Sports in the United Arab Emirates amidst a pandemic

  • SEP, 2021

Physical inactivity kills more than 5 million people per year. Around 30% of all deaths in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) occur due to cardiovascular diseases. In a recent issue, “The Lancet” launched a Special Series on physical activity, and Lane (2021) emphasized that the sedentarism is linked to an increased risk of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. But the health benefits also include improvements in mental health, dementia and cognitive function, sleep, preventing falls, and fall-related injuries. According to a World Health Organization (WHO) study, nearly 78% of children in the UAE between the ages of 13 and 15 are at risk of cardiovascular diseases due to physical inactivity. COVID-19, as of March 2021, has resulted in over 2.8 million deaths worldwide.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic swept across the globe in the year 2020. UAE became the first country in the Middle East to report a case of COVID-19 on January 29, 2020. The 2020 UAE Cycling Tour was the first international sporting event to be cancelled after the completion of five stages due to two Italian staff members of one of the participating teams testing positive for COVID-19.

COVID-19 brought the entire sporting world to its knees. Every aspect of the mega event industry had been on a standstill since the outbreak of the pandemic. For example, sports broadcasting was disrupted which led to content from the archives vault such as classic encounters being replayed for audiences.

Nevertheless, the city of Abu Dhabi successfully hosted the UFC Fight Island (UFC 251) in the month of July 2020 and managed to thwart the pandemic’s efforts to completely shut down sporting activities. According to media reports, 1.3 million pay-per-views (PPVs) were sold for the bio-bubble event. The swift action taken by the authorities to mitigate the impact of the novel coronavirus led to the relocation of the world’s richest cricket tournament, Indian Premier League (IPL), from India to UAE. Dr. Mataruna-Dos-Santos, Associate Professor (Sport Management) at the Faculty of Management, is investigating the adaptations in the global and regional sports market due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The results point towards the need for innovative strategies to promote cities, brand events, effective consumer engagement, adopting biosecurity index to adjust to the new normal in sport, keeping in mind the various macro objectives, such as UN Sustainable Development Goals, UAE Centennial Vision 2071 and Dubai 2040 Urban Plan to name a few.

Dr. Mataruna-Dos-Santos is participating in a research project about the impacts of the COVID-19 and the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The discussion englobes also the leverage, footprints, and legacies shared by a consortium group with researchers from Japan, Canada, China, Brazil, France, Russia, India, South Africa, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Generally, in a sport mega-event is commonly expected an increase in population-based physical activity in the host city, as often stated in several event bids. However, the post-Olympic Games effects on sport practice and physical activity is unstable. Due to the pandemic the cases of sedentarism increased base on preventive measures of COVID-19, such as staying at home, that decrease physical activity and increase the food intake. Ali and Kunugi (2020) remind that “Physical inactivity alters gut microbiome structure in a fashion that promotes gut dysbiosis and flaring of systemic inflammation, leading to the buildup of body fat”.

The Abu Dhabi Sports Council (ADSC) and the Dubai Sports Council (DSC) organised virtual sporting challenges for their residents during the holy month of Ramadan to replenish the sporting calendar and mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on the physical fitness levels of the population due to indoor confinement. The virtual challenges could be completed inside the home or outside in the neighbourhood, subject to local laws. The aims of the organised events were to perpetuate the concept of leading an active life among the citizens through activations by key stakeholders, encourage participation in sports by the often-overlooked communities such as women, children, and people of determination, attract consumers through various marketing strategies, and develop a roadmap for the hosting of similar events in the future.

One of the resources that guide the research line of Dr. Mataruna-Dos-Santos is the Infographic developed by Wedig et al. (2020). According to the author, “several organisations including the WHO, American Heart Association and American College of Sports Medicine have offered initial suggestions and resources for engaging in physical activity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Physical activity provides numerous health benefits, some of which may even help directly combat the effects of COVID-19. For substantial health benefits, adults should engage in 150–300 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity each week and limit the time spent sitting. The recommended levels of physical activity are safely attainable even at home. Using a combination of both formal and informal activities, 150 minutes can be reached during the week with frequent sessions of physical activity spread throughout the day. Sedentary behaviour can be further reduced by breaking up prolonged sitting with short active breaks.”

The outbreak of the pandemic has accelerated the growth of the fastest growing gaming market in the world (Middle East) with the regional market valued at $4 billion. UAE’s forward thinking and flexibility was reflected in the adaptations and initiatives during the COVID-19 lockdown period displayed the resilient nature of the sports councils and government to promote the uptake of physical activity and preserve the image of the UAE as a sports destination.

Leonardo Mataruna is an Associate Professor (Sport Management), Faculty of Management, Canadian University Dubai


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