Sport In The Time Of Coronavirus

Andrew Leci examines the impact of COVID-19 on the world of sport.
Thursday 13 August 2020
Lewis Hamilton stepped on the British F1 podium recently in first place. Photo: AFP

“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.” – Bill Shankly, Liverpool manager, 1959 to 1974

Even Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realism isn’t going to save sports fans from a fate worse than boredom.

Decimation. There is no other word for it. That’s what the coronavirus pandemic has done to the world’s sporting calendar. With only one or two rare exceptions (at the time of writing) every sport has suffered, and the effects will be long-lasting, possibly even, dare I say it, game-changing.

While sport is not a matter of life and death, no matter what Bill Shankly may once have said, it’s worth looking into a crystal ball (Nike and Adidas can fight it out to produce the design and secure the sponsorship deal) and speculating on what the future may hold. What this virus has done to global communities is far more important and has far greater ramifications than mere ‘‘games’’, but professional sports teams, franchises, clubs, whatever, are also businesses, and affected as such by the potential economic meltdown.

At least talking about sport will take our minds off (albeit momentarily) a situation that is currently so out of our control that it begs many an unanswerable existential question. Or does it?


Let the games begin…at some point

The Tokyo Olympics has been postponed to July 2021. Photo: AFP


From a personal perspective, it absolutely boggled my mind that it took the organisers of the Summer Olympics (both the International Olympic Committee and the government of Japan) so long to reach a decision that practically everyone else on the planet had arrived at weeks before. 

Their reluctance to postpone the games, and their insistence – almost up to the last minute – that they would go ahead as planned, was mind-numbingly insensitive in the circumstances, and would have made us all doubt their motives. Sure, they have a responsibility to their ‘‘stakeholders’’ – sponsors, advertisers, broadcasters, and even spectators/ticket buyers (the suckers at the end of the priorities queue). But this only suggests that they were more concerned with the financial aspects of the games, rather than the health and welfare of the people involved.

It’s worth pointing out that the Olympics have been ‘‘postponed’’, not cancelled. All being well – and no one should take anything for granted – they will be held next year, and the world’s greatest festival of sport will take centre stage. But what of other sports, particularly those that go by seasons?


You’re walking alone

Liverpool’s big English Premiere League win saw fans out on streets celebrating despite warnings from officials and police not to do so. Photo: AFP


The English Premier League football season is on hold at the time of writing this article, with everyone speculating as to whether the current campaign will ever be completed, or whether it should simply be ended now. As most football fans will be aware, Liverpool are cruising at the top of the table and are all but mathematically certain to pick up their first Premier League crown – and indeed their first league title since 1990.

If the season were to end now, could they be crowned champions? Should they be? The season is incomplete, and while there is no doubting that they deserve to win it, it would be a bit like ending a 10,000 metres race three-quarters of the way through on the basis that the frontrunner had a seemingly unassailable lead.

If the season is to be completed, it will have to happen over the European summer, but that would be far too close to the scheduled start of the next season for everyone’s comfort. Some have even suggested that the nine or so remaining matches of this season be played as the opening salvo for the next, with results being taken into account for both seasons. 

This is obviously just plain nuts, and doesn’t take into consideration the issues of relegation and promotion, which may also have to be put on hold. It’s a conundrum, and there are no easy answers, although as I write, there is now intense speculation that the Premier League is considering playing the remaining games – behind closed doors and for television audiences only – in June and July, opening up the prospect of the 2020-21 season starting on schedule in our ‘‘brave new world’’. Watch this space. 


CARS (Causal Automotive Removal Syndrome)

Formula 1 races have been held in stadiums with empty bleachers, even in the most recent British Grand Prix where Lewis Hamilton came in first place. Photo: AFP


While I am not a huge fan of Formula 1, I feel for those involved. Not the drivers – they all get paid far too much for doing something that we’d all love to be able to do were it not for the existence of traffic police (and walls). The F1 circus is large, complex and keeps thousands of people in work through the course of the year, and it will be interesting to see the extent to which teams are dismantled to save costs, and how they will be put back together again afterwards. 

