What happened in mid-March, when sport almost the whole world over went into a time-out, was unprecedented. And the concerns were genuine: How would the ecosystem – athletes, support staff, business houses, advertisers, broadcasters – deal with it? How long would the state of play be suspended? What would it do to the humans and the inanimate structures that make up sport – the athletes and the stadia, clubhouses, gyms, courts and arenas? What sort of wear and tear would they experience after months of inactivity?
Those doubts were cleared when sport came back, one goal, one run, one forehand winner at a time. But there was another, equally heartening, story: The story of innovation. Faced with new rules and protocols, sport, athletes and institutions tried out new practices and new systems, often new sub-sports, to keep their world moving. Using technology or just their own creativity, we all – journalists included – came up with different ways to maintain our connections with sport when a virus threatened to sever it totally and indefinitely.
Here are five examples of how the pandemic forced us to innovate to make our sport better.
Muthukrishnan Jayaraman, a 50-year-old endocrinologist with over 10 years of long-distance-running experience, was planning to travel to the 124th edition of the Boston Marathon in April 2020.
Then, the pandemic struck and the world’s oldest marathon was postponed, before being cancelled. Well, not entirely; a version of it was run, over a week in September, with participants allowed to compete virtually at any time of their choice within that week. And so Muthukrishnan, as did hundreds of others across the world, logged on to the official app and ran the distance where he was.
These runs — where people participate from wherever they are, using an app to log their run any time over a period of 5-7 days — have emerged as a lifeline for the running industry in the time of COVID-19.
Muthukrishnan’s virtual run in Pune needed extra planning. There was no traffic closure or hydration support for Muthukrishnan and three fellow participants. So, they picked Sunday, September 13, and began at 4.30 AM for a largely-traffic-free run on a 10km loop. A cyclist rode alongside to provide protection from traffic, while a car acted as a mobile water point.
Little touches by the organisers helped bring the experience a little bit closer to the real thing. A printable race bib, along with posters and start/finish tapes all bearing the unicorn logo of the Boston Athletic Association, provided that ‘visual feel’.
Each virtual event has its own app, and the Boston Marathon app’s compatibility with Garmin GPS watches meant Muthukrishnan didn’t have to carry his phone while running. That hasn’t been the case for the recent Delhi Half Marathon and Bengaluru World 10k events, whose apps required runners to carry their phones while running. There have been several complaints about these two apps’ quality, presumably not helped by the sometimes erratic, inaccurate GPS on phones.
Not being able to run in Boston was still a downer for Muthukrishnan but he says he was glad to finally be running the ‘dream event’.
“It’s been quite a journey because I’ve qualified almost four years in a row and finally made it this time. I’d seen videos of the marathon and Boston: The Documentary, so I could visualise the place while running,” he says. “Our route was pretty flat but on the last loop, even the small incline there felt very tough because it got very warm by then, so, mentally, that was my Heartbreak Hill because it came around 34-35km,” he adds, referring to the notoriously steep incline runners encounter 32km into the Boston Marathon.
There have been practical benefits to running virtually, too. “Cost-wise, it makes a huge difference. Now I can add Boston to my list of marathon majors run, but without having spent the Rs. 2,00,000 I would’ve ended up spending,” Muthukrishnan says.
Given the nature of COVID-19, it will probably be a long time before thousands can run together like they did before the pandemic. So are virtual runs here to stay? “For probably the coming year too, virtual runs will be well participated in because there was a kind of withdrawal, suddenly for (almost) a whole year people didn’t have events. A lot of people thrive on running events. Plus, people get motivated when they get a medal and t-shirt. Virtual runs serve that need well.”
– Manoj Bhagavatula
Commentary: Home alone but connected
The virus didn’t just affect athletes and ensure spectator-free stadiums; it also impacted broadcasters, especially commentary teams, who no longer had the mobility to do their job – live commentary, for TV or radio – from the site. In fact, in the early days of the pandemic with the studio environment out of bounds, it often forced commentators to do the job from home. That meant that a role best played watching the action live, and with one’s co-commentator sitting beside you, had to be done in remote isolation.
But, watching the broadcast, you, the reader, would never have guessed.
