Normally for U of M athletic director Gene Muller, like many other Manitobans, July and August offer an escape from the day-to-day grind experienced during the fall and winter.
However, with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to be felt, his summer and those of the rest of the Bisons sports community has been hectic. After all U-Sports schedules and championships were cancelled due to the virus last year, Muller and his staff made it their goal to create a safe environment for Bison athletes so they may represent the brown and gold come September, making summer semester a busy one for the athletic department.
“We’ve mostly been busy with activities related to the reopening,” Muller said.
“We really wanted to provide training continuity, strength and conditioning continuity, psychology and nutritional and athletic therapy continuity to Bison Sports athletes and at the same time to plan for a competition.
“We’ve maintained our strength conditioning, we’ve retained athletic therapy, we’ve trained psychology and nutritional support [staff] through the whole lockdown, so it’s been just maintenance.”
Although Muller said fan attendance at Bison sporting events is “still to be determined,” he emphasized that the goal is to have students supporting their classmates in the stands as soon as it is safe to do so.
“We would like to see fans back at our games,” he said.
“We want that. I mean, I think it’s really good to see a full Bomber stadium, but in terms of what we all expect in terms of numbers, in terms of capacities, in terms of vaccination status, those details are still being worked through.
“I think we need fans, and we need many other fans, but we also need it to be safe and controlled and well thought through.”
If Bison home games are to be played in front of empty stands, Bison fans can still watch their favourite athletes on Canada West TV. The U of M has partnered with the subscription streaming service to help broadcast Bison home games online.
“Probably one of the few advantages of COVID for us is that it gave us time to review our technology setup in order to be able to broadcast, produce and generate high-quality footage of our teams in action. So, we are in the process right now of installing a new video system that enables us to capture and broadcast games.”
“We’ve got the setup […] for all our court sports, basketball [and] volleyball. We’re setting it up at hockey and we’re also setting it up at women’s soccer, so hopefully we’ll be able to have a higher-quality broadcast. I think we realized that probably streaming and the generation of quality broadcast is part of the future of sports. We love getting people there face-to-face, but it’s not always possible, so we want to generate high-quality footage.”
With each decision regarding the return to sports, the university’s reopening committee has the final say. Muller explained how each decision made by the athletic department goes through a lengthy approval process.
“All of our activities need to be vetted and approved by the reopening committee, so we didn’t have autonomy in saying, ‘OK, that’s what we can do, this we can do.’ It’s the process of […] [deciding] what we propose we are going to do, write the proposal, attend the committee meeting and then approval.”
The reopening committee also continues to make important decisions regarding student life, including the Active Living Centre where masks are mandatory and capacity is capped at 75 per cent.
“I think both those measures are really appropriate,” said Muller.
“I mean, we know that COVID is a communicable disease spread through droplets, so I think having a mask mandate is responsible and appropriate and compassionate to society and to our members.”
“I think the 75 per cent is probably related to the amount of equipment that can go into the space while still maintaining a measure of social distancing, so we took that into consideration […] how many people can safely be in a space.”
“I’m very proud of our facilities and recreation services staff. Their cleaning protocols have been spot on […] I’m proud of the fact that I think we’ve contributed to both safety and providing an activity outlet for society.”
A fourth wave of COVID-19 still may hit Manitoba, yet Muller remains optimistic and is encouraged by signs of normalcy, driving him to continue to strategize for the return to competition. He feels that with careful preparation, the U of M athletic program will return to pre-pandemic form.
“My final thoughts are just excitement and a feeling of a return to normalcy, even our offices […] I can see we’re starting to do press releases for football training camp, we’re starting to do season previews for our different teams, and it has a sense of normalcy.”
“It’s just an excitement that things might be returning to what we know.”