Silence in the stadium

Vijay Lokapally | Updated on April 17, 2020 Published on April 17, 2020

Era of uncertainty: The 2020 Olympic Games have been called off, and it’s not known if the event will be staged in 2021   -  REUTERS/ATHIT PERAWONGMETHA

The Tokyo Olympics have been called off. Wimbledon is taking a break. And every big cricket, football and basketball league is postponed indefinitely. Covid-19 has dealt the world of sports its biggest blow ever

The long years of the two World Wars were also the darkest for sportspeople across the globe. Covid-19, however, has left them bleeding like never before. The present is dark; the future uncertain. As the world prepares for a new order — in every sphere of life — there is little to look forward to for a sportsperson.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games have been called off and there is no assurance the event will be staged even in 2021. The Wimbledon made history following the cancellation of its 2020 edition. Every major football tournament and league stands suspended. There was needless discussion around staging the Indian Premier League (IPL) and, eventually, the cricket administrators woke up to the reality that it was impossible to hold this hugely popular extravaganza under the circumstances.

For an itinerant sports journalist, these are extraordinary times. I have experienced off-seasons for every sport, but nothing like this. Scepticism abounds as the younger generation of players and sports writers stares at a future where survival is the biggest challenge.

Senior journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, who is also the author of Democracy’s XI: The Great Indian Cricket Story, says, “Covid-19 will have a huge impact on sports. Can you have sports without the participation of the masses? And that is not going to happen because of social distancing. At least for the next one year I can’t see any major sporting event happening anywhere.”

Experts have been busy assessing the long-term damage of the pandemic. The trend of cancellation was triggered by the NBA basketball season being wisely called off on March 11. It has been a steady fall for the industry since then. Whenever the world recovers and reboots, one doubts if sports would be the priority, given that the global economy is already in recession. And contact sports such as wrestling, boxing and judo will take the worst hit.

The pandemic has turned many stadiums and sports halls into isolation centres. Venues that reverberated with the applause of an appreciative audience are now silent witnesses to the impact of a disease that is changing the course of history. “[It is] very heartbreaking to see patients lined up for treatment and hospitals struggling to cope with the rush,” says former India cricket captain Sourav Ganguly, who is also the president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India.

Sports can wait. Yes, it can. But would it thrive the way it did in the past two decades, when there was a phenomenal surge in prize money offered to champions? For many, sports has been a way of life, a chosen means to pursue comforts for self and family. “Being a successful sporting professional meant a secure lifestyle,” says veteran Bishan Singh Bedi, who is a mentor to many young cricketers.

In India, the Covid-19 turmoil has led to players and athletes employing various methods — reading and playing board games — to stay focused. Training indoors has been the only option, but not for everyone. The Sports Authority of India (SAI) and the Union sports ministry have developed programmes to reach out to athletes and keep them motivated. Many of them are struggling confined at home, as they battle depression and the overwhelming sense of isolation.

The SAI is educating athletes on the psychological aspect of tackling the lockdown. Equipment is being made available at their residences to facilitate weight training; and regular counselling sessions, both online and by phone, keep them in a positive frame of mind.

Social media has been flooded with videos of Indian sports superstars doing household chores. In fact, one cricketer jokes that he looks to escape to the terrace to dry clothes or walk the pets. “My wife assigns me work if she spots me sitting idle,” he adds. Such instances apart, there are some heartening stories from overseas of top sportsmen — such as footballer Cristiano Ronaldo — offering their hotels, restaurants, mansions and training halls as quarantine centres.

The deafening silence across sports venues worldwide may sound the death knell to some careers and events. “It is going to be a hard recovery for major sports industries,” reckons Indian Olympic Association (IOA) president NK Batra. Players, coaches, administrators and the media have a task at hand — that of keeping sports relevant. “Creating action and sustaining it is the challenge,” says former hockey star Zafar Iqbal.

As we come to terms with the impact on humanity, I worry for young sports journalists with no ‘live’ action to write on. Most of them are now left interviewing sportspersons. Sports coverage in most leading newspapers is down to a single page while many news channels have taken off the exclusive slot given to the category on prime-time shows.

Big sports need mass support, which in turn needs a big market. Sports, barring chess, can’t be played online. And packed stadiums roaring in support of players now seem like a distant dream.

Vijay Lokapally is a Delhi-based sports journalist

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Published on April 17, 2020
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