Millennium Post

Pressing forward

As the field of sports tries to find its legs again in the COVID world, it is up to every individual stakeholder — from the audience to the organisers — to ensure a responsible and safe way towards normalisation

It is now an accepted reality — sports cannot stop because of COVID-19 being active in almost every part of the world. When news about the novel coronavirus broke out early in 2020 and people heard horror stories about what was happening in Wuhan, there were shock waves all around.

Modern-day sports are demanding but at the same, so precious are the athletes that exposing them to the virus was out of the question. One after the other sporting leagues in football, baseball, basketball, tennis professional events, Formula One, cricket and almost every other game came to a screeching halt.

Driven by fear, the immediate thought for athletes, coaches, managers, league owners and stadium owners was to build a safety cover for every sport. At first, it may have seemed a bit of an overreaction but the way the virus has been raging, it was the best thing to stop all activities in the sporting arenas.

Perhaps, the first sign of abatement and resumption of sports was in South Korea after a great deal of deliberation around May-June. With the disappearance of sports from televisions, life became boring for every fan, across the world. It was a bit of a mystery how sports could resume since many countries were still facing the brunt of COVID-19.

Maybe, this was the birth of the bio-bubble, a word we hear so often now in sports. Once football activity resumed in South Korea and images were beamed live around the world, it did provide a healing touch of sorts. However, things were far from normal. With the completion of the league, there was a sign that sports would happen — minus spectators.

The relationship between any sporting activity and the fans is intrinsic and special. One cannot exist without the other in the long run. The resumption of the football league in South Korea was without the presence of fans, and this reality had to be accepted. After all, it was not just a question of the safety of fans and players, but an entire ecosystem being put in place again.

Three months after the football league resumed in South Korea, it has almost become a blueprint for all other sports activity to be resumed along similar lines — minus the spectators.

To be sure, the surge of COVID-19 did send shock waves among all the organisers and hosts of sporting events. First off the blocks were the organisers of the Tokyo Olympics and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), who decided that Summer Games had to be postponed by a year. It was to start on July 23, 2020.

Today, despite all the suspense, uncertainties and negative feedback from a cross-section of the society in Japan, the news is that the Tokyo Olympics will take place from July 23, 2021. There has been a lot of wrangling over the postponed Olympics as there were many additional financial costs involved, for the IOC as well as the Tokyo Games Organising Committee.

The issues have been thrashed out and Japan is now very hopeful that the Olympics will take place in 2021, whether there is a vaccine or not. John Coates, an important person in the IOC hierarchy, has reiterated that the Games will definitely be on. He feels that hosting the Olympics may be the best message to send out — that the world of sports is ready to battle COVID-19.

Now come the real issues — will all the athletes, roughly 10,000, be ready to travel to Japan, without a safe vaccine in place? It is not just about the athletes, the support staff, coaches, officials and volunteers, the numbers may run into lakhs. Who all will be in Tokyo for the Olympics?

If the message from the sporting community is anything to go by, the Olympics will happen. So far, only World War-I and II have stopped the Olympics in the past. There will be logistical issues, there will be medical issues, there will be a restriction on the number of spectators who will be allowed, yet Tokyo Olympics 2021 must take place.

But then, just as social distancing, masking and sanitisation are the mantras today in common life, they will be applicable at the Tokyo Olympics as well.

If there is positivity as far as hosting the Tokyo Olympics is concerned, it has mainly emerged from the way sport has transformed and resumed. If football in South Korea was an eye-opener, it also opened the path for leagues to be completed in Europe, since the leagues had to be completed after suspension.

Stringent measures were taken to ensure that the leagues happened and players adhered to the bio-bubble rules. It was irksome for the marquee players to be in quarantine and spend time in a bio-bubble. But what this also did was impose severe restrictions.

The good thing is that the bio-bubble has worked well and even if there have been any cases of players failing a COVID-19 test, they have been kept in isolation. For all the unhappy fans, who were not allowed inside the stadium and could not cheer for their favourite teams in England like Liverpool, Man U, Arsenal, this is a sort of new beginning.

