Sport is often seen as a form of escapism, a way of forgetting what is going on in the outside world. Recently, the two worlds have collided thanks to the coronavirus.
Sections of the sporting world it seems are still in denial. Never has that been more apt than at the Cheltenham Festival this week. While the rest of the sporting world has been cancelling and postponing events left, right and centre, Cheltenham has operated in its own bubble, with tens of thousands of fans flocking to the Gloucestershire racecourse throughout the week.
This week has seen the suspension of; the Premier League, the Football League, the Six Nations Championship, the Champions League, the Europa League, the Indian Premier League, the Masters, the first rounds of the Formula 1 season and the England cricket team’s tour of Sri Lanka to name just a few.
There can be no doubt that, we are in completely uncharted territory. But surely the decision to let upwards of 60,000 people each day gather to watch national steeplechasing’s showpiece event this week, culminating in the 92nd edition of Cheltenham’s Gold Cup on Friday was short-sighted.
Oliver Holt, Chief sportswriter of the Mail on Sunday, described the decision to go ahead with the meeting as “Irresponsible madness.”
The fact that a virus that started in a “wet market” in Wuhan, 8,870km from London, is having such a profound effect on this country is nothing short of astonishing. This most viral of viruses has swept across the globe.
On Thursday, Leo Vardkar, the Irish prime minister, announced the closure of all schools and colleges alongside a ban on outdoor gatherings that exceed 500 people until March 29. What is happening at Cheltenham is then even more shocking considering that seven of the starters for the Gold Cup on Friday were Irish, and over the day 59 horses in total. The horses and their support teams will be returning to a country in lockdown.
Last weekend, football’s response to the crisis was for players not to shake hands before games. They were still forced to parade in front of each other, as if they are taking part in some super-fast game of speed dating. They were then in physical contact for the rest of the match, rendering the entire exercise pointless.
In midweek, games across Europe were played behind closed doors. This wasn’t the solution that it initially appeared to be, as it led to soulless matches and incredible feats going unheralded. For instance, Atalanta’s Josip Ilicic scored four goals in Valencia to send his team into the Champions League quarter finals without a single fan in the stadium to witness it.
Fans gathered as close to the stadiums as possible to try and recreate the match atmosphere. This was seen in Paris as PSG came back from a first-leg deficit to beat Borussia Dortmund.
Afterwards the players went onto a balcony outside the Parc de Princes stadium to join in and watch their adoring fans celebrating below. Former Manchester United, now Paris Saint Germain midfielder, Ander Herrera tweeted: “Good time to remember that football without fans is NOTHING.”
This sentiment was echoed by sportspeople all over the globe. Basketball superstar Lebron James said: “I ain’t playing if I ain’t got fans in the crowd, that’s who I play for.”
On Tuesday morning, Nottingham Forest and Olympiacos owner Evangelos Marinakis announced on his Instagram: “The recent virus has visited me and I felt obliged to let the public know.” This started a domino effect that had reverberations around the game in Britain.
On Thursday, the Premier League in conjunction with the EFL, bucked the international trend and told the public all this weekend’s games would go ahead as planned. But that night, Arsenal manager, Mikel Arteta and Chelsea winger, Callum Hudson-Odoi both announced they had contracted the virus.
This led to an emergency Premier League meeting on Friday morning (13th March) and the inevitable decision that matched will be suspended until April 3.
Smaller clubs, such as Macclesfield Town may well struggle to survive this period. They are already living a hand to mouth existence and are dependent on ticket sales to keep the club running to a level that Premier League teams, with massive TV revenue, simply are not.
This summer’s showpiece sporting events are also under threat. It’s already under discussion that The Olympic Games and the European Championship will not go ahead. This will result in massive financial losses especially in Japan, where The Olympics was meant to take place. However, there are lives at risk here and as much as the sporting community likes to take itself seriously, it will never be more important than lives being lost.
We can’t be sure what the future hold. According to some medical experts the virus is set to peak in mid-June in the United Kingdom. This will without question lead to a chaotic summer of sport. Meanwhile, back at Cheltenham, the favourite Al Boum Photo won the Gold Cup, to a backdrop of the famous Cheltenham roar, but never has a sporting victory seemed so irrelevant.
By Alex Brinton
Photo credit: Carine06 via Flickr