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The Re-Arrangers: How to put on a sports event at short notice

By Dan Palmer

Nasser Majali, the secretary general of the Jordan Olympic Committee (JOC), was at home on a Friday in January when the phone rang.

On the other end of the line was Prince Faisal bin Hussein, the JOC President and the brother of King Abdullah II.

“Where are you Nasser?” asked His Royal Highness. “I think you need to go to the office.”

It was a call which fired the starting gun on a hectic and highly-significant period in the sporting history of the Middle Eastern nation.

Capital Amman had been chosen to step in and host the Asia-Oceania boxing qualifier for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, in place of Chinese city Wuhan which had become ground zero for the coronavirus outbreak.

With the first round bell for the first fight due to ring on March 3, there was already no time to waste. Thirty-five countries, and 220 boxers, were about to arrive.

“I called up the team,” said Majali. “I actually had conference calls done when I was in my living room. ‘Guys, we are getting the event, we need to go, we need to create a Local Organising Committee’.

“I made three of those calls to about 10 different managers. ‘Everybody needs to be at the office at 3pm, let’s meet in the meeting room. That’s going to be our base of operations’.

“And that’s exactly what we did.”

Whenever a sporting event moves locations an obvious reaction is to feel a pang of shock because, on the surface, it seems like a major occurrence.

But, when taking a step back, it becomes clear that re-arranging an important competition is not as rare as you might think.

Organisers can come up against a huge number of road blocks that are out of their control. The money can dry up and the support from politicians can disintegrate. Weather conditions may make sport impossible or the Government might decide that certain competing nations are no longer invited. As Wuhan and most other sporting cities have now found out, a killer virus might start to take hold.

In an ideal world, the new hosts will still have a large chunk of time to put alternative plans into motion.

But for Tokyo 2020 qualifying events which were moved because of coronavirus, there was no such luxury. With the Games still currently going ahead as scheduled in July and August, officials only had a matter of days to get things sorted.

The Asia-Oceania Olympic boxing qualifier was moved to Amman with little time to prepare ©JOC
The Asia-Oceania Olympic boxing qualifier was moved to Amman with little time to prepare ©JOC

“After Wuhan noted that they would not be hosting the event, and then the Chinese Olympic Committee announced they would prefer not to do it in China, we had offered that, if need be, Jordan would step in and host,” said Majali.

“A couple of days after that, Jordan was awarded the event. That was all around the 25th to the 27th of January.

“Just to put it into perspective, Team China arrived on the 1st of February. So four days after that.

“Operationally, we’ve had to do two things in parallel. We’ve had camps coming in, a lot of teams arrived in the area on the 16th or 17th.

“So, the real amount of time that we had to prepare was 20 to 25 days.

“From the start to finish, the total amount of time was around 45 days. From being awarded to the last day of competition.”

On January 26, Football Federation Australia (FFA) announced that Sydney would be hosting Group B of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) women’s Olympic qualifiers.

Wuhan was initially due to host the four teams involved, before the AFC moved the event across China to Nanjing.

With the seriousness of coronavirus becoming more evident, it soon became clear that no games would be possible in China at all.

On February 4, Thailand and Chinese Taipei kicked-off at Campbelltown Stadium, thousands of miles away from where they should have been and just seven days after the FFA’s involvement was confirmed.

“We had begun to commence contingency planning to be able to offer to the AFC a solution at short notice,” said Mark Falvo, the FFA’s chief operating officer.

“We literally had a week to pull this thing off.

“The same night that it was confirmed to us, we got on the phones and convened a working group. The starting point was to establish that we had the capacity to host at short notice.

“We knew in many areas we were ready to go in terms of stadia and having a workforce who we would have confidence in to deliver an event of that scale.

“I think it’s something we pride ourselves on, operation delivery and excellence in that regard. We began the next morning the process of starting to lock-in training sites and hotels.

Scenes from the boxing in Amman

“It was quite impressive to see how quickly we were able to move into that planning and delivery mode, just like that really.”

One thing both events needed to secure at an early stage was support from Government.

Without the politicians on side, there would simply be no way of moving things forward at the speed in which work needed to be done.

Getting sponsors on board is also key to lifting things off the ground.

“We’ve had a lot of partners that have assisted us in making this happen,” said Majali. “We’ve had a lot of support from Government and Government entities who had a major impact.

“We had sponsors jump in very quickly. From what I understand, we might be one of the events that were able to get more sponsors than others but within a very short period of time.

“We had to secure the sponsors within 20 to 25 days. We had a cut-off, because we needed to start printing by about the 18th. So we actually secured the sponsors before that.”