If you’ve been watching this season’s Indian Super League (ISL) in a regional language, you might not realise that Covid-19 has forced the broadcasters to patch the commentators — lead and expert — alongside the producers from their respective homes.
Freelancer Atish Thukral, who commentates in Hindi, has put together a setup at his rented home in Mumbai, where he connects his laptop via HDMI to his TV, and sits with a headset and calls the game alongside his expert colleague. Video is kept on, so both know when to chime in, and through his headset he’s able to call the pictures on his favourite sport.
Thukral, 29, took a leap of faith in August 2019 when he quit a job in production with Star to go freelance on a full-time basis. The world was his oyster in 2020, with the prospect of the Euros and the Olympics later in the year. He wasn’t too perturbed about the first signs of Covid around him at the Star studios on the day of the ISL final in March.
“Cut to a week later, and the lockdown started, but at my end, I was still very optimistic. Little did I know that it would take six months.” During this period, Thukral went back to his production roots, and came up with show concepts, and has conceived the script for an animated movie. His renewed link with sport happened by chance — streaming site Fancode contacted him because they wanted to trial Chinese Basketball Association games, besides Hindi commentary for Thai football.
He was initially baffled, because he was at home, with his amateur equipment. Then, thanks to a software called Spalk, the ball game changed.
“This platform was created for amateur commentators,” says Thukral, who needed nothing more than decent internet to get his job done. The setup was such that all the usual buttons that a commentator requires — a talkback button to speak to the producer, a mute button, volume control for ambient sounds — were available on his laptop screen.
While the absence of physical proximity with a crew was unusual at the beginning for Thukral, all of his commentary since the first match he called in 2016 has been in studios, off tube, and hence didn’t require that drastic a change. With no colleague to share a table with, he can place his notes, and keep a tab open for reference on his laptop, for easy reference. Coordination with producers isn’t as big a concern as that of hoping for uninterrupted internet and electricity. Even the former can be accounted for, as he discovered during a Thai League game where he had to switch on his phone’s hot spot when the internet gave way.
Thukral says the rhythm of working from home on the ISL has been convenient. For two hours or so, besides the regular game, the commentators also talk over highlights between halves, either side of a short commercial break. “As soon as the first break begins, I set my coffee on a one-minute timer on the microwave and then do the half-time highlights. Then when the second break begins, I press play on the microwave, take a quick toilet break and then begin the second half with my coffee. It’s a little Usain Bolt-ish, but it serves the purpose,” he laughs.
While the five or six months lost have hurt Thukral’s finances significantly, a glimpse into the future of broadcasting has made the experience worth the while. “I had planned for two or three months of not getting work. It’s a year wasted, in a financial sense,” says Thukral. “I know there’s an element of luck — it’s about the fortune of knowing the right people, and them calling you at the right time. There’s a lot to be grateful for.”
– Debayan Sen
Lifestyle changes: How Sindhu found food for thought
For the first few months of the lockdown, PV Sindhu, instead of focusing on what could have been the biggest month of her career, was binge-watching Money Heist and brushing up her cooking skills while occasionally practicing. By October, though, she’d narrowed in on a major career requirement and headed off to England in order to work on her recovery and nutrition needs at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute (GSSI).
It’s something she’d never had the time to do before, given her schedule, and definitely not something she could have done in a conventional playing season.
“I’ve been associated with the Gatorade Sports Science Institute for four years now and had taken advice from them in the past,” Sindhu said. “That would usually only be when I was in the UK for the All England Championships but it wasn’t a very detailed investigation. My schedule would always get in the way because I’d always have another competition to travel to. This year is the first time where I felt I had enough time to get a complete picture of what changes I need to make.”
“Before, I used to eat rice every. I would talk to these guys on what sort of changes I needed to make. I’d constantly keep in contact on what changes I needed to make,” she says.
There’s a change this time though. While The 25-year-old has spent the last few weeks in London working with sports nutritionist Rebecca Randell while simultaneously training with Badminton England’s Toby Penty and Rajiv Ouseph at the National Training Centre. This was particularly useful for Sindhu as it allowed the scientists working with her to understand which dietary and recovery modifications were most useful for her. “It’s not a quick process. The body takes time to adapt to your changes,” she says.
