Covid-19 has devastated the entire world of sport | Opinion
Players are anxious; all events stand cancelled; there are huge financial losses; and the future is uncertainUpdated: Apr 28, 2020 18:38 IST
With the world in lockdown, sports stars have taken to social media with fervour, sharing experiences, anecdotes and expertise, among other things. At one level, it keeps them engaged with their fans. But at another, as more time passes in isolation, it also seems to be revealing growing anxiety.
Recently, the Big Four of men’s tennis — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray — chatted with each other on Instagram. This went viral on social media. Fans logged in from all over the world to listen to the interaction between the champions. Banter and bonhomie laced the conversation as the legendary players spoke of life, their concerns and, of course, tennis. Yet, throughout the session, there was a certain amount of pensiveness, some wistfulness, even some restiveness.
The uncertainties we face today seem to have brought out apprehensions among athletes cutting across age, genders, and sports disciplines. Psychologically, the problems they face today go far deeper than missing a few games; it could scar many of them for life.
Multiple medal-winning Olympic gymnast Simone Biles told The Wall Street Journal recently, “Physically I have no doubt that my coaches will get me back in shape. But mentally going another year, I think that’s what’s going to take a toll.’’ Biles had planned to retire after the Tokyo Olympics. With the games pushed to next year, with a possibility that it may not be held at all, she told the newspaper she will now play it by ear. The fact that even athletes at the top of their game are feeling distressed is one aspect of the devastation the virus has wrought on the world of sport.
After the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) as a pandemic around mid-March, major tournaments have been either cancelled or suspended indefinitely. Remember, this was supposed to be a golden year for sports with the Tokyo Olympics and the T20 Cricket World Championship added to the regular roster of mega-events. Now, 2020 can only be described as annus horribilis for sports.
The only bright spots are chess and e-sports, which have gained traction during the lockdown. All others have gone for a toss.There has been no estimate so far of the extent of financial turmoil facing the sports world but a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests enormous havoc. If the Indian Premier League is not played this year, for instance, the Board of Cricket Control in India (BCCI) could suffer losses between ~3,500-4,000 crore. The BCCI can still survive this setback, but most other cricket boards are on the verge of ruin because of cancelled events.
Deferring the Tokyo Olympics till 2021 will likely cost the International Olympic Committee and Japan around $6 billion dollars. Suspending the American Basketball and Football Leagues will dent their balance sheets by a couple of billion dollars at least. The list is long, and the overall losses staggering. Apart from promoters and players, thousands employed within the ecosystem of a sport/tournament — broadcasters, vendors, suppliers, and those in the hospitality and travel sectors — have been thrown completely off-kilter.
The only gainer, oddly enough, during this calamitous phase is the All England Tennis Club that conducts the Wimbledon Grand Slam. Through chance or prescience, the tournament was insured against a pandemic and the club could receive over 100 million pounds in compensation.
Suggestions that events be staged in a “quarantined” environment, without spectators and only for a TV audience, have been tried successfully in a few instances recently. But, it is unlikely to generate sustained interest and acceptance over a long period of time both for fans and the athletes themselves.
It could be argued that the TV audience for most sport, in any case, is far larger today than ever before; so why agonise over the presence, or rather the absence, of people in stadiums. But that runs against the ethos of competitive sport, as we have known it to be played. Sportspersons are performing artistes and crave a live audience to inspire them to perform at their best. Keeping fans away from the arena of action would make sport bland rather than the lively throbbing experience it should be. Also, this will require a massive shift in mindset which could take decades at the very least.
In any case, sport played for TV or online audiences may not be a panacea for a raging virus. All sports demand large numbers of coaching staff, administrative personnel and other support systems. Moreover, without extensive, time-consuming and expensive testing, how do you allow players to even play with or against each other?
The problem is not limited to the elite level. The bigger challenge going forward will be at the lower levels, particularly at the grassroots, where parents/guardians will be chary of allowing their wards to participate in group activities. That could ring the death knell for many forms of sport.
Ironically, sport holds out the best promise for recovery post-Covid-19. It unarguably helps in building immunity, is a great psychological prop in times of stress and, along with sharpening the competitive instinct, also promotes cooperation and mutual accommodation, which the human race badly needs now. Realistically, life can return to normal only after an effective vaccine is found. Expert opinion suggests this may be 12-18 months away. But human ingenuity, particularly when it comes to survival, has worked wonders as the history of our species shows. The world of sports — like all else — waits with fingers crossed.