Sport in a time of coronavirus

Sport is a welcome escape from real life. But Covid-19 is spreading rapidly around the world and the communal nature of sports events, for players and fans, provides the perfect breeding ground.

On 18 March, Barcelona and Napoli will play their Uefa Champions League encounter without a crowd. Lionel Messi, one of the most breathtaking stars the game has ever seen, will play in an empty Camp Nou cathedral, with no feverish chants of “Messi! Messi! Messi!” from his worshippers.

It’s an image that ought to emphasise the current world health situation better than most. The unique selling point of the Champions League has always been the communal atmosphere, both within the stadium and at public venues, which is created by each game between European giants.

That is now compromised.

The impact of coronavirus, or Covid-19, has been felt in all walks of life since its outbreak in December. Having cut a swathe through the travel industry, the pandemic has extended its remorseless march into the highest offices of entertainment.

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Sport has always seen itself as an expression of human ability and joy, as it pushes the limits of body and soul. Even in times of political uncertainty or economic strife, sporting endeavours could always be counted on to provide a temporary respite from “normal life”.

Now, however, sport has felt a distinct chill crawling up its collective spine, as the virus has hit traditional scheduling again and again. One of the biggest attractions of sport is its communal element, the sharing of joy and sorrow by large gatherings of people. And this goes directly against the health warnings. Large gatherings only increase the chance of rapidly spreading the virus, with sometimes deadly consequences.

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In the biggest football league in the world, the English Premier League, the match between Arsenal and Manchester City set for 11 March was postponed as Arsenal players were quarantined after coming into contact with an infected party. But given its slow diagnosis process, the virus may have already infiltrated several sporting teams and Arsenal will be the norm rather than the exception. The club’s manager, Mikel Arteta, tested positive for the virus days after the postponement of the match.

A new sporting order

Those sporting events that are still in play are foregoing the basic rituals of humanity. The ritual of a handshake before the match is now being avoided, as human contact encourages the spread of the virus.

As the rest of the world braces itself for yet more infections, the sporting world has taken some decisive steps to ensure that it plays its part in trying to prevent the rampant spread of a new and not so innocuous killer.

The biggest sporting event in the world, the summer Olympic Games, are now a massive question mark. Scheduled to be hosted in Tokyo in July, the Games are hanging by a thread. They are the embodiment of the human spirit and their possible cancellation is perhaps the most heartfelt blow to the natural order of things.

Sport, particularly at the Olympics, is made for interaction with appreciative spectators. The gasps and groans of the audience complete the picture, and an Olympics behind closed doors would not be an Olympics at all.

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Athletes build up to the Games for four, eight and even 12 years at times. To see all that hard work reduced to nought would be a frightful prospect, but also a stark reminder that it is but Games. The sheer magnitude of the Olympics, with thousands of athletes, tens of thousands of media personnel and hundreds of thousands of spectators would simply be too fertile a breeding ground for a virus that feasts on human interaction.

If no solution to the virus has been found by then, the Games simply cannot go on in their typical fashion. As a celebration, it would be crass to carry on and light the symbolic torch, even as the coronavirus continues to snuff out the lives of thousands around the world.

One of the key traditions of the Olympics is the journey of the eternal Olympic flame from the previous host city to the next. But quite how the flame will go from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil to Tokyo in Japan, passing through the very hands and borders the coronavirus has made so vulnerable, is a logistical mystery.

The domino effect

The Olympics are not alone, of course. Initially, key sporting entities such as the football leagues in Europe tried to keep things as normal as possible and not allow the virus to hold their programmes to ransom. But Serie A, Italy’s flagship football league, will almost certainly not fulfil its fixtures by the scheduled end of season in late May.

With deaths climbing rapidly from the 1 000 mark in the boot-shaped country, the thought of kicking a ball – or watching others do so – has become a luxury no one can afford. All sport, at all social levels, has been cancelled in Italy until early April, at the very least. The Olympic and Paralympic rowing qualification regattas scheduled to be held there in April and May have been cancelled. It is a snowballing nightmare.

Precisely why Italy has been hit so hard is a common query, but the combination of their harsh winter and an ageing population must be significant factors. Indeed, the rest of Europe may be only weeks away from seeing a similar pattern emerge.

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The Six Nations Championship played in Europe has postponed its final round of rugby matches to October, by when they surely hope a vaccine will have been formulated. In golf, the European Tour, whose reach is the most extensive and diverse in the world, has already postponed tournaments in Asia and Kenya, and the mainland Europe swing in the months of May, June and July may be harder hit. The National Basketball Association in the United States suspended its season on 11 March after a Utah Jazz player tested positive for coronavirus just before their game against Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Indian Wells tennis tournament in California in the US, a blue-ribbon affair on the Women’s Tennis Association and men’s Association of Tennis Professionals tour, was cancelled two days before the main draw because of the virus. The Champions League, the richest European football club competition in the world, will hold some of its fixtures behind closed doors and the final in Istanbul – if it goes ahead – may well be played in eerie silence if the scourge continues.

In England, football continues bravely on, but the usual fervour from the stands will be missing with supporters not allowed. It will not be English football as we know it. Spain’s La Liga has been suspended for two weeks. In the US, Major League Soccer has been suspended for 30 days. These are abnormal times.

The financial implications of having no crowds at sports events are grim, but not nearly as grave as contemplating 60 000 people being put at risk simultaneously, and then potentially passing the virus on to their hundreds of thousands of friends and family members.

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Sport, in its current guise, is not designed to effectively counter the rapid spread of a new virus. It high fives and hugs and jumps and screams and throws its delight into the air. Sport is a perfect carrier for a virus such as this, which is why all codes have taken a moment to pause.

For all the money and the noise, it is still just a pastime, a much-loved form of entertainment. Given the mounting deaths, pastimes must wait. The list of events affected by the virus grows by the day, but not nearly as rapidly as the list of humans dying from its aggressive effects.

That is the true human cost.

Cities around the world are going into shutdown and the true priorities of the human race are now at the forefront of the agenda. Containment is the key word when it comes to the coronavirus now, and the entertainment that comes with sport will have to be put on ice for a while.

The main emphasis of sport is achieving a goal as a team and, right now, the challenge is for the sporting world to play as a team. Continuing obliviously as if the coronavirus is not a factor could well be the biggest own goal sport has ever seen.

Be it Messi, Rapinoe, Federer or Semenya, they are all just playing a game. And at this point in time, there are matters of life and death at play.

The games must wait.

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