When a major international track meet had to be canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic this summer, organizers in Switzerland asked themselves two questions.
“Should we go on holiday and come back in one year?” said Christoph Joho, co-director of the famed Weltklasse Zurich. “Or are there opportunities?”
The Weltklasse Zurich chose to answer the latter, devising a highly technical format that could redefine the notion of live sports in this unusual time.
The “Inspiration Games” on Thursday will feature world-class athletes scattered across seven venues around the globe, mostly running and jumping by themselves but competing against each other by way of a coordinated video system.
The instant a button gets pushed in Zurich, starting guns fire simultaneously at stadiums in Switzerland, the Netherlands and at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut.
Timing clocks begin running at the exact same moment as television engineers scramble to synchronize feeds so viewers can watch athletes sprinting, side-by-side, on a three-way split screen.
At least, that is the plan.
“Yah, we’re excited,” co-director Andreas Hediger said. “We don’t know how it works out.”
Led by Olympic champions such as sprinter Allyson Felix and pole vaulter Katerina Stefanidi, the field seems willing to take a chance, hungry for the opportunity to compete after months of COVID-19 lockdown.
“If this is what the new normal is for this period,” said Christian Taylor, an Olympic triple jump champion, “then let’s attack it head-on.”
The meet will serve as a debut for Mt. SAC’s newly renovated stadium. There also will be competition sites in France, Portugal, Sweden and Florida.
The 90-minute program will feature three sprints, a hurdles race, a 3×100 relay, the pole vault and the triple jump. Each individual event will have three athletes who, in many cases, will be thousands of miles and several time zones apart.
As Weltklasse Zurich organizers began exploring the possibility of a virtual meet in spring, they knew that timing the races accurately would be essential. Swiss Timing was enlisted to create a system that could coordinate globally.
Television presented a thornier problem, with broadcast feeds arriving at slightly staggered times. Engineers will rush to synchronize them and send them back out on a short delay for television and streaming on the Wanda Diamond League’s Facebook stream and YouTube channel.
Each track will have a photo-finish camera, with officials able to meld the images. There will be wind gauges, but no way to make allowances for different weather in different parts of the world. Hediger said: “There will be some unfair conditions … we have to accept that.”
As with counterparts in other sports that have restarted, athletes will have to deal with performing in empty stadiums. There won’t be any rhythmic claps for the jumpers and vaulters, no crowd roar as sprinters lean for the tape.
“I’m hoping that at least they blast some music,” pole vaulter Sandi Morris said. “Maybe that will help get the heart going, make it more real. Because otherwise it’s going to feel kind of like, is someone playing a prank on me?”
Morris can vault, then watch her competitors take their turns by way of a live video feed at the venues. Sprinters will have to race without knowing if they are in the lead or falling behind.
“It’s just going to be hitting the gas until you hit the finish line,” Bahamian sprinter Shaunae Miller-Uibo said. “I guess, after, [you’ll] see exactly where you place.”
If the meet goes well, it could serve as a blueprint. Some athletes wonder if virtual competition might become routine, at least until the pandemic subsides.
“I loved the idea right away,” said Felix, a six-time Olympic gold medalist who will run at Mt. SAC. “I thought it was so cool.”