Ensuring that people from various nationalities could enter the host nation, without the constraints of red tape, was an important hurdle which needed to be cleared in Australia.

“Where we needed to be certain we could make it work was processing visas at short notice, and relying on Government collaboration for China, Chinese Taipei and Thailand,” said Falvo.

“Before we could put ourselves forward to the AFC as a solution, we were engaging with our department of foreign affairs to ensure we had the support of Government to process visas much quicker than might normally be the case.

“We also conveyed to Government the need and importance of offering a solution to the situation that was developing.

“Thankfully, our Government was able to move very quickly to provide that assurance, which in turn allowed us to offer to the AFC that, if they so chose, we would be able to step in, pick it up and deliver it.”

Both events benefited from having excellent facilities which were readily available for both competition and training.

Amman hosted the boxing at the Prince Hamzah Hall, while the FFA used Campbelltown Stadium for five matches and Sydney’s Bankwest Stadium for the Australia v China fixture, which was anticipated to have the highest attendance.

“We were blessed that we have an abundance of good sporting infrastructure in Australia,” said Falvo. “Stadia of differing size and service levels.

“We had confidence in our venues. In partnering with them we knew they can deliver. So that all happened quite seamlessly.

“For training sites, we needed to work with teams to know exactly when they would arrive, what their needs were, what their delegation sizes were, to make sure we could offer solutions which were appropriate to their needs.

“We also had good collaboration from the police who were able to put in escorts for teams to make sure they got to stadia and training sites on time.”

One thing that neither event could do without was an army of dedicated staff working tirelessly around the clock.

Family life, hobbies and other pleasures were all sacrificed as men and women joined forces towards a common goal.

“We’ve been doing 8am until about 2am,” said Majali. “That’s practically the standard shift.

“We tried to rest up some people on some Fridays, but effective of around the 24th of February, it was seven days a week.

“Everyone has been so thirsty to work and hungry to give more.

“Nobody wants to miss out. There’s a FOMO situation happening, a fear of missing out. Everybody has been involved in everything, so it’s been good.”

“We had a workforce of around 20 to 25 people, excluding venue staff and volunteers and other things on top of that,” Falvo added.

“We were needing to redeploy staff from other parts of our operation directly to the delivery of this event.

“I think we are able to do this at such short notice because of the expertise we have both within the FFA and across training sites and stadia.”

For Falvo and the FFA, their event came with the added complication of significant disruption they could not have prepared for.

The Chinese team, on arrival at Brisbane Airport, were immediately placed into quarantine due to new coronavirus regulations brought in by the Australian Government.

Pictures of players training in a hotel corridor emerged and organisers needed to think on their feet. Eventually, China’s concluding game with Australia at Western Sydney Stadium was pushed back 24 hours to February 13.

The possibility of doing this had always been reserved as an option after the tournament was moved.

“China’s team were required to self-quarantine given that they had passed through Hubei Province 14 days earlier,” said Falvo.

“That was obviously a challenge which wasn’t ideal and created disruption for the team. We pulled out all the stops to explore every possible solution whereby they would be able to train in isolation.

“Unfortunately, it became very difficult, once they were in a hotel with other members of the general public, to absolutely ensure there wouldn’t be any cross-contamination.

“There was a lot of work that was done. We had to work within the parameters we could – ensuring China travelled from Brisbane to Sydney as efficiently as possible, that they were able to train the minute they landed.

“Things were changing by the day and we needed to be flexible about the match calendar and we were needing to adjust to ensure that teams had enough time to train and be ready. That was something that was obviously a challenge but we seemed to rise to that challenge.

“We had flexibility in our infrastructure and the delivery of the tournament to make those amendments when required.”

There is an obvious question when learning about the extent of the work which is needed, and the stress it must cause those carrying out that work. Why? 

Why put yourself through the endless hours, the uncertainty, the bouts of sudden panic about something not being in place?

For Majali, giving something back to the sporting community was a big motivating factor. 

The event in Amman was not being run by the International Boxing Association (AIBA), but an International Olympic Committee (IOC) Taskforce, after AIBA were stripped of their involvement in Tokyo 2020 due to a long list of governance and financial issues.

This meant the chance to step in and host was an opportunity to directly help the Olympic Movement.

Prince Feisal, whose phone call to Majali set him and his team into action, now has a seat at the IOC’s top table after his election to their Executive Board in June.

“Honestly, there were multiple reasons,” said Majali. “This event is being managed by the IOC Boxing Taskforce and we would love to assist the IOC in anything. They assist us in a lot of things, all the time.

“So, it is nice to give back to the IOC community and to the Olympic family.

