It was the worst of times. And in between it was also – just to be clear – the worst of times all over again. Farewell 2020. No need to write. Don’t, as they say, let the door hit your arse on the way out.
The lamps went out across the sporting world in the second week of March. In the months since they have flickered back on, emergency generators fired up, an ersatz version of reality winched into place, with its tinny fanfare and digitised cheers. Beneath this dressing the year in sport has been much like the year everywhere else.
One of the functions of sport is to hold a mirror up to the world. In that sense 2020 did deliver, dishing up a wretched narrative of micro-decay and macro-collapse, of rancour, fear and unceasing anxiety.
This was also a year when sport was revealed in its base elements. First as a gaudy irrelevance to the urgency of real life; then as both distraction and consolation; and finally, at times, as a source of hope, a sign of species resistance. Through all this there was the feeling of a tipping point being reached. Sport without fans raised an awkward question nobody has really wanted to face in the past few decades of wild televised growth.
The founding dynamic of spectator sport, the importance of real-life humans, has been chipped away at and downgraded. At the elite level football fans are less and less key to the business model with every passing year. The empty‑stadium spectacle of the past year has thrown this into dramatic relief. Big Sport, and Big Football in particular, has rolled on, servicing its broadcast contracts, thrilling its robot audience, refereed by television, fanned out across the entire multi‑platform weekend. Lines have been crossed and ground conceded. How much of it will we get back when this is over?
Rewind to the start of the year and it is worth remembering that even in those brief pre-pandemic months the world was already on fire. Literally so in Australia where Big Bash and Shield cricket matches were interrupted in January by bushfires that spanned an area of New South Wales three times the size of Yorkshire. “This is a challenge on two metrics: visibility and breathing,” a Cricket Australia spokesperson noted. And to be fair, those are both important metrics.
In February the Kansas City Chiefs won the Super Bowl thanks to a sensational fourth-quarter comeback, a turnaround that felt, at the time, like the big sporting collapse story of the year. At the end of that month Australia staged a hugely successful Women’s T20 cricket World Cup, a record crowd for a women’s event cramming itself into the MCG to see the hosts take the title and confirm that Australian team as one of the great sporting juggernauts of the age. At which point, enter: the bizarro world.
Talk of a new flu-like bug had swirled vaguely in the background since December. Shots of masked people had flickered across the news channels. Most things don’t happen. This one did. And in this disaster movie version of 2020, sport was right there in the opening scenes, the barking dog at the screen door, bellwether of impending collapse.
In an odd twist, the first visible sign of the gathering wave was Mikel Arteta’s positive test on 12 March: cap on a genuinely strange year for Arteta, which veered through FA Cup winner, candidate for the sack and in between a kind of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of sport’s Covid meltdown. Like the duke, Arteta was of course a plaything of wider forces. The following day the Premier League and Football League were suspended. Within a week schools were shut, the skies empty and Europe had entered the dead zone.
For more than two months, sport was simply an absence. For a while discussion of its return was scoffed at, dismissed as reckless or inappropriate – an attitude that grew in part out of the government’s own policy shifts.
When the history of the UK’s Covid-19 response is written we will perhaps get to the bottom of how far the government intended to pursue the idea of herd immunity, allowing the virus to “run through” the population, as voiced by the prime minister himself in one of his bizarrely mannered and incoherent TV appearances.
Sport will be at the centre of that. Those who were present at Anfield on 11 March as Liverpool hosted Atlético Madrid felt the strangeness of this situation, as 5,000 Spanish citizens arrived from a place where schools were already closed to drink and eat, and work, in an unmasked, entirely unprepared English city. In the end it was the Premier League and EFL who took the lead, calling off their own events in defiance of official guidance. And so we entered the age of cancellation.
In mid-March Euro 2020 was postponed and replaced by another event also called Euro 2020, which will – keep up – take place in 2021, thereby enabling a significant saving on stationery, coasters and temporary signage. There are some small mercies here. No single host will bear the vast costs of a rescheduling. But it is also a wretched end to a wretchedly bodged version of Europe’s showpiece tournament.
The Tokyo Olympics hung on a bit longer before giving in. Olympic rescheduling is likely to cost an extra £2bn, an absurdity in its own right. If ever proof were required that this mobile sporting city-state has become ludicrously bloated, here it is.
