• Tartan track at the stadium.

    "Now is the time for innovators"

Matches in front of empty stadiums, virtual marathons, and many postponed events. The coronavirus pandemic has brought about drastic changes for the sports world. Professor Gabriele Mielke is tracking the effects of the crisis on both elite and recreational sport, but is also documenting the opportunities that are arising from the changing conditions. The Brain City Berlin Ambassador is Vice President of VICTORIA International University of Applied Sciences Berlin, a a private, state-accredited university, and heads the master's course in Business Management & Development there. One focus of the former Bundesliga handball player's research is sport and event management.

Prof. Dr. Gabriele Mielke ©Andreas Kühn

Prof. Dr. Gabriele Mielke

Vice President of hwtk Berlin

Professor Mielke, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tokyo Summer Olympics have been postponed to 2021. One of your research projects is currently dealing with the topic.

Correct. The opening ceremonies in Tokyo had been scheduled for 24 July 2020, but the coronavirus stopped the largest sports festival in the world from taking place this year. It has been rescheduled for summer 2021. How realistic this is in the face of a pandemic that is still not under control around the world remains completely unclear. As well as the effects of the postponement. In order to make them measurable and identify them on the basis of a model I developed, we use a bottom-up approach.

What does that mean in this context?

We consider all changes and strategic measures related to the event as part of the "event legacy." We collect the data both secondarily using document analyses and primarily using qualitative observations and partially standardized qualitative interviews. This will enable us to answer questions about the socioeconomic effects of the pandemic-related postponement as well as specific questions about the planned direction of the games in the coming year. For example: What does the postponement of the Olympic Games mean for the city of Tokyo? Or: Can the costs be expected to explode?

What role does the transfer of knowledge between research and practice play in your work?

The most exciting thing about my research is its concrete application through implementation-oriented knowledge transfer. Implications and recommended actions that result from my research are implemented by the stakeholders who are involved. The results of viewer or visitor surveys, for example, will help to better tailor offers to the needs of consumers. And insights into how sporting events affect the host destination are an important basis for sporting, city, and economic policy decisions. At the same time, the results can be transferred to my teaching. We often involve students in research projects so that they can network with real-world issues while they're still at university. Among other things, numerous projects have already been set up with Berlin sports clubs and institutions, for example the Füchse Berlin [handball club] and Eisbären Berlin [hockey club].

What effects will the cancellations of events due to the pandemic have on competitive sports this year?

There is currently no general answer to this. Many players in top-class sport reacted quickly, developed individual ideas and solutions for training at home, and posted them on social media. For example, they are offering synchronous or asynchronous distance coaching, digital training diaries, and virtual training groups. Virtual competitions such as those taking place at the German Cycling Academy, virtual training groups, and creative competition formats such as distance competitions can help preserve competitiveness. Even further creative solutions are now needed. However, the current restrictions have had a profound impact on ongoing sponsorship contracts. It can therefore be assumed that sponsors will demand refunds of all or part of the payments they have already made or withdraw their commitment. And that's about money. A lot of money, which could threaten the existence of some clubs.

What do you think will have to change in terms of market specifics?

The coronavirus is changing sport around the world at a rapid pace; it's been like a catalyst setting off a chain reaction. It's now necessary to find quick, accurate solutions for complex challenges, even though the conditions we're operating under remain uncertain. In other words, now is the time for innovators. Now is the time for change and finding creative solutions. Above all, there's a demand for more events that can take place online: sport simulators, augmented training through immersion, motivational animations, and documentation. This even extends to AI solutions such as individualised virtual training offerings and AI trainer support. Since the lockdown will not be completely lifted soon and further waves of the pandemic are expected, now is the time to push such projects to the front burner with a pragmatic urgency.

Are event postponements going to continue for the long haul? In other words, will we have to run the Berlin Marathon at home in the future?

No, it won't come to that. We can't assume such a disruptive development. Rather, there will be a juxtaposition of analogue and digital in the future. Even though alternative solutions are more in demand than ever during this time, people are also working to maintain their previous habits.

As is well known, every crisis also brings opportunities. What opportunities could the pandemic create for top-class sport?

The crisis offers the chance to rethink and return to the original idea of sport as a moving social interaction. With humility, fairness, respect for players and spectators, mindfulness, and health. Commerce, doping, and "too big to fail" could become relics of the pre-coronavirus period. Associations, organisers, and policymakers need to live and breathe that. There seems to be a willingness to help those who, through no fault of their own, are in need. Examples include campaigns such as #WEKICKCORONA or the coronavirus aid fund of the TSG Hoffenheim football club. And there is the €20 million campaign run by the four German Champions League clubs as well as voluntary waiver of salaries by professional athletes. This is all positive.

The world considers Berlin a major centre for sport. What inspiration can Berlin as a city of sports give in the current situation? 

Sport conveys values and brings people together. Berlin has a long tradition of this, both in competitive sport and in amateur sport with its many small clubs. Supporting sport is also a social responsibility. Berlin is on the right track here. The crisis has created the opportunity for the city to overcome everything that divides and to reflect on the advantages of active community and responsibility. Sport as a factor for the future should become even more anchored in the public consciousness in Berlin.

Finally, a personal question: does your background as a former competitive athlete help you in your research?

Through competitive sports, you learn to discipline yourself again and again and to overcome your own limits. There is no giving up. This also helps in research. In science, the pressure to perform and the expectations of young people have risen steadily in recent years. If you want to get ahead and be personally successful, you have to be able to withstand long-term stress and have a high tolerance for frustration. Acting responsibly and independently are essential to both sport and science. I was lucky enough to be able to turn my passion into a profession. And through my work, I can share the fascination of research with other people. (vdo)

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