Sport is in the process of recovering from the devastating effect of Coronavirus, or so we believe. Will this be a quick recovery or actually a no recovery, is something I cannot fully comprehend even with my vast experience in the field. Everyone is grappling with the unknown as the virus caught us off guard and we surely were not prepared for handling such a problem which has affected every aspect of our lives. It is clear from the multiple challenges that the virus has thrown up so far, we would be taking baby steps to get out of the pandemic-imposed life restrictions.
Nobody could have believed at the beginning of the year that we would be staring at an unknown future because the virus which is unpredictable in its behavior has turned the world upside down. I am not sure how we can come out of the problem. The process, I believe, would be a long drawn one, but one thing is sure: Sport will never be the same again. We will have to adjust and make so many changes. My fear is that we may have lost the charm of the sport forever.
Post-COVID, the art of living is in a constant readjustment to the change which is inevitable. Even as there is talk of resumption of sporting activities, fear has gripped the sportsmen. They are not sure whether they would resume their activities soon, though the government has given the clearance for resumption without the presence of spectators. Uncertainty has devastated all of us. The sport binds us to many things and for people like me, who eke out a livelihood, it has been a life-altering experience. I can only hope that things would normalize though it appears a wishful thinking at the moment.
The passion for sports made me a professional journalist. It was smooth sailing all these years but the Coronavirus has undone all that I had built with painstaking efforts. I only have more questions than answers. The closing of sports activities has not only impacted us financially but it has also affected the way we think. My own personal worry is that when something really changes society`s way of thinking, it almost always signals that the old will never return and we must accept a new normal or perish. Perhaps, top international jockey Chris Lemaire`s act of pumping his fist in the air after a winning a race recently in front of an empty stadium in Japan could well be the new norm of celebration for sportspersons for some time to come. The packed stadiums could well be a thing of the past and the future generations could learn about this spectacle through archival videos. For the stadiums to fill up again we should reach a stage where an anti-virus vaccine is found and we are able to take the virus off our minds.
Need to reinvent
One big challenge facing the sports authorities dealing with contact sports like wrestling, boxing and judo would be to keep the athletes free from the virus. Safe resumption of sports is essential and the protocols have to be put in place before a semblance of normalcy in sporting activities could be achieved. Every sport has its own challenges to overcome but I believe that we need to reinvent ourselves and cope with the change. Navigating through a previously unexplored terrain is challenging, exhausting and even scary. I`m sure the sport will surely limp back in the near future, but, initially, at least, it will be a pale shadow of what it was before the pandemic. I believe that sport has the power to create hope even in the midst of despair. As has been brilliantly put, science fiction writers foresee the inevitable, and although problems and catastrophes may be inevitable, solutions are not. Change is inevitable and the disruption it causes brings gloom but also creates an opportunity for innovation. Tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals could help us get to a semblance of normalcy. But, returning to the jam-packed stadia and wild celebrations by hysterical crowds look nearly impossible. What we witnessed in our long years of experience in the field may well become the stuff of lore.
Despite physical distancing becoming the new norm, sporting activity does involve close proximity among players. Sports thrived not only on the performers but also on the participation of the spectators. The gladiators on the field would not be what they are without the presence of a huge number of spectators. I cannot visualize how spectator sports like football and cricket would be impacted in the new scenario without the players experiencing the adrenal rush triggered by the crowd.
But there is no other choice for the sportsmen who have to adapt to the change to come on top of the crisis induced by the pandemic. The sportsmen need to make radical readjustment. They need to give up several unhealthy habits which did not come under scrutiny all these days. In a sport like cricket, bowlers are used to applying saliva to help them to keep the shine on the ball. Such practices are unthinkable in these corona times. Already there is talk of replacing saliva with an artificial substance but then it can alter the character of the sport itself if such changes are brought about.
India sports administrators were notorious for cramming the stadia with more spectators than the official capacity but now there will be a lot of restrictions in place as and when the government believes that it can permit the spectators in the stadia. Social distancing will be the order of the day. I believe it will deeply impact the economics of the sport which depend heavily on the turnstiles and get very little relief from royalty.
Horse racing in Hong Kong, Japan and Australia has been going on without the spectators with attendance restricted only to participants and the officials. Though the action on the track is good, the human element is missing. The wild celebrations of the winners egged on by their supporters has been replaced by the cold reception accorded to the winner in a very somber atmosphere, with the ceremonies got through quickly as if one is hurrying through a funeral procession. Sports broadcasters would now be tasked with the additional burden of having to create an atmosphere for the viewer but the sport will seem different without the gladiatorial atmosphere of the sporting venues. Athletes are inspired to great heights by the cheering of the massive crowds. We are headed for a tense and scary time. We have to have trust in nature to normalize things. I strongly believe the sport has the power to create hope even in the midst of despair.
Challenges for sportspersons
Among several challenges that the sports will face, the biggest will be for the players themselves. Sportspersons are uncertain of what to expect following the pandemic. A sportsman said that the fear of the virus has gripped him and he is not sure how to cope up. “We are in a dangerous phase and we should not risk ourselves to the threat of the virus. It is better to stay at home and wait for things to unfold before confidently stepping out,” said a player representing a popular sport. No doubt his attitude is defeatist but we can only sympathize with him and understand that however strong a person physically is, the devil in the mind is hard to overcome. With people seeing ghosts in everything, they even fear inter-state travelling as a major hurdle to overcome. Concerns about hygiene, sanitizing hotels, sports kits etc. are something that haunts the mind and may have a debilitating experience on the performance, said another player. It seems there is more despair than hope and cynicism rules among players.
They are unsure of the time frame of resumption of sports and remain apprehensive despite a strong desire to get back to action. The uncertainty has also posed a big problem because sportsmen cannot start their training without a target in mind. The situation is so fluid that I for one am not sure whether any international activity is possible this year. Since the countries are inter-dependent in this global world, it is not enough if one country has got over the problem caused by the virus. We need most of the countries in the world to be fit and fine for sporting activities to have any meaningful resumption.
The sports bodies are taking halting steps to restore activities. Any delay will only send some of the sports into a permanent comatose stage.
Luckily for horse racing in India, the racing calendar was about to conclude when the lockdown was announced. Racing in India picks up momentum during the monsoon months and I am optimistic that racing action could resume sometime during July, albeit without spectators. Racing is a sport which supports thousands of people both on the racecourse as well in the stud farms as it is a labour-intensive activity.
The administrators have a huge problem in running horse racing in India as the activity, unlike other sports, which get their revenue chiefly through television rights, is funded by the betting conducted at the racecourse. Race-goers have to be physically present to participate in the activity. There is no online betting facility as the clubs are in a time-warp and have not made any efforts to obtain the necessary permissions from the government to conduct online betting. Horse racing is among the few legally permitted betting activities in India. I am fervently hoping that the racing administrators will wake up at least during this critical situation, approach the government/s with a sincere and transparent plan of action to get permission for online betting. They should be able to convince the authorities that horse racing can be an attractive source of revenue, like liquor, as it could channelize large chunks of money which otherwise go into illegal markets. The racing administrators need to change their hide-bound mindset and adapt quickly to the changing situation if this sport has to have any future in India.
In sum, I think, given the current situation, the sports lovers would be happy to watch televised live-action sitting on the couches at their homes or bars, rather than have no action at all. And we all know that if anything can lift the sense of despondency and gloom all around, it is sports.
(Excerpted from the book Together: An anthology from the COVID-19 pandemic
by Dev Aditya and Dr Pauldy Otermans | 4 July 2020. Book available on Amazon