After a year like no other, Michael Pirrie charts the devastating impact of the coronavirus on world sport and the postponed Tokyo Olympic Games, and outlines the sporting highlights and lessons from the past tumultuous year. The OPINIONIST says a key task of Tokyo’s Olympic organizers in the new year will be to build international confidence in the Games and Japan’s capacity to contain the virus.
The fate and fortunes of the Olympic Movement and international sport were dramatically recast in 2020 like never before.
Sport, once described by US President-Elect Joe Biden as the most unifying activity in the world, almost disappeared from the planet.
The pandemic was the Alpha and Omega of sport in 2020.
Sports Shut Down
Covid came suddenly. Nothing seemed amiss in the countdown to the plague that would invade the world and bring sport to a global standstill for the first time.
Tokyo 2020 organizers had successfully completed the penultimate year of preparations, and athletes, national Olympic committees, international federations, host broadcasters and specialist staff were reviewing Games time schedules, roles, TV trailers, and accreditations.
Meanwhile, the death toll from a mysterious pneumonia-like illness was continuing to rise in Wuhan, China with little initial international alarm or attention.
By year’s end the virus had conquered the world and all sports, spreading to the Antarctic and all human inhabited regions other than the International Space Station.
Covid shattered the cornerstones of modern sport, including the ‘Build It and They Will Come’ premise.
In March, Tokyo 2020 was postponed by a year.(ATR)
After a decade of building for Tokyo, the Olympic and Paralympic Games were postponed for the first time amid rising concerns from athletes.
Sickness and death tolls were greatest in several Olympic bid and host cities, where the virus thrived in the crowded conditions of Moscow, New York, Rio, Rome, Paris, Beijing, London and Los Angeles, highlighting the challenges facing Tokyo.
Response to the Pandemic
While Covid decimated sport, the world’s response to the pandemic highlighted the role of sport in global society and how much the virus changed the world.
Images of shuttered stadiums and vacant venues helped to define a corona broken world. Empty city centers and public squares were used as practice zones by enterprising BMX riders and skateboarders preparing for Tokyo.
With no Olympians in action this year, unlikely heroes captured world attention instead.
Like the 100-year-old former British war veteran Captain Tom Moore, who completed 100 laps of his front garden supported by his trusty walker and raised tens of millions of pounds for COVID patients.
The frail former fighter displayed more grit than an Olympic marathon runner and brought the world to its feet in admiration; he deserves a medal from the IOC or World Athletics for services to humanity in the new sport of garden-walking.
Cristiano Ronaldo caught Covid-19 in 2020. (Wikimedia Commons)
Entire seasons, leagues, competitions, and teams were sidelined by the virus, along with some of the biggest names in world sport.
These included Cristiano Ronaldo, who temporarily edged ahead of arch-rival Lionel Messi in their battle for global acclaim by achieving the best goals to game ratio in Spanish La Liga top flight football history, but couldn’t head the virus away.
Lewis Hamilton surpassed Michael Schumacher’s once unassailable 91 Formula 1 wins in October before missing a race in December after testing positive for Covid.
Football’s position as the world game was highlighted in a non World Cup year by the global outpouring of grief that followed the death of soccer legend Diego Maradona, the Jimi Hendrix of football.
The sudden death in a helicopter crash of NBA global superstar Kobe Bryant, a giant of sport in stature and influence, also rocked the international community.
Bryant’s war cry: “The moment you give up is the moment you let someone else win,” continues to resonate amid the carnage of Covid.
The interplay between sport, politics and public health dominated 2020.
Sport Loses Its Swing
Golf featured in prime time news bulletins like never before as an out-of-touch and outgoing president escaped to the fairways as deaths and hospitalizations soared in America.
Novak Djokovic (Wikimedia Commons)
Some of the world’s best athletes also struggled to understand COVID-19.
Men’s world tennis number one Novak Djokovic courted controversy, testing positive along with other players, and proved no match for the virus after flouting public health guidelines at the Adria exhibition tour.
Tennis Warrior Aces Virus
Rafael Nadal, the racquet warrior from Spain, one of the hardest hit nations, adopted a different approach and placed the dangers of Covid-19 ahead of the demands of professional sport.
Nadal produced one of the highlights of 2020, defeating Djokovic in a straight sets blow out to win his extraordinary 13th French Open title, leveling him with Roger Federer on 20 Grand Slam tournament victories, the most in men’s tennis history.
Sport in 2020 was also a series of attempted starts and more stops as big money leagues rushed back into competition prematurely, placing teams and staff at risk in fragile biosecurity bubbles and hubs.
Bayern Munich were crowned the champions of soccer in Europe after winning the UEFA Champions League final in historic conditions, behind closed doors for the first time.
Making Sport Matter
While missteps, misinformation and denial of the virus created chaos and confusion across the world, the leaders of the biggest international sporting organizations demonstrated the relevance of sport in times of crisis.