Yes, the missing human element of fans, who provide so much inspiration to the athletes and to the entire atmosphere in a sporting arena, is sad. But then, maybe it is just for the season gone by, as there is hope that at some point or the other, the viral load will come down and spectators could be allowed inside the venues next year.

Taking a cue from football, it was left to golf, Formula One and cricket in England to also plan resumption, keeping players' safety in mind as one of the most important aspects.

The halting of Formula One for months led to giant financial losses. Many motorsports experts felt that the event could never resume. However, Formula One Management (FOM) did a wonderful job in creating a bio-bubble for drivers, mechanics, support staff, marshals and all others involved in running the F1.

What has happened after the resumption of Formula One is that the whole activity is at a frenetic pace and six-time world champion Lewis Hamilton remains in command like before. The aberration, so to say, has been the lack of fans and also hosting two Grand Prix at the same venue like in Silverstone, on the outskirts of London.

More Formula One Grand Prixs have taken place in Europe and the response has been good if one goes by TV ratings. Of course, for those who love the eardrum-piercing sounds of F1 cars whizzing past while sitting in the stands, this was a loss. But then, it is better to at least see glimpses of F1 on the television than not see any F1 action at all.

If the big challenge for professional leagues was to ensure players would be safe and their financial losses would be limited, many big golf events like the Majors and tennis's Wimbledon decided to cancel this summer's programme. Wimbledon ensured a pay package for the players despite no play from their rich reserves and doled out huge charity in London as they had a hefty insurance for the pandemic. Not many were, however, as smart as Wimbledon, in taking a policy for the pandemic.

There was a major glitch in the tennis tour when Novak Djokovic organised the Adria Tour in June 2020. It was meant to be a tennis event with an add-on element of fun. The fun event made it big news as partying was high and Djokovic himself tested positive for COVID-19 along with another big player, Borna Coric.

The backlash that Djokovic faced then, was huge, as he was seen as irresponsible - not only towards himself but the others attending the Adria Tour. Aussie Nick Kyrgios had slammed Djokovic then and also now, as the Serbian numero uno was defaulted from the US Open after slamming the ball, inadvertently, into the throat of a line judge in New York on Sunday.

But the big message from Djokovic, for those scared of Coronavirus, is how he tested positive, recovered and got his full fitness back. If not, he could not have competed at the US Open, a demanding tournament played in the bio-bubble.

From the English point of view, resumption of cricket in England in June-July was a big sign announcing that players were ready to deal with the pandemic. The West Indies came for a series in England, which was followed by teams from Ireland and Pakistan.

All the matches were watched with great interest, again minus fans. There was strict control over the bio-bubble and what stood out was that even though the cricket ground is so huge, players' health can be protected if protocols are followed.

From the time the players landed in England till they took off, back to their respective countries, there were COVID-19 tests conducted at least a dozen times each. It was an intrusion into their privacy and also irritating, but it could not have been helped.

Perhaps, it was the cricket tours in England which gave fillip for the Indian cricket board (BCCI) to think of shifting the Indian Premier League to the United Arab Emirates. Again, the IPL has been organised with the bio-bubble safety nets, with great detail.

Teams like Chennai Super Kings and Delhi Capitals have dealt with players and support staff testing positive. However, in the UAE, plenty of COVID-19 testing is taking place in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. Once the high-voltage action begins in the IPL on September 19, people will forget about COVID-19, at least those cheering for it from their living rooms in front of TV sets.

If the IPL can work in the UAE, there is a lesson for India. Sporting activity at home can also be planned similarly, provided the stakeholders work together in tandem. Sports Minister, Kiren Rijiju, may want us to believe normalcy will return soon. However, that is not going to happen fast as Coronavirus cases are again on a rise in India.

It is the citizens of India who need to become more responsible, wear masks, and follow rules of social distancing. And that is not asking for too much!

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