Meanwhile other things kept not happening. Amateur sport was gutted, filleted, desiccated and reduced to a peculiar dance around torturous and often unworkable restrictions on public gathering. More than a hundred men’s and women’s amateur football leagues were cancelled. Large numbers of volunteer, community and informal sports activities were scrubbed and in some cases rubbed out for good. An unquantifiable number of people of all ages who might have taken a first step into sport or physical activity were stopped from doing so. Jobs and careers were furloughed, cancelled or interrupted.
Into this sporting vacuum an unintended consequence intruded, powered by a self-owning intervention from the health secretary Matthew Hancock.
On 2 April, Hancock suggested footballers should help fund the financial protection of their own industry and employers. A couple of days later, in a more bizarre intervention, he also suggested footballers should fund hospices. Hancock’s clumsy attempts at misdirection and finger-pointing were another source of fuel for something new, the rise of the activist sportsperson.
Marcus Rashford was already involved with the FareShare charity, helping the campaign to deliver meals to children in Greater Manchester who were missing out because of lockdown. By mid-June Rashford was writing an open letter to the UK government about child poverty, and changing public policy in the process as the following day school meal provision was extended into the summer holidays.
Elsewhere, sports people had already begun to find their voices. US sport was the stage for strikes and protests early in the year in the wake of some high-profile cases of police brutality. Donald Trump, a loser in November, dismissed the NBA as “a political organisation”. His deputy, Mike Pence, had already suggested pro basketball was in league with Chinese communism. Confinement and hardship sharpened this process.
Sport has not been silent, from footballers speaking out about discrimination, to Lewis Hamilton’s discovery of his own powerful political platform. Some will point to Hamilton’s tax exile status, his highfalutin lifestyle. But politics doesn’t only belong to the disadvantaged, just as the idea of “keeping politics out of sport” has always been a nonsense. Silent acceptance of the status quo is also political. Sports industries that enrich the top end and leave the bottom to struggle are political. A lack of fair representation is political, whether you protest against it or silently acquiesce. The accompanying discourse, the friction over this intrusion is also valuable. Sport is providing a service here, and more power to it.
Back to the calendar, and as the world started to move again sport was there hammering at the gates. Elite football did something amazing in midsummer, reconstructing itself inside a biosecure bubble as a purely televisual spectacle. Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Braut Haaland scored the first goal of football’s plague-age, then celebrated by the corner flag in an amusing pastiche of social distancing.
In England, Project Restart – aka Project No Refunds – saw off the naysayers of Project Sabotage. The Premier League and EFL relaunched with startling efficiency in June. Liverpool got to complete their annihilation of the field, completing a first league title this century to the sound of distant fireworks.
In the Euro-bubble, Bayern Munich won the Champions League, making it three trophies in his first eight months for Hansi Flick. Elsewhere Hamilton won his first race of the Covid-world season on 12 July in Styria, start of an extraordinary run that sealed another title and his place as one of the greatest drivers of all time.
Tennis, a game of travel, hotels and constant churn, was almost entirely derailed but recovered enough for Novak Djokovic to dominate one side of the tour, and for Iga Swiatek to follow Sofia Kenin in winning a first grand slam this year. Serena Williams’s pursuit of Margaret Court’s all-time 24 grand slam titles was strangled by events. Williams will be 40 next year. Don’t bet against her.
Cricket fell apart for a while. Tours, series and a men’s World T20 were postponed. The entire English season seemed close to collapse, but pulled itself together admirably. The biosecure Indian Premier League became the centrepiece of the year, the final in Dubai drawing a TV audience of 200 million people, and giving the sport a glimpse of its own recentred future.
Boxing flourished, given a huge boost in February by Tyson Fury’s wonderfully skilful defeat of Deontay Wilder, then driven on by its own freelance flexibility and the entrepreneurial spirit of its fighters and promoters. Oddly enough, at a time when health and safety in sport has become paramount, when concerns about head injuries are promising a major restyling of team sports, the grand old business of punching people in the head until they black out is absolutely thriving.
For now we roll on into a new year when sport will return with a breathless calendar, an industry trying to catch up with itself. There are things that need to be fixed. Player welfare, fatigue and mental exhaustion are likely to become even more major concerns.
Like every industry, sport has its share of opportunists and disaster capitalists. Football’s authorities have already begun to shunt forward some dramatic plans for altering the game. Women’s sport has been hit disproportionately hard by cutbacks. Participation, grassroots and the physical connection to actual live sport will, as ever, be marginalised.
The Christmas and new year weekends would normally have seen around a million people travelling to watch sport in the UK alone. For now we have been reduced by circumstance to consumers, passive receivers of a televised product. The year to come will see a return to some version of the old normal. How that has changed in the interim remains to be seen.
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