Colombian Ultimate Tournament Raises COVID-19 Safety Questions

Safety protocols were in place but not strictly enforced.

Medellín Revolution.

A 5-on-5 Colombian ultimate tournament last week that featured the prominent club and Premier Ultimate League team Medellín Revolution underscored ongoing questions about the safety of playing ultimate during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The tournament, which hosted teams only from within an hour of Medellín, was coordinated by Teleantioquia, a prominent regional television network on which the women’s and men’s finals of the tournament were televised.

Tournament organizer Mauricio Moore, the founder and coach of Revolution, said that there were COVID safety guidelines in place for the tournament, including playing 5-on-5 instead of 7-on-7, requiring hand and clothes sanitizing, asking players to bring and use their own water bottles, taking temperatures at check-in, telling player to avoid crowds when not on the field of play, and requiring use of a mask or other nose and mouth covering unless on the field of play.

A review of the game footage showed limited adherence to social distancing on the sidelines, including full team huddles, and inconsistent mask wearing. In one instance, players visibly drank from the same water bottle.

“One of the things that I learned is that the hard thing is to make sure that everyone commits,” said Moore, who also played with the men’s team Evolution in the men’s final.

“We made mistakes in the tournament we were invited to organize and we are learning from that to ensure a safe return to the fields and will follow the players that played to make sure they are healthy, and we apologize for any concern this may cause,” he wrote on Twitter earlier this week.

“I think Revolution is a really representative and important team for the world — and an example to the world,” he told Ultiworld.

Playing sports outdoors is widely considered less risky for COVID-19 transmission than playing indoors due to the increased airflow, but many health departments have categorized ultimate as a high-risk sport due to the close proximity between players and use of shared equipment. Outdoor professional sports that have resumed have yet to report a COVID-19 case transmitted via competition, but a Minnesota high school study traced some COVID transmission to sports practices and play. Furthermore, the riskiest elements of returning to play with groups may not be the on-field competition but the ancillary events like team meals which are harder for organizers to control on-site. The Center for Disease Control estimates that 50% of COVID cases are transmitted from people not experiencing symptoms.

Moore said that Revolution, who has been practicing as a team twice a week since July, has had no COVID-19 cases traced to team events. Four members of the Revolution club have tested positive for COVID-19, but two contracted it before the team resumed practicing, one is not in Colombia, and one got it from a family member, he said. Moore also followed up with captains from each of the teams at the tournament, who reported no cases or symptoms from any players on the teams.

“We have been doing a lot of things for trying to keep ultimate alive during this pandemic,” he said. “It means a lot of safety and health-focused things.”

Revolution players and coaches flying to the Dominican Republic in November. Photo: Instagram.

Governmental restrictions on outdoor sports have eased over time in Colombia. Early in the summer, practices were held without a disc and socially distanced. In October, competitions were again allowed to take place with safety guidelines in place. In November, members of the Revolution club traveled to the Dominican Republic to host ultimate clinics.

Colombia has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Daily recorded cases have reached all-time highs in the last two weeks. Deaths are also climbing, though they are below the worst days from the summer, and, this week, new lockdowns have gone into effect around the country. Wearing a mask in public is required by Colombian law, and social distancing and hand washing are strongly encouraged by the country’s health ministry. 44,723 people have died from COVID-19 in Colombia, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard, putting the country at #26 in the world in per capita deaths.

Some ultimate players on social media expressed surprise or disappointment over the tournament, and the Premier Ultimate League put out a statement on Twitter:

Dear community, the PUL does not approve of playing ultimate until it is safe to do so. It is clearly unsafe in the United States right now. We are closely monitoring COVID-19 here, and cannot speak fully to the situation outside the US. While [Revolution] competes in the PUL, their club team also operates year round outside of the PUL. Their tournament had nothing to do with the PUL and we were not aware of it. We are talking with [Moore] now, and appreciate the feedback coming in right now concerned for the safety of our community.

Revolution, founded in 2004, is the only team in the PUL that operates outside of the league; the team has competed in multiple US Open and World Club Championships. Moore said that the PUL was not involved with this event in any way, but acknowledged that the team wore its PUL jerseys during competition, which he called a mistake.

In many parts of the globe, ultimate has been sidelined for months. On June 20th, USA Ultimate released influential return to play guidelines,1 which primarily identify various levels of risk and potential modifications to gameplay to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. If it had been held in the US, the Colombian tournament would likely be considered either a stage 4 (medium group local competition) or stage 5 (large group or travel competition) event, the two highest-risk categories, with a modification for reduced team size.

Debates about whether or not it is safe to resume playing ultimate before widespread COVID-19 vaccination have increased in recent weeks. A handful of summer leagues operated in the U.S. in 2020, and Switzerland held a small tournament in June. Some countries around the world held local, and even national, competition depending on the guidance of their countries’ governments and local governing bodies. USA Ultimate sanctioned a Colorado 4-on-4 tournament in November. The AUDL’s Indianapolis Alleycats’ controversial plan to host indoor tryouts for their 2021 team was eventually scrapped.

Many other amateur team sports have returned to league and tournament play: US Lacrosse sanctioned numerous tournaments this fall, and soccer tournaments have been running for months. All competition is required to follow local and state regulations, just as it would under USA Ultimate’s rules.

Moore said that ultimate has struggled in Colombia due to the pandemic, citing multiple teams folding and players retiring from competition. He says that returning to practice and holding a small tournament is about trying to maintain the community and offer players an opportunity to get exercise in an outdoor environment.

“We really want to bring to the world the best thing we are,” he said. “We were not doing this because we were like ‘we’ve had enough of the pandemic.'”

  1. though it is worth noting that Colombian ultimate does not fall under USAU jurisdiction 

  1. Charlie Eisenhood
    Charlie Eisenhood

    Charlie Eisenhood is the editor-in-chief of Ultiworld.You can reach him by email ([email protected]) or on Twitter (@ceisenhood).



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