IOC President Thomas Bach, FIFA boss Gianni Infantino and World Athletics President Sebastian Coe set the tone, warning that without sacrifices there would be dire consequences.
Infantino, despite succumbing to infection, used FIFA’s partnership with the World Health Organization to strategically push prevention measures and messages.
Coe helped to quell early tensions over access to new vaccines, indicating that emergency services and essential workers should be given priority ahead of athletes.
Thomas Bach accepted the Seoul Peace Prize virtually from Lausanne. (IOC/Greg Martin)
The IOC provided a financial and career lifeline to aspiring athletes of the future struggling in the pandemic.
President Thomas Bach was awarded the Seoul 2020 Peace Prize for helping to bring the Korean Peninsula, divided politically, militarily and by nuclear missiles, closer through Olympic sport and contact.
After successfully staging the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in the shadows of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, Covid now looms as another potential weapon of mass destruction for the Olympic Movement.
As the world moved inside and online in lockdown, the lack of viable alternatives to live sport highlighted both the unique appeal of sport in traditional spectator settings as well as the frailty of sport in the Covid era.
Nike’s ‘You Can’t Stop Sport’ activations became the unlikely soundtrack to the year as live sport returned in largely empty ghost venues, helping to keep desperately needed broadcast revenues flowing.
The Ghost protocols produced performances of global significance made even more visible without crowds.
These included Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei, who recently smashed the men's 10,000 meters world record after breaking the 5,000m world record earlier in the year, establishing himself as the world’s new premier long distance runner.
Coe’s Diamond League meet in Monaco was the first and most diverse, complex and successful global sporting event of the pandemic.
Athletics is the foundation Olympic sport that is vital to Games time broadcast and digital engagement and interest for viewers, sponsors, ratings and revenues, and track and field’s return marked a potential major turning point for Tokyo organizers.
Meanwhile, the search for Usain Bolt’s successor in Tokyo continues after world 100m sprint champion and heir apparent, Christian Coleman, was banned from the Games for missing drug tests.
CAS banned Russia from competing as a country for the next two Olympics. (CAS)
The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) went further. Instead of suspending an athlete or team of athletes, CAS banned Russia from assembling as a nation of athletes at the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics; Beijing 2022 Winter Games; and 2022 FIFA Football World Cup.
The suspension was the latest chapter in the biggest scandal of modern sport involving the superpower’s widely condemned anti-doping system, once described by senior IOC member John Coates as “rotten to the core.”
Sport Speaks Out
Athletes were less visible but more vocal in 2020.
Athletes mobilized like never before, demanding greater accountability and protection from sports administrators and leaders.
Athlete groups lobbied for greater involvement in sports governance, angry at delays by governing bodies and national Olympic committees to address fraud, doping, sexual abuse, bullying and other forms of mistreatment.
Athletes raised their voices in 2020. (New York Red Bulls)
Kneeling for Justice
Athletes also rallied around Black Lives Matter as sport became a major focus for human rights as well as health in 2020.
While the coronavirus had the world on its knees, athletes across the sporting spectrum were kneeling in solidarity to stamp out a virus of injustice and racism.
Many of the most inspirational moments in Olympic and world sport have involved black athletes – from Jesse Owens and Muhammad Ali to Usain Bolt as well as Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the iconic Black Power Salute, supported by white Australian sprinter Peter Norman.
The global momentum for kneeling is likely to change the IOC’s policy on athlete protests in Tokyo, with Olympic leaders keen to highlight the relevance of Olympic sport in tumultuous times.
The Olympics entered the viral age in 2020.
Laurie Garrett’s chilling scientific account of a new wave of corona-like pandemics in “The Coming Plague” has become compulsory reading for Olympic organizers and major events committees.
Despite exhausting precautions being undertaken to protect athletes in Tokyo, confidence in the Games could be undermined if the virus continues to spread death, disease and fear across the globe in the countdown to the Games.
Tokyo’s consistent message is that the Games will proceed just like Joe Biden will become the next US President.
The key challenge for Tokyo organizers in the months ahead is a communications challenge, which is two fold: firstly to demonstrate Japan’s capacity to contain a recent spike in infections and ease athlete fears.
Tokyo must also generate international confidence that protocols for the Games will be rigorously implemented in line with the best medical advice – like those adopted by Tom Cruise on his current movie set.
While the initial impacts and distribution of new vaccines remain uncertain, comments made by Rafael Nadal after his historic French Open win strike an optimistic note, like his racquet, and provide a way through the pandemic.
“I want to send a message to everyone around the world,” Nadal said humbly.
“We are facing one of the worst moments that we remember in this, facing and fighting against this virus. Just keep going, stay positive and together we will win the virus soon.”
Homepage photo: IOC
MICHAEL PIRRIE is an international communications consultant and commentator who has worked as a senior consultant and advisor on several Olympic projects and major international sporting events. These include the highly successful Sydney and London Olympic and Paralympic Games, Invictus Games, and Asian Football Cup.
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