Candidates 2020 - FIDE declares "safety is our priority"

FIDE claims 'safety is our priority' but actions speak louder than words

The Candidates Tournament 2020 (hosted in Russia's fourth-largest city and the capital of the Urals, Yekaterinburg), had already attracted drama and criticism of FIDE's decision to go ahead with the event as planned. Amidst what the World Health Organisation (WHO) has now branded a "pandemic" and an "international global health crisis", FIDE decided to continue with the Candidates, despite WHO's global recommendation to avoid major social gatherings. The Candidates is a major feature of the chess calendar, determining who will be playing World Champion Magnus Carlsen later this year (hopefully).

Continuing with the Candidates was largely contrary to the actions of every other major sporting organisation in the world which heeded the WHO's advice. Major top flight football leagues, tennis events, the rugby Six Nations, Formula 1, baseball and basketball leagues have all been postponed, suspended or cancelled. Notably, many major chess events have been cancelled as well. A joint European Chess Union and FIDE statement declared "both organisations believe that priority is the protection of the public health."

Despite that statement, - and concerns from outside observers and the participating players themselves, FIDE has decided the Candidates must go ahead. The Association of Chess Professionals - perhaps concerned by FIDE's reaction (upon which most of the members still depend on for work) - gave watered-down criticism of FIDE's approach saying they had "concerns" the tournament would go ahead. Chess legend Vladimir Kramnik has more strongly criticised FIDE, pulling out of doing commentary, feeling FIDE are doing wrong for a number of reasons - including "legally", "humanly", and "image wise".

The players themselves haven't openly criticised FIDE itself, but Wang Hao finds himself in the inexcusable situation of playing the most important tournament of his life not just with the psychological pressure of COVID-19's impact on China hanging over him, but without any seconds. Seconds are a vital part of the professional game, helping a player with much of their specific preparation against opponents, and supporting post-game analysis. When playing a three-week double round robin against the top players in the world, it goes without saying that not having a second to help take some weight and pressure off his brain, puts Wang Hao at a serious and unsporting disadvantage.

Teimour Radjabov was so concerned by what he viewed as FIDE's lack of seriousness in preparing for COVID-19 that he chose to remove himself from the tournament, rather than play under what he perceived as inadequate conditions. Much like Wang Hao's predicament, it's difficult to truly understand how concerned Teimour Radjabov must be, choosing to remove himself from the apex of his chess career and everything he has worked towards for his entire life, rather than risk COVID-19.

With the sensitivity of a rolled-up newspaper crushing a wasp, FIDE hand-waved Radjabov's concerns away. The Vice President of FIDE, Nigel Short tweeted "there are c.30,000 road deaths per year in Russia. There have been 13 coronavirus cases & no deaths, in the same country. However, no one is calling on the cancellation of the 8 player #FIDE Candidates Tournament in Yekaterinburg because of the dangers of taking a taxi. #justsayin" - which rather misses the point in several ways, including comparing annual statistics with a month, not considering the significantly greater number of cars and pedestrians in Russia, and the fact a person with a highly contagious sickness doesn't ordinarily exhale 50,000 cars at you with every breath. We would have approached Nigel Short in person for comment, but we were unable to find him in Yekaterinburg.

FIDE's Director General, Emil Sutovsky wrote "this isn't a mass tournament - there are only eight players". This is, strictly, true - there are indeed only eight participating players. But it still also rather misses the point, once you account for seconds, family members, the FIDE delegation, national delegations, VIPs, media, and spectators. And many of these people have come from all around the world, travelling through global transport hubs. The risk is great enough that many top media personalities, FIDE commentators, and VIPs haven't made it to Yekaterinburg, and don't intend to.

The audience enjoying FIDE's opening ceremony for the Candidates Tournament (Lennart Ootes for FIDE)

The above photo, published by FIDE's official Flicker account for use by journalists and media shows a crowd of at least 2,000 people watching the two-hour long opening ceremony. Earlier that morning, FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich affirmed that "safety is our priority", in relation to COVID-19 at a pre-tournament press conference.

