The world of sport and sports media currently have their eyes on Egypt. The first major World Championship since the start of the global COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 has just started in four Egyptian cities under special circumstances. Thirty-two handball teams from all over the world are competing at the 27th - and biggest ever - IHF Men's World Championship in the home country of IHF President Hassan Moustafa.
 
SETTING THE PACE Many pros and cons were discussed regarding the staging of the event before the Egyptian organisers, the IHF and experts from the World Health Organisation (WHO) finally decided to implement a hygiene protocol including a “bubble concept”, which worked successfully at the Women’s EHF EURO in Denmark in December. Therefore, handball has set the pace for international (team) sports events at the moment. In Denmark, 16 teams had played in two cities, while Egypt is hosting 32 teams.
 
WITHDRAWALS Prior to the start of the World Championship on Wednesday, two teams withdrew due to several positive COVID-19 cases - the Czech Republic and USA. According to the COVID-19-Related Regulations for the competition, they were replaced by North Macedonia and Switzerland, the top two teams on the “waiting list”. Remarkably, the Swiss side arrived for their first World Championship match in 26 years straight from the airport and went on to beat their neighbours Austria.
 
COVID-19 TESTS All stakeholders involved in the 27th IHF Men’s World Championship were subjected to an antigen test upon arrival, followed by a PCR test at the hotel. The IHF reported that “several members of teams and media had positive COVID-19 PCR test results when being tested upon arrival in Egypt”. The affected teams are Cape Verde, Slovenia, Denmark and Switzerland. And like at the Women’s European Championship in December, all positive cases had been recognized before the teams had entered the “bubble”. All infected players are in isolation; their teammates were separated from other teams.
 
In contrast to the women’s event, however, the journalists on-site in Egypt belong in the bubble as well. While players and team officials get tested every day, media representatives have their tests every 72 hours. They are not allowed to leave their hotels except for the matches.
 
BUBBLE The Egyptian Organising Committee cancelled its so-called “virtual accreditations” plan, which would have enabled the media to follow the press conferences virtually. Originally, the virtual accreditation would have enabled its bearer to enter the arena, but not those parts for the media with “full bubble accreditation”. The cancellation of virtual accreditations was done after the organizers and the IHF decided not to have spectators in the four arenas. The original plan had been to use 20 per cent of the full capacity, but a protest letter by the team captains of the previously 16 European participants addressed to IHF President Moustafa forced the organizers to keep spectators out. The number of journalists on-site is very small, around 10-15% of the regular numbers.
 
NO ADDITIONAL INFECTIONS After the teams arrived in the bubble - team hotels with separate floors for the participants - no additional infections have been reported so far. “We all hope this bubble concept works, we are sure this concept guarantees health and security,” said German team captain Uwe Gensheimer, while Norwegian top star Sander Sagosen felt “a bit shocked” after entering the hotel bubble: “It is like Wild West, this concept cannot work like this,” he was quoted as saying.
 
From the sports point of view, this event is the first World Championship with 32 teams and Moustafa hopes that this enlarged tournament will not only increase the global interest in handball but that “handball shall mark the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel”, as the Egyptian said during the opening ceremony.
 

 AIPS Media, Björn Pazen - AIPS Handball Delegate, Photo by IHF