Millennium Post


In a year of sudden changes and necessary adjustments, the field of sports too has changed, perhaps for good as it adjusts to the new normal of bio-bubbles


One word sums up what happened in the global sporting arena in 2020 — Bio Bubble. In a year where COVID-19 played havoc with almost every high profile and small event, eventually, it was the new concept of Bio-Bubble which helped sports resume, step by step.

Sports meant freedom. Sports meant no worry and competing with absolute freedom. All this came to a screeching halt because of the pandemic for nearly six months.

That activity could resume in every small way was one huge concern as even the elite athletes were as scared as the common man today is. Even as billions of dollars were wiped out in the process as cancellation of sporting events played havoc, some events could survive.

For example, the elite All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club which hosts Wimbledon could sustain the loss as they had been taking pandemic insurance for years. In the end, even as the premier Grand Slam tennis tournament was cancelled well before its scheduled date in June/July, the organisers were able to pay some amounts to the players as well for charity in London.

To be sure, not all organisers of sports were as smart as Wimbledon. Most did not have pandemic insurances and if they managed to survive, it was due to serious adjustments in the calendar. That is how in 2020 the US Open happened before the French Open!

The start to the year was ominous with basketball legend Kobe Bryant killed in a copter crash. It shocked the sporting world to the bone and brought into focus the grim uncertainties of life. The feeling of numbness was felt by millions, as Kobe was not just a pro-basketball icon but a real-life hero in many ways.

As COVID-19 started ravaging every country in the world from March 2020, the sporting world suffered crazily. Training had to stop at every level. Forget the elite athletes, even the 'gully-mohallah' sporting action had to be stopped as there was no way of stepping out.

In India, to see playing fields from athletics to hockey and cricket to football being abandoned was a sore sight. For those in Kolkata who consumed as much fish as football, the months of inaction were painful.

Yet, when sports did resume, it was in a very measured way. There was no chance for any mishap. High fives and hugs were ruled out, spitting on the ground or rinsing the mouth after burning calories was prohibited.

The restrictions were huge, and justifiably so.

Finally, when the Korean football league resumed in mid-May, there was some relief. Relief, in a sense, where not watching live television action had resulted in a kind of depression for the sporting fan.

Perhaps, resumption of the Korean league gave some hope to other leagues in Europe. Some marquee players were seen in action in the rich leagues, minus spectators. The word Bio-Bubble had become a mantra of sorts.

Players were tested multiple times for the virus. Even when clear, they had to follow tight protocols and mixing with others was in a very limited sense. Those who flouted the Bio Bubble were seriously reprimanded.

Even as Europe and later other parts of the world saw sporting activities take place after a lot of hesitation, the organisers of the Tokyo Olympics had decided well in advance this year's the Games were off. Postponement of the quadrennial extravaganza had become imperative as Japan was also hit hard by Coronavirus and international travel was banned.

The International Olympic Committee and the Tokyo local organising committee have worked fresh date for the Summer Games from July 23, 2021. There is still pessimism in the air if the Olympics will take place but the stakeholders are dead sure the Games will happen in a new way.

For starters, there will be restrictions on athletes and coaches. As regards the spectators, there will be a reduction in numbers and how each one is tested for the virus is still being planned. Japan, known for its clockwork precision, is seeing this as a huge challenge with the capability to achieve Mission Impossible.

Even as the Olympics are re-planned and new qualification events have kicked in, one thing is certain, sports will never be the same.

When tennis sensation Novak Djokovic started the Adria Tour and images of partying and breaking the social distancing rules went viral on social media, there was a huge outrage. Novak himself tested positive for COVID-19 and had to take a break.

He recovered very well, although when he came for the US Open, there was more misery awaiting him. His bad behaviour happened when he was trailing in a fourth-round match against Pablo Carreno Busta. At that point, Novak hit a line judge on the throat as he smacked a ball straight at him. The officials wasted no time in throwing Novak out of the US Open.

Even as he left New York shamed and humiliated, there was a debate if the verdict was too strong. Tennis being a sport with strict rules did not budge and Novak spent the whole year in more despair.

His performance at the French Open was lukewarm, where King Rafael Nadal again rose like a phoenix to emerge king on clay. Considering that the Spaniard had played less tennis and trained late, his triumph in the French Open was an indicator of how champions prepare themselves.

Cricket, too, was not to be left behind and chose the Bio Bubble. England hosted the first two series, West Indies and Pakistan. The bilateral series was played keeping all rules in mind. Some complained of fatigue but there was no compromising on the rules to be followed.

And then, of course, with no cricket possible in India, the BCCI had a "Dream" IPL in the UAE. To play six weeks club cricket seemed madness at first. The heat and humidity of the desert was intense.

Yet, for the players and the team owners, what mattered was the riches. Players competed in the hard Bio Bubble and Mumbai Indians emerged champions. While the team owners are celebrating, the hamstring injury to Rohit Sharma is being felt by Team India now in Australia. There were other casualties as well with fast bowler Jofra Archer complaining about Bio Bubble fatigue.

This was a year when the Majors in golf, too, took a hit. When pro-golf started, there was less trouble as the sport by nature sees social distancing. When the golf tour resumes in 2021, there will be a great concern, again, as Europe is again being battered by the virus.

One sport which took the challenge posed by Coronavirus headlong and at great speed was Formula One. Formula One being halted meant huge losses for the teams which spend big bucks day in and day out. The rejigged calendar saw Lewis Hamilton come out in smoking form.

Testing for the virus in the Bio Bubble was very stringent. Every second or third day, drivers and all others in the F1 circus were tested. Hamilton, however, was in an altogether different zone as he became world champion for the seventh time.

Much later, after becoming champion, he spent a few weeks away, as he, too, fell to Corona. The lesson learnt is however much one is careful, one does not know when the virus can enter the body.

In 2020, there were two more casualties. The death of Dean Jones, the well-known Australian who was doing commentary on the IPL was shocking. He was healthy and the sudden death of Prof Deano in Mumbai triggered panic.

Yet, what saddened millions of hearts, even more, was when the one and only Diego Maradona, the King of Football, died on November 25 at the age of 60.

Agreed, Maradona had abused his body with all possible substances. He smoked, he drank and womanised. Still, the maestro with that left-foot artistry was revered for his skills. The "Hand of God" went into God's own arms and left every nation in mourning.

From the by-lines of Kolkata to villages in Kerala and from Asia to Europe, Maradona passing away was the worst thing which could happen in 2020. People wept as if their own relative had passed away. That was his connect with the world, even though people knew he was not the man with the best habits in the world.

Maradona is adored and will live in the hearts of his fans forever, though the snobbish Brits will never be able to forgive him.

At home, there was little sporting action in 2020. The ISL resumed, national camps are in progress in the Bio Bubble and motorsports events are also back in full swing.

The small grounds and 'maidans' are again witnessing activity but to think of normalcy will take time. School and college sport was wiped out in 2020 and from the Indian government point of view, Khelow India remains a prime focus for 2021 and also the Fit India movement.

The big question is will sports be normal in the New Year? The answer is a firm "No." Sports will evolve, Bio Bubble will become a necessity. Hugs and high fives will be on hold and drinking from the same water bottle will not be permitted.

Sanitisers have replaced deodorant sprays and face masks have become important in sport as well when not in the field of play. There is a need for caution and awareness. This will be the new normal, perhaps for a very long time.

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