Sports are emerging from the wreckage of a year of disruption not seen in 75 years. With COVID-19 still a threat, uncertainty and frustration prevail.
Slovenia’s Primoz Roglic, center, wears a face mask before the start of the first stage of the Tour de France cycling race in Nice, France, 29 August 2020. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
There was a telling sign of how severely international sports competition has been battered by the global pandemic. The Tour de France cycle race finally got under way last week almost two months late in a subdued and almost apologetic form. The event was radically different from the glorious exuberance we are used to watching for three weeks every July in this prime fixture on the international sports calendar.
Race organisers must have relished the thought of a start on the French Riviera, anticipating glorious sunshine and the exquisite backdrop of mountains and Mediterranean, with cheering throngs lining Nice’s Promenade des Anglais.
But with COVID-19 restrictions in place, crowds had been discouraged, and just a thin scattering of spectators were there to witness the world’s best riders contest the coveted yellow jersey of race leader.
Toned down, too, were the traditional and much-loved end-of-stage ceremonies, where the day’s top protagonists would receive their leader’s jerseys, bunches of flowers and kisses from young ladies.
The Tour has morphed from a great show to a mere shadow of its former self. In the opening stage, even the weather followed the script of the new normal as pouring rain drenched riders and caused multiple crashes on slippery road surfaces.
Sports are emerging tentatively from the COVID-19 slowdown.
Top-level international sport is trying hard to emerge from the wreckage of a year of disruption not experienced since the end of the World War Two 75 years ago.
The two biggest spectacles of the year — the planned Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo and the European Soccer Championship — were both forced to postpone their events until 2021. Both events would normally attract capacity stadium attendances and billions of television viewers.
But after months during which almost all elite sport at both national and international levels stopped, most are now making moves to emerge from the pandemic-enforced hibernation.
Formula One motor racing returned four months late in July for a reduced calendar of races. After missing the French Open and Wimbledon, Grand Slam tennis resumed this week in New York at the U.S. Open. None of the four golf majors of the year were held on schedule, and the Open Championship in the United Kingdom was cancelled, although the USPGA tournamnet was finally held, late, in August.
The American sports calendar was thrown into disarray. The NBA basketball season is stuttering towards a potential finale at the end of September, more than three months behind schedule. Like Major League Baseball, it is playing to virtually empty stadiums.
European club soccer came up with a novel solution, completing their tournaments three months late, at single neutral venues in Portugal and Germany, with competing teams isolating themselves in their own social bubbles during training and matches played before a televised audience only.
Strain, frustration, uncertainty prevail due to COVID-19.
Despite these semi-successes, huge problems remain and solutions are not readily apparent while the pandemic continues its remorseless course.
There is a strain on professional sportsmen and sportswomen, who are often forced to isolate from their families for long periods. Sports administrators, event organisers and clubs face a daunting task in devising means to reduce risk to the maximum extent.
As for the millions of fans, frustration mounts as they are barred from stadiums, seeing their idols in action in person and celebrating success — or rueing defeat — with friends and fellow-supporters.
Some experiments are being made with limited crowd attendance at some venues. But this may well produce a new spike in infections, followed by a renewed lockdown and a cycle that could be repeated until the pandemic is over or a vaccine is widely available.
Keeping players and teams COVID-free is another tricky issue.
The qualifying tournament for the new European Champions League and Europa League soccer seasons, which opened before the last season had concluded, has already thrown up half a dozen games that could not go ahead because players on one of the competing teams had tested positive for the coronavirus. Controlling body UEFA’s rules that a team unable to fulfil a fixture forfeits its place in the competition took a hit when a Europa League game between an Estonian team and a club from Slovenia had to be called off after players from both sides failed tests.
Restarting sports events is no guarantee that they will finish. The Tour de France may well endure a precarious existence, with the risk of COVID-19 erupting in the peloton and ending hopes of reaching the scheduled finish in Paris.
Sports as an industry remains highly vulnerable.
Deep in the background, the sometimes murky world of sports finance is rumbling ominously.
Lack of revenue from stadium attendances and the potential knock-on impact on advertising and sponsorship and eventually on television rights deals could cause the collapse of some sporting institutions and clubs. Some athletes who depend on sponsorship may be forced to exit their respective sports when their benefactors, beset by their own lack of income during the pandemic, withdraw support.
International sport is a multi-billion-dollar industry and one that is highly vulnerable in the present situation. The World Economic Forum estimated the global value of the industry at $471 billion in 2018, up by 45% over seven years and still rising. It was thought to be way above $500 before the onset of the pandemic.
That figure could plummet both this year and in future years in the face of a predicted global recession. The biggest casualty may yet be the sporting totem, the Olympic Games itself. Japan’s $12.6 billion budget for the 2020 event has already had to increase by around $5.7 billion to deal with the one-year delay.
Should the Games not be able to go ahead next year, a possibility which has to be taken into account, it would almost certainly have to be cancelled altogether, throwing the Olympic movement into turmoil.
Who would pick up the enormous bill, without any revenue return? How would the International Olympic Committee survive without its lifeblood income? Would future Olympic hosts be prepared to come forward after such a disaster?
Three questions to consider:
- Will the global pandemic sound the death knell of the Olympic Games?
- Can international sports survive without fans in stadiums?
- Will the sports industry slump and cause the collapse of major events and sports teams/clubs?
Former global sports editor at Reuters, Paul Radford has covered 17 Olympic Games, seven World Cups and numerous world championships in more than 20 sports. He was sports editor for 12 years at the end of a career that included assignments in Germany and Paris. Formerly a consultant to the International Olympic Committee, he served on the IOC’s press commission for 15 years and was editor-in-chief of the official Olympic News service at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.