15-09-2020 - Blog

Rethink sport: What can sports organisers learn from the SARS crisis?


The global sporting calendar has been in disarray since the COVID-19 outbreak, but it is not the first time a health crisis has impacted sport.

In 2003, the SARS virus outbreak in Hong Kong saw all sporting events cancelled for three months. Guy Horne, Managing Director of Lausanne based H&A Media, had been based in Hong Kong since 1992, working in the sports marketing industry, across the Asia Pacific region. He explains the lessons sports organisers can learn from the crisis.

​Horne (left) in Hong Kong, 1986

“SARS hit Hong Kong in March 2003, and you can imagine the headlines. We were really fearful. We understood about wearing masks as it was already an Asian habit. There was a focus on cleanliness and washing your hands. But there was no concept of social distancing, that was the key thing that was different.”

“While it’s important to remember SARS and COVID-19 are not the same, they had a similar immediate impact. There was no sport for three months and eventually we started to think about what we can do to get Hong Kong back on its feet. A big sports events is a great way to do that. I was doing TV distribution for Real Madrid Asian Tour at the time and preparing for the Beijing match when and we got a phone call from the Hong Kong Government to see what it would take for them to stopover in Hong Kong.”

An unprecedented deal was struck which saw the Real Madrid team, that included Beckham, Ronaldo, Figo, Carlos and Zidane, line up against Hong Kong’s League XI. ‘’It wasn’t just about the football: these Real Madrid players would step into bars, restaurants and nightclubs and rub shoulders with the locals and sprinkle some much needed stardust. For the match, tickets were too hot to handle with queues all night. A 40,000-seater stadium came alive,” explains Horne.

Although it’s unlikely we’ll see crowds of 40,000 people cramming into a stadium for a while, the message wasn’t about that. “It was about giving people confidence and something to celebrate. The Hong Kong boys scored twice in their 5-2 loss. In that stadium we turned a corner. That was Hong Kong saying, ‘if we can put a goal past Real Madrid we can get through this crisis’.”

​Crowds celebrate Real Madrid in Hong Kong

Following that moment, and due to the limitations that were in place on events and activities in the cities and towns, Horne explains there was a big switch in people’s approach to leisure. “Suddenly the Hong Kong population, which was 98% Chinese, regarded the network of country parks as valid alternative entertainment. A huge amount of people flooded the bus systems and trains to get out of the city and head for green, clean air to exercise in. People literally took to the hills.”

Driven by this ‘people power’ the government granted permission to private companies for the first time which allowed them to access Hong Kong’s parks for the organisation of sports events, and as a result, suddenly organised trail running events, adventure races and triathlons became hugely popular.

“We thought it would be a fad and it would wear out, but in fact that seemed to spark something of a change in the way people viewed the use of the country parks. Action Asia was an obstacle course series of races which caught on really well. Triathlon was just at the beginning and was really starting to kick off in popularity. People started cycling. And then you had ‘Trail Walker’ which was 100km across Hong Kong’s highest peaks, with 29,000 feet of ascent in humid conditions. Trail Walker, by its nature was a niche event. However post-SARS, it became a true mass participation event.

“And what has grown to the present day is this idea of the parks being more than just a place for passive recreation, but venues for proper organised sporting events, as people took advantage of the green lung of Hong Kong We now see it’s something that’s really grown over the years, something you wouldn’t have imagined 15 or 20 years ago.”

​Fat Choi Race, Hong Kong

While event organisers today have a different challenge to consider with the concept of social distancing likely to limit the number of participants, Horne says this is an opportunity for organisers to embrace the great outdoors.

“When you’re taking part in outdoor sports, you’re generally more spaced out just by the nature of it. I think sports in the wild terrain have an opportunity. And that opportunity is for organisers to rethink how to minimise contact. For example, why reach for a paper cup when you can carry your own water bottle, and someone opens a faucet? Wearing masks in staging areas, spacing out the start lines. And participants will probably have to be more self-sufficient. There will be a limit on numbers. We’ll have races with more limited entry fields, but it will come back.”

The other challenge for organisers he says, is the lack of clarity or a clear model on how fans and athletes can travel.

“I think the whole travel issue is something we will solve – we will travel again. We want to explore the world and that won’t go away. And we’ll accept a degree of risk, the level of which will vary person to person.

“My feeling is people will do destination events, which are very much experiential. And that it will be considered tourism, so competitors will bring their families and make it part of a holiday with their loved ones. People will be choosey with how they spend their money, and they’ll do events they can feel proud of for months after.”

As well as the desire to get outside, protect their health, and explore the outdoors, there was also a huge environmental push in Hong Kong following the SARS outbreak.

“There was an understanding that cardiovascular exercise and good respiration was important, so Hong Kong became aware of air pollution and the importance of protecting our environment,” explains Horne. “At that time and for 15 years after that, there was a desire to protect our green spaces. You need that green buffer when the world’s industry is over the border. That came home really clearly for people.

“I think today it will be really sad if there isn’t a higher sustainability level that is just accepted by event organisers. There are some basic things we can consider. For example, pre-event, do we need to travel for site trips? How can we minimise organiser travel? We don’t need disposable items; we have to consider how we can reuse equipment. So, there are a few basic things that I hope we start to see as the norm.”

There are plans for Horne to return to China later in 2020, as H&A Media play a role for the upcoming Olympic test events, with media content creation and promotion to a Chinese audience. “We continue to promote the idea of an active nation and to motivate and stimulate China to explore and participate in more sport.”

As an international sports events organiser, OC Sport are 100% focused on a safe return to sport, by rethinking how – and why – we strive to deliver incredible sporting experiences in some of the most beautiful settings on the planet. Find out what measures have been put in place to ensure a COVID-safe La Solitaire du Figaro here; get the latest updates on RunMate which is confirmed to take place 26-27 September here; and follow the development of our new sustainability framework here. You can also follow OC Sport on LinkedIn for the latest updates.

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