New variant hits sports just as they were nearing normality
- Golf was the first to be hit by the emergence of the new B.1.1.529 variant
- It has already been detected in Israel, Hong Kong and Belgium
- Rugby games in South Africa in a new European-South African tournament were postponed
Golf, cricket and rugby became the first major sports to be affected by the new COVID-19 variant on Friday, prompting fears of renewed travel restrictions and disrupted events just as they were returning to normal nearly two years into the pandemic.
European golfers withdrew midway through the season-opening DP World Tour tournament in Johannesburg and were scrambling to catch flights out of South Africa. Visiting cricket and rugby teams were doing the same.
Golf was the first to be hit by the emergence of the new B.1.1.529 variant that was initially identified in South Africa and is causing concern over fears that it may be more transmissible than current variants and resistant to vaccines.
It has already been detected in Israel, Hong Kong and Belgium as well as several other countries in southern Africa.
While the start of the World Tour was ruined, rugby games in South Africa in a new European-South African tournament were postponed "due to the sudden developments," organizers said. A tour to South Africa by India's cricket team next month was likely to be reconsidered, although there was no official comment yet.
The Dutch cricket team, already in South Africa for a series, was considering whether to cancel its remaining games and return home early. The Royal Netherlands Cricket Federation said it was looking at options but was “unlikely” to be able to find flights at short notice.
"The physical and mental health of the players is the first priority,” the federation said.
Organizers of golf's Joburg Open, which started Thursday, said it would continue even after at least 23 mostly European players pulled out in the hours after South African health authorities announced they had detected the new variant. The tournament was later reduced to a 54-hole, three-round event ending on Saturday “to help non-South African resident players, caddies and tournament support staff return to their home countries,” the organizers said.
The Joburg Open was scheduled to be the first of three events in South Africa to start the new season on the circuit formerly known as the European Tour. But next week's South African Open will now only be a South African tour event with international players likely to head home to beat travel restrictions. The Alfred Dunhill Championship set for Dec. 9-12 was canceled.
Many of the players who withdrew from the Joburg Open were from Britain or Ireland and reacted following the British government's announcement that it would re-impose a ban on visitors from South Africa and five other southern African countries from 4 a.m. Sunday. Returning residents would have compulsory 10-day quarantine periods in designated hotels.
The European Union and the United States later said they also would stop air travel from the southern African region as countries across the world began putting in place new travel restrictions.
Irish golfer Paul Dunne, one of those to withdraw, told RTE Radio that he had managed to get a flight home via Dubai and the only ones now available went through Ethiopia, where a yearlong conflict now threatens to reach the capital, Addis Ababa.
“Nobody fancies traveling through there either,” Dunne said. “Bit of a minefield at the minute.”
Not all were leaving. Scottish golfer David Drysdale said he had decided to keep playing in the Joburg Open and then stay in South Africa with his wife, who is also his caddy, and make a vacation of it.
“Most of the British players have all decided to head home and that’s totally understandable if you’ve got a wife and kids at home," Drysdale told the Scotsman newspaper. “There wasn’t a (plane) seat to be had by the time we found out what had happened. A lot of the guys were panicking, but we thought, ‘what’s the point?'
“We are staying with a mate in Joburg and our plan is to still stay until Christmas then return home. Hopefully this variant is not as bad as they are fearing ... it’s not even been 24 hours since we heard about this.”
Four rugby teams — two from Wales, one from Ireland and one from Italy — were also trying to return home from South Africa before they even had the chance to play after their games were postponed by the United Rugby Championship.
“With the situation in South Africa having changed so quickly, we are now looking to repatriate our staff ASAP,” Welsh club Cardiff said.
There was bound to also be repercussions for other events in other countries, like the women’s cricket World Cup qualifying tournament in Zimbabwe, another southern African nation listed on new travel bans. Nine national teams, including the United States, are playing in that tournament, which runs until Dec. 5.
The African Cup of Nations, Africa's premier soccer tournament, is just over a month away and looming as a possible problem after having already been postponed for a year because of the pandemic.
The 24-team tournament will be played in Cameroon and only two southern African nations, Malawi and Zimbabwe, have qualified. But the African Cup would be hard-hit if European countries extend travel restrictions across Africa.
Top European soccer teams, and especially those in the Premier League, have previously prevented their African players from traveling and playing for their countries because of the risks and quarantine periods imposed on them when they return.