2020 – The Lost Year Of Sport
December 16, 2020
As 2020 heads to a close, Michael Pirrie charts the course and impacts of the Coronavirus on the Olympic Games and world of sport, looking at what the pandemic means for the future of sport as well as the highlights of an unforgettable year in sporting and world history.
There were few signs a year ago of the impending doom that was about to engulf the world and its global sectors, including sport; few signs a modern plague of biblical proportions was about to escape from a live animal and seafood market in Asia, plunging the planet into a prolonged period of darkness like a long lunar eclipse.
Nothing seemed outwardly amiss in the countdown to the virus that would invade the world, heralding the biggest crisis in global sport and its showpiece event, the Olympic Games, outside of a world war.
The popular roof top café in down town Athens still offered the same sweeping views of the Acropolis and other majestic ruins in the ancient Olympic city loomed in sharp contrast to the giant digital billboards, teeming subways, and soaring light towers of Tokyo’s mega metropolis, the next in the long line of Olympic host cities to succeed Athens.
Storm clouds however were beginning to form. Tennis players preparing for the Australian Open, the first major international sporting event of 2020, were struggling to breathe after bush fires polluted the air in a sign of dangers ahead.
Meanwhile, deaths from a mysterious influenza-like illness were continuing to rise in Wuhan with little initial international alarm or attention.
Sport’s Brave New World
The planet has changed so quickly and profoundly over the past year that the new world of Covid-19 and sport is almost unrecognisable to the world left behind. The pandemic was the Alpha and Omega of sport. 2020 was a year that resembled the iconic one long day from the Don McLean anthem in which the music died.
Sport, once described by US President-elect Joe Biden as the most unifying activity in the world, became a potentially deadly pursuit. While entertainment, tourism, retail and hospitality were left reeling from the sudden loss of record growth, revenues, and investment prior to the pandemic.
“Instead of cheering Olympic champions from the stands, emergency and essential worker were lauded and loudly clapped and cheered from apartment balconies, front doors and street fronts.”
The impact of the virus, described by the Queen of England as “this horrible new thing” was underestimated at almost every turn.
Sport In Grief And Denial
The early and geographically confined outbreaks resulted initially in denial at the potential scale of the threat. But once outbreaks soon spread rapidly and globally, linked to large gatherings and travel, denial turned to anger at delays in suspending or cancelling international events, including some of the world’s biggest sporting occasions.
Like passages of grief, denial and anger gave way to acceptance of the new rules governing the biology of life and sport in 2020, based on a lethal virus transmitted effortlessly in crowded spaces, including sports venues. The pandemic shattered the basic principles of modern sport, especially the ‘Build It and They Will Come’ philosophy.
After a decade of building for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, Tokyo was postponed while other international sports events were cancelled or deferred, often indefinitely.
Cities In Ruin
The pandemic devastated the world’s sporting capitals.
Some of the heaviest tolls were in former Olympic host and bid cities where the virus thrived in the crowded conditions of Moscow, New York, Rio and London, highlighting the enormous challenge and risks confronting Tokyo next summer.
The world’s response to the pandemic evoked powerful Olympic overtones, highlighting the role of sport in popular culture and how much the virus has changed the world.
After passing the Olympic Truce for the Tokyo Games last year, the United Nations put forward a new peace resolution for governments to suspend hostilities in conflict zones to help virus victims.
Instead of cheering Olympic champions from the stands, emergency and essential worker were lauded and loudly clapped and cheered from apartment balconies, front doors and street fronts as they began and finished their shifts and kept society functioning.
They led the way through the darkness of the pandemic, and should be acknowledged in Tokyo’s opening ceremony.
Unlikely heroes also emerged, like the 100-year-old former British war veteran Captain Tom Moore, who completed 100 laps of his garden supported by his trusty walker, raising tens of millions of pounds for COVID patients.
“Images of shuttered stadiums and vacant venues helped to define these pandemic times, along with empty city centres and pubic squares.”
The frail former fighter displayed more grit and endurance than many Olympic marathon runners, and brought the world to its feet in applause and admiration. Knighted by the Queen, Captain Sir Tom also deserves a medal from the IOC or World Athletics for services to humanity in the new sport of garden walking.
Images of shuttered stadiums and vacant venues helped to define these pandemic times, along with empty city centres and pubic squares used as prime spaces for BMX riders and skateboarders rolling through silent streets under the cover of curfew, practising for Tokyo.
Sport also formed part of the grim response to the Covid crisis, with venues serving as temporary field hospitals, morgues and testing centres. Some governments likened the threat of asymptomatic foreign visitors to that of terrorists carrying explosives, now a standard feature of Olympic Games crisis planning, unlike pandemics.
The interplay between sport, politics and public health dominated 2020.
