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Another bump in the road

By Claire Thomson

With fresh government restrictions being regularly re-introduced, it’s crucial that we adopt measures where possible that help us convene safely and allow society to retain a sense of normality

On 4 October 2020, elite athletes took part in the annual London Marathon after it was originally scheduled to be held on 26 April. The 40th edition of the marathon was the first marathon to take part in the world since the Covid-19 pandemic began. Event organisers used technology to ensure the safety and social distancing of all 100 athletes across the men’s, women’s, and para and wheelchair races, as well as the 500 supporting staff and operational team.

The races each comprised of 19 2.15-kilometre clockwise laps of St James’ Park, plus an extra 1.345 kilometres to The Mall, the traditional finish line of the London Marathon. The whole course route was sealed off from the public with no spectator access or public viewing points along the way.

The new technological device, named the Bump, alerts when the wearer is too close to another person. Primarily developed for workplace environments by UK advanced robotics company Tharsus, the device uses sophisticated radiofrequency technology to release audible alerts and emit light notifications when the two-metre social distance barrier is broken; blue to indicate two metres and red to indicate 1.2 metres. Whilst being mainly worn around the neck on lanyards or clipped onto clothing, the technology uses both wearable and static devices, including freestanding hubs and location beacons to communicate. The Bump also stores the data of the other Bump devices which it has been in close proximity with, so that in the case of a positive coronavirus test in the subsequent two weeks, event organisers can take further action to prevent transmission. 

Hugh Brasher, London Marathon event director, said: “We have been working with Tharsus for many months and, when we were still hoping to deliver the mass participation event on its usual route, we were planning to supply all participants with the Bump technology in order to hold a socially-distanced mass event. It shows how important a role technology can play in the current situation.”

Athletes, their respective teams, and supporting staff were required to wear their Bump in the hotel on the lead up to the event, and to the start line, where athletes could only then remove their devices, so as not interfere with their running or race performance. The athletes were expected to re-attach their Bump after the race finished.  

Brian Palmer, Tharsus chief executive, said: “With fresh government restrictions being regularly re-introduced, it’s crucial that we adopt measures where possible that help us convene safely and allow society to retain a sense of normality. Despite being behind closed doors, many sports fixtures and events continue to take place, highlighting that the industry is leading the way in using technology to continue operating safely. This will not only provide vital support to clubs and organisations suffering a significant impact on their revenue but have a huge boost for national morale. The Virgin Money London Marathon is a foremost example of this; it is a hugely symbolic sporting event and we are delighted to be playing a role in facilitating its delivery in such challenging circumstances.”

The athletes and their teams were placed into a bio-secure bubble on the week leading up to the marathon after permission had been granted by the Department for Digital, Media and Sport to allow athletes and support staff to travel and compete in this bubble with strict guidelines of testing, travel, accommodation, and competition.

To protect this bio-secure bubble around the elite athletes, all athletes were tested for Covid-19 four days before travelling to the UK and again upon arrival at the hotel. Frequent testing continued at the hotel until Friday 2 October, two days prior to the race. Anyone who tested positive for the virus or displayed symptoms would have been placed into quarantine, and subsequently, athletes would not have been allowed to participate in the event.

Furthermore, a hotel outside of London was made exclusively for athletes, support staff and a team of event organisers to further preserve this bio-secure bubble. With 40 acres of grounds, the athletes were able to train during race week without breaking the bubble. An extensive hygiene procedure was implemented in the hotel, and everyone inside the bubble was obliged to follow social distancing rules, and always wear face coverings, apart from when training, dining, and in their own rooms. All athletes and support staff were provided with single rooms to further maintain social distancing and follow government guidelines.

With reduced numbers, the BBC offered supporters of the race eight hours of live television coverage and the chance for around 45,000 non-elite runners from across the world to participate in a 24-hour virtual version of the Virgin Media London Marathon.


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