As people turned to the arts at home due to Covid-19 this year, many wondered about the state of sports when the biggest event in the world — the Olympics — was cancelled (now postponed) due to the pandemic.
Athletes train their entire lives to be able to compete at the Olympics in the hope to win a medal. Some ink their bodies with the Olympics schedule to remind them of their goal and purpose. In a flash, all of that was wiped out this year.
But if every inspiring sports movie has taught us something, it’s that we should not focus on the outcome, what matters is the journey — and the journey isn’t really fun if there are no speed breakers along the way. At the end of 2020, one can safely say that sports not only survived, it thrived. It went beyond athletes competing and matches being held. It made people aware of the power and influence they wield, and the potential for change that they can bring about with this power.
Navigating live tournaments during Covid
Sports depends a lot on the audience, and football, cricket, tennis, basketball are ultimately spectator sports. And though audiences were kept away from the stadiums as the matches were played in the initial months of the pandemic, people got to see India getting defeated by eight wickets a few days ago, finishing with the lowest score of 36 in the history of Test cricket at the Adelaide Oval against Australia. Though the stands were not packed with crowds, the India-Australia ODI series saw a record number of viewers tuning into the matches from home.
But India’s tour of Australia has come much later into the pandemic. Among the first to set the ball rolling was the German football league, Bundesliga, which returned to action back in May. To create a pre-Covid atmosphere, the organisers put 12,000 cardboard cutouts of people on the stands of the Borussia Park stadium. Supporters of the football club paid 19 euros each (approximately Rs 1,500) to install a cardboard version of themselves in the stands.
Before the Grand Slams in tennis kicked off, current world No. 1 Novak Djokovic went ahead with his own charity tournament in June — the infamous Adria Tour. It became a ‘coronavirus mess’, with four players testing positive for Covid, including Djokovic himself and many other staff members. It received a lot of flak, not least because players were seen dancing at a nightclub before the tournament, and the audience stands were packed. Tennis players such as Andy Murray, Martina Navratilova, and Nick Kyrgios called out the tournament organisers and its players for being irresponsible, and said it was no surprise that people tested positive for Covid-19. Clearly, the pandemic couldn’t rid sports of its controversies and mirch masala.
The National Basketball Association in the US and the Indian Premier League (cricket) in Dubai, on the other hand, took an entirely different approach to resuming sports season. They created ‘bubbles’ for players, trainers, and other staff members to ensure limited contact with the outside world to prevent the risk of contracting Covid-19. IPL gave its viewers at home a ‘stadium feel’ by playing pre-recorded crowd noise. They proved there might be merit to that overused line — where there is a will (and lots of money), there’s a way. The opening game of the IPL saw a record 200 million viewers tune in for the match between Chennai Super Kings and Mumbai Indians in November.
The sporting world also got to see tennis star Rafael Nadal clinch his 20th Grand Slam, equalling Roger Federer’s record, at the much-delayed French Open, which took place in September instead of its usual May schedule. Due to the delay in the tournament, the clay courts were dewier, but players adapted to this by resorting to the stealthily lethal drop-shot.
Hence, Covid-19 actually reminded sports enthusiasts what is to be expected of athletes — to adapt to adverse situations and use them in your favour.
Aside from just competing, Covid also made players pay a lot more attention to both their physical and mental fitness, making them adapt to unfavourable training conditions.
Olympics swimmer Ryan Murphy found innovative ways to train during the pandemic by pushing his car up on an inclined slope, and doing pull-ups on trees because gyms and pools were shut. Five-time karate World Champion Alexandra Recchia managed to train without a partner, as her boyfriend built her a substitute with a lamp. And Norwegian wrestler Stig-André Berge, instead of using weights during a push-up session, just used his child.
Aside from the physical aspect of training, there was a lot of conversation around mental health and mental fitness. Athletes explained how they turned to sports psychologists and therapists during this difficult period, as many were torn over not being able to compete at the Olympics. Indian cricketer Robin Uthappa spoke up about his battle with depression and having suicidal thoughts. Tennis player Robin Soderling, who was the first person to defeat Rafael Nadal on a clay court, also came out and spoke candidly about his battle with anxiety.
The pandemic made everyone, especially those aspiring to be sportspersons, see that athletes are not infallible, and how only when you take care of your mental health can you become physically fit and ready to compete at the highest levels. There is also something about seeing your sports heroes opening up and showing their vulnerable side. It gives you an odd kind of courage.
Sports gets political
The pandemic showed us that sports is going nowhere, but it also saw athletes step up and assert their voices politically.
Tennis player Naomi Osaka, who won this year’s US Open, wore a mask with the names of victims of police brutality, in the wake of America’s Black Lives Matter protests. On day one of the tournament, she wore a mask with the name Breonna Taylor — a Black medical professional who was killed in her home during a botched police raid while she was sleeping. Osaka said, “I have seven…It’s quite sad that seven masks isn’t enough for the amount of names, so hopefully I’ll get to the finals and you can see all of them.”
In the football world, during a Paris Saint-Germain vs Istanbul Basaksehir Champions League match held on 8 December, players from both teams walked off at the 23rd minute following racism allegations against a fourth official. Basaksehir’s assistant manager accused the referee of calling him a ‘n****’. Both teams walked out, tweeted in solidarity with the assistant manager and said there was no place for racism in football.
While back home in India, over 30 Punjabi sportspersons recently decided to return awards in support of the farmers’ protest against the three new farms laws.
This is why in 2020, sports has not just survived, it has thrived. It created a much more inclusive and empathetic platform, and made athletes and audiences realise their true power to initiate change and stand up for what is right.
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