Sport Loses Its Swing
Golf featured prominently on evening news bulletins like never before as an outgoing and out of touch US President escaped to the fairways while the corona crisis raged out of control.
Some of the world’s best athletes also struggled to comprehend COVID-19. Men’s world tennis number one Novak Djokovic tested positive along with other top players who proved no match for the virus after flouting infection control measures at the infamous exhibition Adria Tour.
A New Approach To Sport
Rafael Nadal, the racquet warrior from Spain, one of the nations hardest hit by the pandemic, adopted a different approach and constantly placed Covid-19 ahead of the rituals of professional sport.
Nadal would produce arguably the single most impressive sports performance of 2020, defeating Djokovic in a straight sets blow out to win his 13th French Open title. The win levelled Nadal with Rodger Federer on 20 grand slam tournament victories, the most in men’s tennis history.
Lewis Hamilton also kept himself safe and ahead of the virus long enough to overtake Michael Schumacher’s legendary 91 Formula 1 wins, regarded by many as once unassailable.
While the full impact of the pandemic on the estimated $600 billion global sports industry currently remains unknown, Covid lockdowns have fast tracked the transition of traditional sports revenue models from stadiums and spectators to screens and online digital devices of all kinds.
Covid exposed sport’s addiction to broadcast rights deals which are being renegotiated at lower levels, reducing revenues to governing bodies and making sport more dependent on government handouts in the immediate post Covid period.
Entire seasons, leagues, competitions, careers, and multi million dollar strikers, quarterbacks, goalies, teams, management committees and executives were sidelined by the pandemic and the virus.
These included FIFA President Gianni Infantino, who was infected despite teaming up with World Health Organisation to raise awareness of infection.
Kobe Bryant’s mantra: “The moment you give up is the moment you let someone else win,” is a legacy in the life and death struggle against a virus that has often appeared unstoppable.
The virus was also an occupational hazard for England Football Manager, Gareth Southgate, who too tested positive. Thankfully recovering quickly and ensuring he will lead England’s never-ending quest for a second major title next summer – the most sought after prize in sport along with Olympic gold.
While 2020 was not a World Cup year, football’s position as the world’s most popular sport was further indicated by the global outpouring of grief that followed the death of Diego Maradona, the Jimmy Hendrix of football and George Best of his generation.
The sudden death of global NBA hero Kobe Bryant, a giant of modern sport in stature and influence and a voice of inspiration to youth and wider society, also shocked.
Bryant’s mantra: “The moment you give up is the moment you let someone else win,” is a legacy in the life and death struggle against a virus that has often appeared unstoppable.
The EPL NBA and IPL ranked prominently in top Google sports searches, and confirmed the universal appeal of round ball sports. Football’s, basketball’s and cricket balls were among the most popular items on the planet, found in backyards, schoolyards, storage cupboards homes, community centres and just about anywhere there was enough space to throw, kick or pass a ball.
The Kansas City Chiefs were the champions of American football winning the Super Bowl in historic fashion – the team’s first title in 50 years and one of the last major sporting events played before a full pre-pandemic stadium.
Bayern Munich by contrast was in a league of its after winning the UEFA final six months later behind closed doors. The physicality of the football codes continued to drive another epidemic in sport, as the human cost of head and brain injuries to players and the financial costs to clubs and governing bodies increased due to greater awareness, detection and diagnosis.
Sport in 2020 was a series of stops and starts as the virus relentlessly broke down biosecurity bubbles and hubs, forcing athletes and sports to review priorities.
“The health and well-being of my family and my team will always be my priority,” said Australia’s Ashleigh Barty, women’s tennis world number one.
Barty finished the topsy-turvy 2020 season as the best ranked player despite missing the French and US opens, citing travel and preparation concerns which are also weighing heavily on Olympians preparing for Tokyo.
Making Sport Count
While missteps, misinformation and denial of the virus created chaos and confusion in government and industry sectors across the world, the leaders of the world’s two biggest sporting organisations helped to stabilise the foundations of the Olympic movement and international sport with strong crisis management.
“The deaths from Covid of the mother and six other family members of NBA Timberwolves star and former number one draft pick Karl-Anthony Towns, shocked and highlighted the dangers of the virus closer to home.”
IOC President Thomas Bach and Sebastian Coe, President of World Athletics, set the tone, warning that without sacrifices there would be dire consequences.
The deaths from Covid of the mother and six other family members of NBA Timberwolves star and former number one draft pick Karl-Anthony Towns, shocked and highlighted the dangers of the virus closer to home.
“I’m the one looking for answers to try to keep my family well informed and make all the moves necessary to keep them alive,” Towns said.
Bach and Coe highlighted the relevance of sport in wider society and times of crisis. Coe helped to quell any early tensions over access to new vaccines, indicating that emergency services and essential workers should be given priority ahead of athletes.
