Sport is an integral part of society across the globe and has been able to withstand triumph and adversity of every nature – be it natural disasters, global pandemic, or human conflict. During these times, sport has always been a source of comfort. However, with the emergence and rapid spread of COVID-19 sport has, truly for the first time, succumbed to the circumstances.
John Branch of the New York Times put it poignantly - “All this time, all these years, sports were the diversion from life’s problems, not the problem itself. But then they shut down this week, one by one, starting at the top, now filtering to the bottom, for the protection of all involved from a new virus we don’t yet understand.”
As we watch the COVID-19 situation from a (social) distance, how sport across the globe has reacted and will continue to react to the pandemic will leave a lasting impression on their stakeholders and the general public. We look at how sport has responded to these unprecedented times, and how these decisions have impacted on the sport’s reputation.
The International Olympic Committee
One of the marquee events on the sporting calendar, the Olympic Games, is a microcosm for the true complexity of the Coronavirus and its impact on sport, and society as a whole. In the time of writing this piece, the fate of the Olympics changed multiple times.
On Sunday March 22, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that it would decide on the fate of the games within the next four weeks. Pressure mounted on the IOC over the weekend from their most significant stakeholder – the athletes and competing countries. Both Canada and Australia refused to send athletes and have called for the games to be postponed. Various other organisations have also called for a postponement. On Monday, IOC member Dick Pound has said that the IOC will postpone the games, and on Tuesday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and IOC President Thomas Bach agreed to postpone the Olympics until 2021.
The ambivalence of the IOC in taking a firm stance on the Olympics leading up to this postponement may be damaging to the reputation of the organisation and Olympics as a whole, but with the fluid nature of the developing COVID-19 situation, the decision to ultimately postpone will stand above what came before it.
As the first U.S. sports league to suspend their season, the NBA had been keeping tabs on COVID-19 since mid-January. An on the NBA’s movements around COVID-19 perpetuates an organisation ready for the possibility of a pandemic, with contact between the league and teams ongoing since the end of January.
When Rudy Gobert became the first NBA player to test positive, the league shut down on March 11th, and communication has been kept with teams since then. Players of the NBA and WNBA, including Al Horford and Kevin Love, have spoken on the Coronavirus through the NBA social media feed, and the organisation has also set up their ‘NBA Together’ programme – a global community and social engagement initiative hoping to educate and engage fans on the illness.
The NBA as an organisation has been proactive in their response to the pandemic. However, due to the lack of availability of tests, the organisation has drawn ire from parts of the public as teams are getting their players and staff tested, despite tests being unavailable to other segments of the U.S. However, teams, like other businesses, will make the decision on whether their players and staff will get tested.
Ireland’s Gaelic Athletic Association
In Ireland, the GAA has ingrained itself in communities around the country in response to COVID-19. Croke Park is currently being used as a drive-through testing centre for the disease. Páirc Uí Chaoimh and the Gaelic Grounds have also been given to the HSE to be used as test centres, along with Nowlan Park in Kilkenny.
County Boards and clubs around the country are also helping their community in whatever way they can. Monaghan GAA have opened their Centre of Excellence to be used as a drive through testing centre, and Kildare GAA have also offered their facilities. Clubs all over the country have reached out to help those in the community as well, such as Clontarf who are providing training drills online, Dunderry GAA club in Meath collecting shopping and dropping it to those in need, and Tinryland GAA club in Carlow, who have allowed their walking track to become a drive-through test centre.
GAA players have also helped where possible. Jack McCaffery posted a video to the public on how to protect yourself, your family, your teammates and your community; and players in both Hurling and Football have posted daily challenges online. When the community needs support more than ever, GAA clubs and County Boards around the country, and the Association on a whole, has stepped up, in the true spirit of the GAA.
As football across the world is postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak, perhaps the organisation with the biggest decisions on their plate in world football is UEFA, the governing body for European football.
Leagues around Europe, beginning with Italy and ending in England, have postponed leagues either indefinitely, or until the summer. UEFA’s premier competitions, the Champions League and Europa League, have also been suspended. This summer was also set to host the organisations flagship competition – EURO 2020, due to take place all over Europe, with Dublin hosting 4 games. However, at a conference call on St Patrick's Day, EURO 2020 has been postponed by 12 months to summer 2021.
However, with the movement of EURO 2020, UEFA will, despite the circumstances, hope to complete the UEFA Champions League and Europa League before the end of June, along with European Leagues committing to have their seasons completed by this time as well. This said, due to the uncertainty of the Coronavirus outbreak, this timeline could change dramatically over the coming weeks.
One sporting event which went ahead as the seriousness of the Coronavirus pandemic hit home was the Cheltenham racing festival. As sports in the U.K., including Six Nations rugby and English professional football leagues went into lockdown during the festival, Cheltenham completed its schedule from March 10th – 13th.
The decision to host the festival has received commentary from all corners. Many have criticised the festival taking place, and as Ireland has confirmed its first case from an attendee of the festival, the true damage from the four days may still be around the corner.
However, those in charge of Cheltenham have defended the decision to allow the festival to take place. Festival Regional Director Ian Renton reiterated that organisers have followed government protocol to ensure that the games safely took place: “we have followed our own government's advice very closely indeed. We have done everything we could to put on an event of this nature and ensure the environment is right for our racegoers”. The complexity of Cheltenham, the difference between public opinion and advice of regional government, will be a mute-point as the true impact of the festival in the COVID-19 pandemic plays out.
We will look back on this moment in history like no other period before. The scale of the times we are living in can’t truly be quantified until the dust settles. But as COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on society as we know it, a threat which puts us into the 21st century version of ‘survival mode’, sport has also entered its own ‘survival mode’. The decisions of those in major sports will have a lasting impact on the reputation of their organisations, and the sport which they represent.