How we played: At first, haltingly, and then with creative defiance

For many of us, a year canters by to the rhythm of major sporting events.

You could keep time to the passage of Grand Slams for example: The southern hemisphere summer of the Australian Open is winter for most of us; Roland Garros heralds the European spring; Wimbledon is the lull of an English summer; the US Open is autumn in New York. Perhaps you live by the more continual beat of football leagues: the race to the finish line, the Champions League crescendo, the lull of a mid-year break, the opening of the transfer window and the fevered speculations that come with it, the beginning of a new season…

Instead, it all came crashing down. All sense of time, or the joys of sports, collapsed as the Covid-19 pandemic swept through the world. One by one, almost every sporting event around the globe was cancelled or postponed (almost, because there were odd pockets of resistance; football in Nicaragua never stopped, for example). In one word, it was unprecedented. Nothing like this had ever happened in the history of modern sports; the closest comparable situation comes from World War II, but even then, there was no disruption to sports in many countries, the US being a prime example.

It’s not like there was much choice. Back when it still seemed like the pandemic was an epidemic that was happening only in China, a football match went ahead as scheduled in Milan. Atalanta, based out of the small northern city of Bergamo, were playing Spanish club Valencia in the Champions League. For the Italian club, this was historic — it was their first ever appearance on Europe’s biggest footballing stage. Around 40,000 fans travelled from Bergamo to watch their team in action. There were 2500 fans from Spain too. Two days later, the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in Italy. It was in Bergamo. A week later the disease was on the rampage — first through Bergamo — and then, with a sense of ominous inevitability, through the rest of Italy, which became the epicentre of the disease in Europe. About a third of the Valencia squad tested positive too.

Later, the match would be called “Game Zero”. The head of pulmonary diseases at a Bergamo hospital described it as a “biological time bomb”.

In the face of such devastation, sports had to go. That’s easier said than done. The Olympics come around once every four years; in the sporting world, arguably, nothing is bigger. Tokyo, the hosts of the 2020 Games, held out for a long time. There was little doubt that with thousands of athletes and spectators from around the world congregating in one place (and then travelling back to their own countries at the end of the Games), the Olympics had the potential of turning into a dystopic Covid-19 hot zone of epic proportions. Even as event after event in the sporting calendar was wiped off, the Olympic organisers insisted that their Games would go on. It took the utter carnage of Olympic qualifying events across the world to finally bring the message home; the Games were postponed to 2021.

By this time, it was April. Countries were going into lockdown. Forget sports, there were no vehicles on the road, flights grounded, offices, markets, restaurants and movie theatres shuttered.

Hello, dystopia.

Cloistered in their homes, athletes got creative with their training. Those with well-equipped gyms at home, like Virat Kohli, used this rare window off from cricket’s usual packed calendar to take their fitness to new levels. Our crack shooters rigged DIY shooting ranges at home and competed in online tournaments. Olympic athletes shared their innovative home drills with fans on social media: some used gas cylinders for weight training (don’t try it at home), some used 20 litre water canisters. Amit Panghal, the only Indian boxer to reach the top of the world rankings, went back to his village and put farm implements to use for some mind-bending workout routines. Simone Biles, arguably the greatest gymnast ever, performed routines never-seen-before all by herself in an empty gymnasium. Mondo Duplantis, the pole vault world record holder, and Renaud Lavillenie turned their backyards into vaulting facilities, followed by many of the world’s top vaulters, which finally culminated in a backyard vaulting championship online. India’s top-ranked table-tennis player Sathyan G installed a ping-pong playing robot in his living room.

Outside the confines of athletes’ homes and backyards, sporting infrastructure was being put to a very different use: from Rio’s legendary Maracana stadium, London’s 2012 Olympic venues, to Delhi’s cavernous stadiums built for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, all were turned into field hospitals to cope with the pandemic.

