BILLINGS — First-year Big Sky State Games executive director Liana Susott said “it’s been a challenge” in organizing this year’s 35th annual event as the coronavirus pandemic continues in Montana.
Included in the challenge has been trying to juggle the health and safety concerns of thousands of athletes, spectators, volunteers and officials in 36 spring and summer sports scattered across many different indoor and outdoor venues.
The majority of BSSG events are typically held in the Billings area during the middle of July. And while this year’s State Games will be markedly different with 21 events July 17-19 in the Magic City and 25 total, BSSG officials are happy to be able to host the annual grassroots competition.
“I’m so excited that we can still hold the majority of our sports,” said Susott, who was the BSSG sports director for 15 years before becoming executive director. “It is important we continue to keep Montanans active and happy and give them something to look forward to, but at the same time we want to keep everyone safe.
“We feel we are fortunate we can hold events. A lot of sports are being canceled across the state and nation. Here in Billings, we are lucky to have a health department that is willing to work with our event and make it happen.”
On Thursday, the BSSG issued a press release saying the organization has “been constantly monitoring the developments of the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on our local community. The health and safety of the athletes, as well as their friends, and family members remains the top priority. The Big Sky State Games have followed the Governor’s Directive for Phase 2 of the reopening of Montana, the guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with continuing consultation with the Yellowstone County Health Department when planning.”
In hoping to stop the possible spread of coronavirus during the competition, fans and athletes need to wear masks at all indoor events. For outdoor events, fans need to wear masks, but athletes don’t.
The BSSG will provide masks for all indoor athletes, however athletes can bring their own masks if they prefer. If an outdoor athlete wants to wear a mask, they can.
Spectators should bring their own masks. Hand sanitizer will also be available at every event, but Susott said spectators and athletes are also encouraged to bring their own.
The BSSG also advises those who are sick to stay home, and for athletes and spectators to wash their hands before and after each event. Fans should follow social distancing guidelines and maintain six feet of physical distance when spectating. The BSSG also reminds those planning on attending and participating that “some events, by their nature, do not allow physical distancing; understand the inherent risks of entering this event.”
Judo, handball, racquetball, table tennis and billiards, all indoors events, have been postponed. Susott said the BSSG hopes to reschedule those events, but “they may be postponed until 2021.”
Normally, there are 12 indoor events, but this year there will only be four held indoors July 17-19. Those events are bowling, taekwondo, weight lifting and speed climbing, which is a new addition this year.
Karate will be held indoors Aug. 22 at the Billings Hotel and Convention Center. Ice hockey, which was earlier postponed in April because of the virus, will now be Aug. 21-23 at Centennial Ice Arena.
Events such as arm wrestling, cornhole, pickleball, volleyball and basketball have been moved outdoors. Basketball, the most popular sport of the BSSG, will be held in August as part of the Above the Rim, Big Sky Ballin’ 3 on 3 tournament.
“We knew we couldn’t do basketball indoors; that was not an option,” Susott said.
All volleyball events will be played on a grass surface outdoors this year at Rose Park. Grass Quads are set for July 17-19 and Grass Triples/Doubles are July 25.
The reason for moving the events outdoors is because “it’s safer outdoors. The droplets can disperse, UV light can kill the droplets and you can social distance outdoors,” said Susott.
Among postponed outdoors events is the biathlon in Bozeman, where the facility won’t hold any events until Phase 3 in Gov. Steve Bullock's reopening plan, said Susott. Swimming was to be contested in Helena, but has been postponed. There is the possibility the swim meet may be switched to an indoor format in the winter.
Some BSSG spring sports — such as dance, curling and indoor soccer — were already canceled due to the pandemic. Figure skating was rescheduled to October in Cody, Wyoming.
Traditionally some of the BSSG sports are held outside of the main three-day competition and that is still the case this year. Archery was held at the end of June, the Equestrian Pony and Horse Show will be held this weekend at MetraPark, Junior Golf is scheduled for July 13 at Lake Hills and shooting is spread out over three weekends.
Events that will be held July 17-19 are arm wrestling, bowling, cornhole, cycling, disc golf, equestrian jumping and dressage, flag football, adult golf, pickleball, road race, shooting, youth soccer, softball, speed climbing, open water swimming, taekwondo, tennis, track and field, triathlon/duathlon, volleyball and weight lifting.
The track and field competition, normally a two-day event, will now be spread over three days July 17-19 at the Billings West track to aid in social distancing efforts.
Lacrosse and Ultimate Frisbee were canceled due to low participation numbers. Susott said those two sports had suffered from low participation numbers the last couple of years. Adult soccer was canceled because of low participation numbers, and concerns about the virus may have contributed to that.
Susott said the BSSG is “putting a message out there of one spectator per athlete if possible,” which would help with social distancing efforts.
Registration is still available for most sports. Those interested should visit bigskygames.org.
Overall, Susott is expecting 4,000 athletes to participate, down from the normal of approximately 10,000. Some of the loss of numbers can be attributed to the postponements and cancellations of events, and some of the decrease in participation is due to COVID-19, said Susott. Also, basketball rosters are smaller this year as the format is a three-on-three tournament.
For the most part, the BSSG office has heard positive feedback.
“We’ve received phone calls and people say they are so thankful you can still put this event on and we appreciate your hard work,” Susott said. “We realize there are people who aren’t as supportive of the State Games and we realize their concerns, but we feel we are putting on an event, in consultation with the health department, in a safe manner. We are making modifications and doing everything the health department asks us to do.”
Montana Olympian and former World Cup mountain bike racer Sam Schultz will be the special guest athlete and torch lighter at opening ceremonies July 17 at Wendy’s Field at Daylis Stadium. Schultz, who grew up in Missoula, was a 2012 London Olympic Games participant.
Opening ceremonies will start at 7 p.m. on July 17 and the popular Montana Mile will start at approximately 7:45 p.m. Fans will be allowed at opening ceremonies and should wear masks. Every other row of bleachers will be taped off at Daylis.
There won’t be inflatables and the Soaked Run was canceled this year. Water will be available to purchase, but there won’t be any food.
Opening ceremonies will be available to stream live on a link at bigskygames.org for those who would rather watch from home.
“Opening ceremonies is what separates the Big Sky State Games from the other events,” Susott said. “We bring the Olympics close to Montana with an Olympian and the torch lighting and the Montana Mile is a highlight.”