I wanted to write ‘‘when things return to normal’’, but let’s be honest, ‘‘normal’’ is now a thing of the past. We’re all struggling to get to grips with what the ‘‘new normal’’ might look like, and views, no doubt, will vary, depending on where you sit on the optimism/pessimism spectrum. Personally, my glass is neither half empty nor half full. I don’t even have a glass.

But I digress. The situation  or F1 is no different to the situation that is being faced by hundreds of thousands of companies – big and small – around the world. The global economy is in apparent freefall, and governments are planning to mint money before dishing it out to prop up ailing industries and, let’s be brutally honest, feed the people who used to work in them and who may have been laid off. Sports teams and franchises around the world will be faced with similar situations, with no money coming in and no clear idea of when competition will resume, and we start to embrace our new normal/brave new world – delete where applicable according to the liquid in your personal vessel.


Rooms with viewers 

The Belarusian Premiere League still went on with fans attending matches despite the rest of Europe cancelling their leagues. Photo: AFP


It’s also worth sparing a thought for the spectators and television audiences – many of whom prescribe their calendars according to sporting events. If sport has really become the ‘‘new religion’’, as many have suggested, billions of people around the world are unable to pray right now, and that can’t be good for the souls. 

As I mentioned earlier, there are one or two exceptions to the blanket absence of sports coverage in the visual media, which is one of the reasons why I have become a fervent supporter of Belshina Bobruisk. It’s not the most glamorous club in the Belarusian Premier League, but I quite liked the name, and they’re still playing – a fact not lost on a number of networks which have bought up the rights to broadcast matches in the only league that is still extant – with the exception of Burundi, where I understand that ‘‘top level’’ football continues. But I can’t spell any of the team names, so let’s not go there. 

The Belarusian Premier League (BPL) is taking its cue from the country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, whose advice to his subjects (sorry, ‘‘compatriots’’) has so far been to get back to work, drink vodka, and spend some time in the sauna. It’s the kind of leadership that makes even Donald Trump sound like a beacon of sagacity in a fog of uncertainty, and that can’t be good. The fact that Lukashenko has gone on record as saying that the countries around the world which have gone on ‘‘lockdown’’ display elements of “frenzy and psychosis”, should tell you everything you need to know about a man who’s been in charge of a country of nearly 10 million people for 26 years and who seems to enjoy his cognomen as ‘‘Europe’s last dictator’’. Belarus has the lowest democracy rating on the continent. Just saying.

At BPL games of late, crowds, not surprisingly, have been dwindling. They were never huge, but a couple of hundred for each fixture won’t be paying many of the bills. Some players have been refusing to play. Under the watchful eyes, however, of their beloved leader, the season will continue and conclude – at a cost to be determined later. 

This is the kind of rugged individualism that we really need at this juncture in our history, because, let’s not make any bones about this, it is a momentous period for all of us. It’s like nothing any of us would ever have experienced before, and more the subject of a B-grade movie than a current global reality. Sport has suffered, and will suffer for quite a while to come. But Bill Shankly is still wrong, and always will be.


Sporting chance

It’s a difficult time for humanity. That’s not a sentence that I ever thought I would write in this publication without inherent irony or sarcasm. Sport has suffered, sure. Economies have, and will, suffer a great deal more, and the cost to human life? Unqualifiable and unquantifiable, even as (perhaps particularly as) the numbers continue to roll in and we celebrate a couple of hundred fewer people dying in a particularly badly affected country as would a red-leaning Scouser if Liverpool won the Premier League. 

We’ve become inured to statistics, but we still love our sport, and we can’t wait for things to return to normal. Whether they will or not is a matter for conjecture – more Nike or Adidas manufactured crystal ball gazing. 

The chances are, however, that it’s going to be quite a while before we see stadiums filled and professional athletes plying their trade. That’s the realism. We may have to wait a while for the magic to kick back in.