“And, in this specific case, also, HRH is also very thankful for a lot of the support that is coming to us, from multiple entities within the IOC and from within the family. So it feels good to be able to give back to that sporting family.

“Although doing events is very consuming from an energy point of view, and from a mental point of view, it’s honestly a very positive feeling to be able to achieve it too.

Jordan's boxers performed fantastically on home soil ©JOC
Jordan’s boxers performed fantastically on home soil ©JOC

“I wouldn’t say this was easy, I’d say many things were a challenge, especially with the amount of time we had. With that being said it was very enjoyable.

“Many people are saying it was as good as the World Championships, so I guess I will take their word for it.”

Falvo said that the FFA offered its services to “solve a very real problem”. When the event was still confirmed for China, the organisation already had concerns about the safety of their team who were due to travel to Wuhan.

“I went and personally addressed the players and obviously there was concern about being put in a compromising position,” Falvo said.

“Even at that point we’d begun a dialogue with the AFC to convey concerns on our behalf, and the risks we would be exposing players and officials to, not just our own but all the other teams who would be participating.

“Originally, the plan was to shift to a neighbouring region. Obviously the situation deteriorated further and that’s when we had begun to commence contingency planning to be able to offer to the AFC a solution at short notice.

“We also saw a great opportunity to engage with the diaspora communities.

“That’s what makes Australia, its diversity.

“We had Thai, Chinese and Taiwanese fans attending in good numbers.”

Another motivating factor for both countries, perhaps, was the obvious benefits for their athletes.

Jordan’s boxers performed superbly in Amman with five qualifying for Tokyo 2020. When added to Ibrahim Bisharat’s qualification in equestrian earlier this year, the total of six is already the highest-number of athletes Jordan has ever qualified directly for an Olympic Games.

Highly-promising welterweight Zeyad Ishaish won gold in his weight class and is the first Jordanian to win a continental title in boxing.

Australia’s women also qualified for the Tokyo 2020 football tournament after topping the Group B event on home soil.

There were dramatic scenes at the end of their final game with China, as the visitors claimed a 1-0 lead with just five minutes left thanks to Tang Jiali’s fine strike from the edge of the area.

That would have been enough for China to win the group but Emily van Egmond popped up with a long-range stunner of her own in stoppage time to seal a point, and Australia ended at the summit.

They duly progressed to a two-leg play-off with Vietnam which they eased through 7-1 on aggregate to reach the Olympics. They might have still qualified for Tokyo 2020 had China won the group, but that would have involved getting through a much-tougher examination against South Korea.

More than 5,000 fans watched the last-gasp excitement at Bankwest Stadium, while every Jordanian boxer in Amman was roared on by a noisy, raucous crowd. Being paired with a local was not an appealing draw for any of the visiting fighters.

Taekwondo’s Ahmad Abughaush won Jordan’s first Olympic gold medal at Rio 2016 but, when only considering sport that has taken place in the country, the Kingdom can have enjoyed few, if any, better times.

“From a sports point of view, having our athletes compete in Jordan, versus competing anywhere else, did give us the home-field advantage,” said Majali.

“In a sport like boxing, this is a big thing. It’s a big thing because of the comfort level the athlete stays in.

“They are more comfortable, they don’t have to travel. Plus, we’ve been investing into boxing in a completely different programme. We put them in an Olympic preparation programme three years ago.

“So, this is a very different team than the team that was set-up for Rio.

“One of our main goals was to develop our individual sports and one of the measurement tools was how many athletes we can qualify from each sport.

“We have broken boxing milestones and Olympic qualification milestones.”

Both Jordan and Australia are now also in the shop window for potentially hosting future events.

Laying on a big show at such short notice, and without hiccup, is definitely a string in the bow of any hopeful host. Australia and New Zealand are currently bidding for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup and their cause has certainly been strengthened.

“The reasons for us wasn’t to seek a competitive advantage but to solve a very real problem,” said Falvo.

“We were able to sneak a draw against China in injury time, maybe that wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t playing on home soil?

“But, first and foremost, we were pleased we were able to ensure that these qualifiers were able to proceed in the first place.”

Coronavirus has now decimated the sporting calendar with major competitions and leagues all grinding to a halt.

The IOC has insisted that Tokyo 2020 will still go ahead as planned, but it remains to be seen if this will be the case.

Numerous qualification events have been postponed, and sport has a huge headache in making sure that athletes trying to reach the Games still have the time and opportunity to fairly do so.

As a result, a number of organisers could soon be asked to put on an event quickly once the world emerges from its spell in self-isolation.

If they need any advice, there are some people in Jordan and Australia who know a thing or two.


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