The IOC provided a financial lifeline to Olympic sports, and Bach was awarded the Seoul 2020 international Peace Prize for helping to bring the Korean Peninsula – divided politically and by nuclear missiles – closer through Olympic sport and contact.
An Olympic Game Changer
After successfully negotiating and staging the Pyeongchang Olympics in the shadows of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, Covid now looms as another potential weapon of mass destruction.
The tragic death of young Georgian luger, Nodar Kumaritashvili while training on the eve of competition for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games shocked the world and placed a renewed focus on sports safety.
The threat of an airborne virus that can attack the heart, lungs, brain, kidneys and blood system of victims has taken safety and security scenarios planning into a whole new galaxy for the Games.
“The increasing poise, profile and confidence of young Japanese tennis star and youth role model Naomi Osaka – a champion for racial justice as well as sport – marked her as a leading candidate to light the Games cauldron in Tokyo.”
Nike’s ‘You Cant Stop Sport’ commercials became the unlikely soundtrack to the year as sport became more resilient against the virus.
The Spirit Of Sport
While sport went into lockdown, stronger and safer systems were trialled and implemented, with ‘Ghost Games’ emerging in largely empty venues as the first new sporting phenomenon of the Covid era.
The ghost protocols produced spirited sporting performances and moments of global interest made even more visible without crowds.
These included Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei who recently smashed the men’s 10,000 metres world record after breaking the 5,000m world record earlier in the year, and establishing himself as the world’s premier long distance runner.
Meanwhile, the search for the next Usain Bolt continues after the recent 100m sprint world champion and US heir apparent, Christian Coleman, was banned for two years after missing a doping test.
British swimming sensation Adam Peaty established himself as a powerhouse of the sport, breaking the world 100m record for the short course at the International Swimming League meet in Budapest and will undoubtedly impress once again in Tokyo.
Lighting A Flame
The increasing poise, profile and confidence of young Japanese tennis star and youth role model Naomi Osaka – a champion for racial justice as well as sport – marked her as a leading candidate to light the Games cauldron in Tokyo.
Coe’s Diamond League meet in Monaco was the most diverse, complex and important global sporting event of 2020. Track and field’s return marked a potential turning point for Tokyo, with athletics the foundation Olympic sport, driving key Games time broadcast and digital engagement for viewers, sponsors, ratings and revenues.
Kneeling For Justice
As well as ghost venues, another new normal for sport in 2020: athletes and sports supporting Black Lives Matter. While the Coronavirus had the world on its knees, players across the sporting spectrum were kneeling in solidarity to stamp out a virus of injustice and racism.
Kneeling for racial equality has featured at a growing number of the sporting events globally, and is likely to be popular at the Tokyo Olympics, invoking also the legacy of the iconic 1968 Mexico Games Black Power salute.
Kneeling has been widely embraced by young people – a key IOC audience – as well as numerous sporting codes in support of black communities and black athletes, who have provided many of the Olympic Movement’s most inspirational and defining moments.
A Conclusion – Sport’s New Reality
The pandemic has forced major sporting events, tournaments and organisers back to base camp to find another pathway back to the pinnacle of their sport.
The way forward in 2021 is still not clear even with a vaccine, due to uncertainties over the effectiveness, time, and logistics inherent in new global immunisation.
“The best organisers can hope and plan for in the immediate months ahead is for Covid safe events rather than Covid free sport. Organisers must be prepared for the virus to exploit any weakness in biosecurity protocols or public health measures and to contain outbreaks immediately.”
The Tokyo Olympic Torch Relay is now due to resume towards the end of March in a demonstration of confidence in the Games, but the assumptions underlying major sport are still uncertain and changing and nothing can be guaranteed.
The serious risks posed by Covid still remain and must be acknowledged.
Sport must be redesigned on the premise that potentially infections will occur in major international sporting environments and local host city populations.
The best organisers can hope and plan for in the immediate months ahead is for Covid safe events rather than Covid free sport. Organisers must be prepared for the virus to exploit any weakness in biosecurity protocols or public health measures and to contain outbreaks immediately.
More has been written and said about sport this year than ever before due to Covid. While Rafael Nadal normally lets his racquet do the talking, but for me his message after winning the French Open title was also a highlight of 2020.
Nadal’s comments provided reassurance and optimism in the face of adversity for sport and society with its ‘We’ll Meet Again’ overtones:
“I want to send a message to everyone around the world. We are facing one of the worst moments that we remember, facing and fighting against this virus. Just keep going, stay positive and together we will win [against] the virus soon.”
Michael Pirrie is an international communications consultant and commentator on the Olympics, international sport and major events. Michael led London’s global media campaign against Paris, New York, Moscow and Madrid in the British capital’s successful bid to host the Olympic Games in 2012, and was Executive Adviser to the Chair of London’s Olympic Organising Committee, Seb Coe.