As the months passed on with no sports, uncertainties deepened: Will Roger Federer play a Grand Slam again? Will Liverpool, one of the greatest footballing squads of this decade, be denied their chance of winning the English league for the first time in 30 years — a league they had dominated with spectacular football till all sports ground to a halt— if no more play was possible for the season? What happens to the larger sports industry— the thousands around the world who are dependent on their livelihood from sporting events like stadium attendants, ticket sellers, catering people, groundskeepers, pubs and restaurants and street-food vendors around stadiums — already reeling from this unprecedented cancellation of sports?

Emsi, a labour market data company based in the US, estimated that the cancellation or postponement of every sports event from mid-March to May in the US could result in 1.3 million jobs and USD 12.3 billion in earnings to vanish. Though sports began to resume in small clusters globally after that, the economic impact of this year has been devastating. The losses are yet to be counted, but considering that the biggest sporting bodies in the world —from Cricket Australia to the top Premier League clubs — furloughed staff, and that events as big as the IPL, cricket’s richest property, lost half its value in sponsorship, the financial impact will be terrible and long-lasting.

Slowly, as the world began opening up again, sports resumed. With it, a new word entered the lexicon: the bio-bubble. A “safe” zone where athletes and officials, after having tested negative for Covid, would be confined for the length of a tournament, repeatedly tested, and kept isolated from the outside world. It was an act of great resilience–the players at the IPL, for example, spent 80 days in a bio-bubble in the UAE. Many of England’s cricketers spent a month in the English bio-bubble that restarted cricket, headed straight to the IPL bubble, before seamlessly transitioning to another bubble in South Africa.

That brings us to another reality: sports without fans. The sight of a match unfolding in an empty stadium went from a rare occurrence as the consequence of some penal action to becoming the “new normal”.

Historic things happened in empty stadiums: Liverpool finally became the champions of England after their three-decade wait; Barcelona were drubbed 8-2 by Bayern Munich and bundled out of the Champions League bio-bubble, sparking a bitter division between Lionel Messi and the club; Lewis Hamilton broke Michael Schumacher’s record of 91 F1 race wins, a record once thought unbreakable; Rafael Nadal won his 13th French Open title (the most wins in a single slam by any player) and tied with Roger Federer as the winner of most Grand Slam men’s singles titles at 20.

The stadiums may have been empty, but athletes found a new voice this year, the voice of protest. In that England Test series that saw the resumption of cricket, each match began with both the host country and the visiting West Indies players taking a knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. A BLM flag fluttered from the West Indies balcony, and the players from the Carribbean raised a black-gloved fist as they knelt in homage to American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics.

Protests by athletes are almost always seen as an overstepping of boundaries, as something to be penalised with maximum prejudice; Carlos and Smith were ostracised for decades; they were called ‘dark-skinned stormtroopers’. Hardly anything had changed more than 50 years later, when Colin Kaepernick took a knee in 2016 to protest against police brutality and was thrown out of the NFL, never to play again.

Now sportspeople were doing it everywhere; footballers were taking a knee, Lewis Hamilton wore tshirts with blunt political messages highlighting police brutality in the US against black people as he went on his record spree. One of the strongest statements was made by Naomi Osaka as she marched to her second US Open title inside a bio-bubble in the pandemic-ravaged city of New York. Osaka wore seven black masks, a different one for each match she played in New York. Each mask bore the name of a Black person killed by police action in the US. Both Osaka and Hamilton took part in street protests as well.

The pandemic dominated the year with such ferocity that it’s easy to forget that there were a couple of months at the beginning of this year that were not consumed by it, when sports happened in stadiums thronging with fans. It is important than to remember those months; remember, for example, the thrilling run of the Indian team at the Women’s Cricket World Cup in Australia, powered by teen batting sensation Shafali Verma, where they reached the final, losing to hosts to Australia.

Remember, also, Kobe Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash while traveling with his daughter for a youth basketball tournament outside Los Angeles (all nine people in the helicopter died).

It seems like a lifetime away.


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