It is difficult to reconcile Mr Dvorkovich's words in the morning with his actions in the evening. WHO and multiple governments across the world have all recommended major gatherings of people be curtailed. Some countries have gone so far as to lock down or force quarantines. But seemingly either uncaring or oblivious to the danger, Mr Dvorkovich allowed potentially 2,000 Russian and international citizens to risk exposure to COVID-19. If there is an outbreak of COVID-19 in Yekaterinburg, it may very well be FIDE's decision to go ahead with the Karpov Blitz Cup and the Candidate's Opening Ceremony that causes it.

FIDE has made moves to at least attempt to show they are taking COVID-19 seriously. VIPs, commentators, players and their seconds, and media had to take a COVID-19 test yesterday, followed by twice-daily check-ups to have their temperature taken and discuss any symptoms they might have. But even there, FIDE's approach has been lacking. The tests were conducted in the same room for everyone, with no cleaning between tests. Research shows COVID-19 can remain airborne for three hours, but all of the tests were conducted within a two-hour window. Lichess's representative in Yekaterinburg bumped into one of the players coming out of his test. If either person had COVID-19, it very well could have spread more widely - perhaps lending strength to Radjabov's view he shared on his Instagram account that FIDE couldn't or wouldn't go far enough to protect players.

President of FIDE, Arkady Dvorkovich, ensuring someone knows "safety is his priority" relating to COVID-19 (Maria Emelianova for FIDE)

FIDE's laissez-faire approach to COVID-19 has extended towards their handling of the FIDE President, Arkady Dvorkovich. Mr Dvorkovich has recently been in Lausanne, Switzerland for the Women's Grand Prix. A Russian Emergency Measure requires all Russian citizens recently travelling from at-risk countries to undergo a mandatory 14 day quarantine or self-isolation period, or face up to six years imprisonment. The list of countries the Russian government considers to be risky currently includes Switzerland, but it's unclear whether Mr Dvorkovich has undergone the mandatory 14 day self-isolation, or when he arrived from Lausanne. FIDE's official press and social media accounts seem to indicate he was in Lausanne as recently as 2 March 2020.

Unfortunately, FIDE's woes have continued without any relief. The Russian government has today announced a slew of new and aggressive measures to tackle COVID-19 in the country, including:

But the biggest headache for FIDE will be the announcement from the Russian Ministry of Sport, that all Russian sporting events (including those with international players) must be suspended with immediate effect from 16 March 2020.

That truly seems to put FIDE between a rock and a hard place - after campaigning for years to governments and the International Olympic Committee to categorise chess as a sport worldwide, FIDE now risks either undoing all of that hard work by declaring they are exempt as they are de facto not a sport - or risk breaching a Russian emergency measure imposed by a governmental ministry. The third alternative - calling off the tournament at the thirteenth hour - seems completely unthinkable. With the attitude FIDE has shown so far - in particular the seemingly indifferent callousness from Nigel Short, they have painted themselves into a corner, even if suspending the tournament appears to be the only mature course of action left.

Many will undoubtedly say that critics are blowing this issue out of all proportion; that Russia only has 93 documented cases of COVID-19. Some may even continue to say that the risk of an everyday accident (such as being struck by a car) remains greater than the risk COVID-19 presents. But Russia's COVID-19 cases increased nearly 50% in a single day, and the Russian government has said 86 of these were imported cases from foreign countries. If that is the case, encouraging more people to travel to Russia at a time of potentially exponential growth, seems to have been a strategic misstep by FIDE in their handling of COVID-19.

It should also be noted that as of today, a participant of a chess tournament which had been played in the Russian arctic town of Murmansk has been hospitalised with suspected COVID-19. Let us hope that none of the chess enthusiasts who played in the Karpov Blitz Cup earlier today had travelled from Murmansk, and played in the same tournament.

The Karpov Blitz Cup, which ran before the Candidates Opening Ceremony (Maria Emelianova for FIDE)

However, let's not lose perspective of what's important on the global sports scale. The Candidates Tournament 2020 has officially opened, with the first round being played at midday CET tomorrow. The tournament is due to end on 3 April 2020, with 14 rounds in total being played.

Coverage will be shown in the usual places, including by Lichess's streamers from around 11:45am CET.

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