration by the ISU or the organizing committee of an earlier arrival to allow a quarantine of at least a week.
The Swedish organizing committee is paying for competitors’ lodging and meals beginning with dinner Saturday and ending with lunch Monday, March 29.
World championships in 12 winter sports – all but two outdoors – have been held this year without such quarantines, 10 in Europe, one in Asia, one in the United States. Because of government health and entry regulations, the Australian Open tennis tournament imposed a 14-day quarantine period for all players coming into the country.
Team officials and coaches are “recommended” to leave as soon as their singles skater(s) or pair/dance team(s) have finished. Competition officials (judges, technical panel, data/replay officials) have been given specific departure dates.
While there are 25 more athletes entered than there were at the last figure skating worlds, in 2019 (167 from 43 nations to 192 from 40 nations), the total number of accredited personnel should be significantly smaller. The 2021 quotas include only one coach per skater/team; one official per national federation; no chaperones, guests or observers; and no ISU officials or office-holders who do not have a direct working connection to the event.
The ISU successfully pulled off a five-week-long bubble for long track speed skaters at Heerenveen, Netherlands, in January and February. It included 196 athletes who competed in four separate events – two World Cups, a European Championships and a World Championships. The ISU reported zero positives among the 2,000 PCR tests administered during the bubble.
The most potentially problematic area is whether those within the bubble follow general COVID-19 guidelines on masking, social distancing and socializing, and specific ones about forbidden behaviors in the bubble.
“Number one is making sure everyone is being responsible about wearing masks and social distancing, about taking this seriously,” Chen said. “I’d like not to name names, but I’ve seen how events have been run in the past year.
“As long as everyone’s staying proactive and being responsible about the requirements and what they’re supposed to do, as well as having, you know, having repercussions for not wearing masks or doing other things, I think that’d be better.”
The Russian Figure Skating Federation was called out within the skating community for its laissez-faire attitude toward mask wearing and social distancing at the Rostelecom Cup Grand Prix event in November. Several top Russian skaters contracted COVID not long after that event. Subsequent events in Russia also have seen disregard for the health rules in the “Guidelines for ISU Events During the Covid-19 Pandemic,” issued Aug. 31, 2020.
The final section of those guidelines covers sanctions for not following them, including loss of accreditation and potential disciplinary proceedings according to the ISU Constitution.
In a Dec. 4 email responding to my question of whether the Russian Figure Skating Federation should be sanctioned, ISU President Jan Dijkema acknowledged learning “the regrettable news about the situation involving positive test results for COVID-19 of certain Russian Skaters.” He said the ISU did not have enough information because the usually international Grand Prix competitions had become domestic-run events during the pandemic.
A follow-up email to Dijkema that day noting the violations were publicly visible on broadcast video and social media posts went unanswered.
The ISU also did not answer an email question this week about how the guidelines will be enforced in Stockholm.
“Ultimately, I will be there to compete, but I still have my worries about getting sick,” Chen said. “I don’t want to get sick. I don’t want anyone else to get sick. Bottom line is, I want everyone to stay healthy during this competition.”
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Olympic Winter Games, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.
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