As coronavirus sweeps the planet, sport has become one of its many casualties. Olympic athletes have been left in limbo, with the Tokyo Games yet to be cancelled. By Kieran Pender.

Organised sport out for the count

Fans wait outside the gates of the F1 Australian Grand Prix circuit in Albert Park, Melbourne, last Friday before the race was officially called off.
Fans wait outside the gates of the F1 Australian Grand Prix circuit in Albert Park, Melbourne, last Friday before the race was officially called off.
Credit: Quinn Rooney / Getty Images

Perhaps the most alluring quality of sport is its unpredictability. Underdogs upset favourites, villains become heroes and narratives are rewritten in an instant, following last-minute goals, tries or points. What is not unpredictable – but indeed entirely inevitable – is that by the time this story is in print, coronavirus will have wreaked yet more havoc on the local, national and international sporting landscape. No final-minute intervention will change that.

In the past two weeks, barely an hour has gone by without an unprecedented sporting announcement: cancellations, postponements, matches played behind closed doors. European soccer leagues: suspended. America’s basketball leagues: suspended. International cycling: suspended. The F1: suspended. At time of writing, high-profile Australian sports by and large continue in empty stadiums and arenas. It is only a matter of time before they succumb to the same fate. Many local competitions – bowls, netball, cricket et cetera – have already suspended play for the foreseeable future.

The mayhem has been swift. Less than a month ago, Australia’s best cyclists were in Berlin contesting the UCI Track Cycling World Championships. The team had travelled wearing face masks, handshakes were banned and each athlete had been issued a personal bottle of hand sanitiser. But the show went on. Even when a Danish rider arrived from the United Arab Emirates, having competed at a race subsequently cancelled due to the virus, it was business as usual. (He won a gold medal.) “I’d rather have a Corona beer than talk about the coronavirus,” quipped Australia’s performance director, Simon Jones.

Suddenly, it is no longer business as usual.

Equally astounding has been the brazenness with which some sports have proceeded in the face of the growing global chaos. As France entered preliminary stages of society-wide lockdown, the Paris–Nice cycling race continued. On March 10, UEFA, Europe’s governing body for soccer, asked European governments to guarantee that host cities for its 2020 championships could weather the crisis and still hold the tournament; it is now contemplating postponement. The F1 waited until fans were literally at the gates of Albert Park before cancelling the Australian Grand Prix.

The one major international sporting event yet to hit pause is the biggest one of all: the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. While it seems almost unthinkable that the Games will start on schedule in July, the International Olympic Committee is sticking to its guns. “We are continuing to plan on the assumption that the Tokyo Games are proceeding as planned,” an Australian Olympic Committee spokesperson told The Saturday Paper.

The AOC has nonetheless announced a suite of measures to protect potential Olympians, including the postponement of official team dinners and moving selection announcements online. “We remain vigilant and concerned,” the AOC said. “Based on their individual circumstances, sports are taking prudent steps with regard to test events, international competitions and training camps.”

No sport has been unaffected by Covid-19, but road cycling – probably the most globalised international sport – has been hit harder than most. Australia’s team Mitchelton-Scott was among the first World Tour outfits to act, withdrawing riders from all racing on March 4. “We are glad we made that decision,” said the team’s chief sports director, Matt White.

“We saw the mess at the UAE Tour [where the whole race was quarantined] and we did not want our riders in a lockdown situation,” he continued. “We have a duty of care to our team – so we removed them from that risk. The UCI and governing bodies weren’t moving fast enough. The priority has to be slowing down the infection rate. For me, the best thing to do was cancel our racing.”

White’s cyclists – like most other athletes around the world – are now stuck in an unfamiliar limbo. It could be months before professional sport resumes; the entire 2020 calendar might be lost. “This is certainly unprecedented, at least in my career,” said Mitchelton-Scott rider Gracie Elvin, from her home in Girona, Spain, which is now in lockdown. “We are not sure when we will go back to racing. We just have to be adaptable and stay positive. A lot of riders have been sharing the same sentiment: it is disappointing, but we back the decisions made. This is everyone’s responsibility.”

The sudden suspension of global sport will have a significant psychological impact on hundreds of thousands of athletes. “Each rider is handling it differently – some are feeling it more than others,” said White. Some of his athletes have seen goals they have trained towards for an entire year disappear in front of their eyes; others are waiting with bated breath to find out if their 2020 objectives can be realised.

“I like to use the analogy of an injury,” said White. “Riders want to come back as quickly as possible, but they can’t until they get the all clear from their doctor or physio. They don’t know when that will come. We’re in a similar situation now. We just have to be adaptable. The start line is going to keep getting moved. How long? We’ll wait and see.”

For those aspiring to compete at the Olympics, the quadrennial holy grail of sport, the situation is particularly unnerving. “It is creating tension and anxiety for a lot of people,” said Elvin, a 2016 Olympian. “There will be athletes barely scraping through physically, mentally or financially to make it to the Olympics – and now what? Right now we just have to be grateful for what we do have, and keep preparing. We have to take it as it comes.”

Elvin’s teammate Amanda Spratt was seen as a strong gold medal target at Tokyo 2020, after finishing on the podium at consecutive world championships. Until the International Olympic Committee decides to postpone or cancel the Games, she must continue to train in the hope that sooner or later she will have the opportunity to fulfil her ultimate ambition. “Amanda would be waking up every morning with the Olympics in her sights, but of course the coronavirus is in the back of her mind,” said White. “All she can do is keep preparing as best she can.”

The last time a comparable pandemic hit Australia, the “Spanish flu” of a century ago, sport was similarly left in limbo. The Adelaide Journal noted that “boxing matters” were “at a standstill”, while Sydney’s Referee proposed the solitary pursuit of fishing as an alternative, with “very few [sports] able to carry on”. But then, as now, some sports persisted with an overinflated view of their self-importance in the face of life-or-death realities.

In late 1918, the Darling Downs Gazette noted concerns about “what will happen if this Spanish ‘flu’ gets going amongst the racehorses”. The racing world was “living in a nightmare”, it observed mockingly, “fearing that some fine morning it will awake to find that Biplane had sneezed three times during the night, that Gloaming is in a feverish state and shaky on the legs, or that Desert Gold’s temperature is at 97. And in the midst of the sneezing we fancy we can hear someone say that if the stewards were attacked no great harm would be done.”

In time, sport will resume, and the sports-industrial complex can restart its multibillion-dollar machinery. Until then, says Elvin, a few months without sport is not the end of the world. “This really puts everything in perspective,” the rider says. “We have the dream job – we get to be professional athletes. [Suspending racing] isn’t the worst thing to happen. We have those people who are suffering in our hearts. We don’t want to be part of the problem.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 21, 2020 as "Out for the count".

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Kieran Pender is a writer and lawyer.

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