Some difficult issues have been raised by the event in Malaysia, writes Nick Heath

Opinion: Athletes put at risk at recent Touch World Cup

The 2019 Touch World Cup recently concluded in Malaysia. It comprised of 28 nations and over 2,400 athletes taking part across various age, single and mixed gender categories. Before, during and since the tournament, concerns have been raised over the suitability of Malaysia as a host country and explanations sought as to why the governing body chose to locate the event in a country with strict anti-LGBT laws and a climate that proved dangerous to those taking part.

The governing body of Touch is the Federation of International Touch (FIT) and the 2019 Touch World Cup tournament was held in Putrajaya, a city which serves as the administrative centre of Malaysia near Kuala Lumpur.

It is understood that the decision to award the tournament to Malaysia, taken in 2014, was arrived at not through a bidding process but by discussion between the FIT President, the Director of Finance and representatives from Malaysia Touch. It is believed the geographical location was a consideration to make travel easier for some of the less developed nations such as Philippines, Papua New Guinea and Samoa.

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Following the 2015 TWC in Australia, many of the competing nations had begun questioning the suitability of Malaysia as host for 2019, with particular emphasis on the suitability of the playing conditions in April/May.

Rumours suggested that games would only take place very early in the morning and late into the evening so as to avoid the main heat of the day. These rumours were scotched however, when it became clear that there were no floodlights at the venue. Throughout the six-day tournament, games were played from 8am until 6pm without a break.

Athletes put at risk at recent Touch World Cup

Soaring temperatures: The heat indicator (pic via Nick Heath)

Touch is a high-intensity activity. Organisers relied on a Kestrel heat index indicator to decide when it was unsafe to play, which uses a combination of temperature and humidity to produce readings.

At a moderate reading level of over 40°C, water breaks were imposed at each quarter of the 40-minute games. Suspension of activity was only required when the heat index or ‘real feel’ appeared to exceed 46 degrees. This occurred during the tournament with the Kestrel device reaching a recorded 51.9 degrees.

Having approached more than half of the competing nations in the tournament since its conclusion, some have expressed “serious concerns” about the danger the heat posed to their athletes. Several athletes from various nations collapsed or suffered heat stroke. Some required medical intervention, intravenous drips and ice to rehydrate and cool core body temperature while others were in hospital overnight. It had been a similar story when the Youth Touch World Cup was held in Malaysia in August 2018.

In terms of trying to support the teams to cope with the heat, FIT had offered each team their own tent with the option to purchase a simple fan or a more expensive air conditioning unit. Some teams could not afford this additional expense which put their athletes at greater risk of heat exhaustion.

The Italian team was known to have donated a fan to the Fiji team tent on the hottest day. True to their kind and humble nature, the Fiji team’s players each reportedly visited the Italian tent to express their individual gratitude.

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Coping with the heat and humidity became the primary concern and a distraction for teams competing at TWC 2019. While Tokyo 2020 have already announced that the Olympic marathon will take place at 6am to avoid the heat of the day, FIT can consider itself incredibly lucky that they avoided more serious medical incidents.

Like many sports, touch is still an amateur game but participation across the world is soaring. In England, numbers are increasing at such a rate that the RFU keenly include touch as part of their participation numbers associated with the oval ball. Touch aims to incorporate rugby’s key values that include respect and being open to all.

Athletes put at risk at recent Touch World Cup

Hooked up: On a drip (via @shanescott1992 on Instagram)

The decision by FIT to appoint Malaysia as host for the Touch World Cup, a country where homosexual acts are illegal, immediately forced any visiting LGBT athletes who wished to take part to consider compromising their moral integrity and their safety too. Malaysian government policy does not recognise the LGBT community and in March, the Malaysian foreign minister went as far as to suggest that LGBT people do not even exist in the country.

FIT have not responded to questions asking what consideration they gave to awarding the Touch World Cup to Malaysia based on the country’s anti-LGBT stance. They have also not clarified if they would consider awarding future international tournaments to countries with similar policies.

Disappointingly, FIT did not seek to advise any of the participating nations what support might be on offer from them as a governing body or to disseminate any information as to what the guidelines should be for any LGBT athletes hoping to take part in the TWC.

As far as competing nations’ advice to their own athletes, there was not much information provided, for example, to England athletes by the England Touch Association. The Malaysian government policy was communicated at an all-England training camp but in its barest form. However, despite stating that “no concerns were raised directly to tour management by our LGBT athletes” they have stated that they will be more proactive in this area and would be willing to express concerns to FIT on any future locations of tournaments.

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Having recently seen the influence that protesting businesses and organisations have had on Brunei’s attempts to bring in anti-LGBT legislation, it is promising that the ETA are prepared to voice their concerns to FIT in future. Other nations would do well to follow.

England Touch made the following comment: “We are fully committed to supporting all of our athletes, regardless of their gender, race or sexual orientation, and are constantly seeking to improve how we operate in this area. England Touch is proud to be considered a fully inclusive sport, and we will certainly be more proactive with regard to LGBT concerns should a similar issue arise in the future. England Touch is willing to express concerns to FIT and other tournament organisers with regard to potential host venues for international competitions.”

As Touch continues to grow, international associations across the world are having to move fast to cope with growing playing demands, while they are largely underfunded and run by volunteers. The Federation of International Touch is in a similar position but understanding its processes of awarding tournaments and allowing its decisions to be sense-checked are paramount for the athletes playing the game to feel the sport’s main body has their best interests at heart.

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