Sindhu isn’t the first Indian badminton player to undertake specialised nutrition and recovery analysis. Her compatriots in the Indian team have done so as well – HS Prannoy cutting out all mushrooms from his diet a few years back.
There’s no guarantee whether her decision to travel to England will pay off for Sindhu. However it was a gamble she wasn’t shy of taking. “In the past, I hadn’t every change I’ve made in my preparation hasn’t had the same effect on the court but it’s always good to know of any possible changes you could make to your preparation. That’s why I thought why not try this. During the lockdown, it was a good time to try new things. It’s positive that I got time to work on new techniques and regimens,” she says.
– Jonathan Selvaraj
Chess: The rise and rise
Chess has not just survived the pandemic’s wringer but multiplied in number of new users and tapped into new forms of engagement. Between March and November this year, a total of 12.6 million new players joined the top chess playing platform, Chess.com with its highest number of users being drawn from – USA, India, UK and Russia. At the heart of this stellar stat, lies the sport’s digital renaissance and inventiveness in the post-lockdown world.
Clutch chess: A brainchild of GM and chess commentator Maurice Ashley, the 8-player knockout tournament held in June (won by reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen), added a creative touch with a modified scoring system – higher points and higher monetary value for select games. In case of a draw in “clutch” games, the money was carried forward to the next game.
In the 12-game affair, games 1-4 and 7-10 were scored traditionally (one point for a win, half for a draw), games 5-6 worth two points each for a win and extra $2000 (one point for a draw) and the final two games (11&12) being three-point contests and carrying an additional $3000.
Ashley likened the format to a 3-pointer in basketball. The format wove in drama and allowed trailing players to stay alive in the contest till very late. In the early months of the pandemic, it kept a growing chess audience hooked.
PogChamps: In a confluence of e-sports and chess, two editions of the PogChamps tournament were held, bringing top gamers and Twitch streamers from Fortnite, Diablo 2 and other popular varieties to compete for a $50,000 prize pot chess event. Their several million-odd subscribers too followed them to the tournament. The event copped some flak for focusing on a bunch of blundering beginners in a big-money event but chess was already on its path of shedding its gravitas in exchange for reaching a wider audience.
Faster controls and livestreams: The pandemic situation has also altered the status of faster time controls – rapid, blitz and bullet, since they’re perfectly tailored for online playing and viewing as opposed to classical chess. Over the last nine months, a cohort of pro chess players across the world have taken to streaming- it’s a little like a soliloquy – and mastered the tech labyrinth of OBS. Existing variants like hand-and-brain (player pairs taking on the role of “brain” – who calls out a piece and “hand” – who executes a move), also have found greater currency especially on livestreams.
The Carlsen factor: Carlsen has assumed the role of entrepreneur, organizing a medley of online tournaments during these months of little over-the-board play. His latest offering, Airthings Masters, is sponsored by a company selling indoor air quality and radon monitors which will monitor and stream the air quality levels at players’ homes. It is based on the premise that indoor air quality can affect cognitive and decision-making abilities.
Speedify: The suggestion for the Indian team in the Online Olympiad to use the Speedify app came from chess enthusiast and engineering manager at Intel Corporation, 42-year-old Ashwin Subramanium. The players had already installed new hardware and multiple internet connections for the tournament – an average of two broadband connections each apart from a wireless 4g service, but the issue of lag while switching between them remained. Speedify addressed that exact problem. Overnight, Speedify Teams accounts were created for all members along with a dedicated server in Mumbai. India split the eventual title honors with Russia.
Edtech start-up: Factoring in a willing post-lockdown chess audience, edtech startup Unacademy ran live online chess classes by top Indian chess names and then eased in its new product ‘Graphy’ – which curates original content by artists, creators and experts in various fields, too. Divided into educative-format chapters, there’s Viswanathan Anand narrating his life story in one and taking his wife Aruna through the concepts and strategies of the game, interspersed with entertaining domestic banter. Younger Indian players like Adhiban Baskaran, Tania Sachdeva and Vidit Gujrathi too run individual live sessions in a testament of the space chess has created for itself in India across domains.
Numbers grow, cheating concerns remain: Though online events draw fans and come at significantly reduced overheads for organizers, they struggle to gain legitimacy as a serious alternative to over-the board events, primarily due to cheating concerns. There aren’t fool-proof solutions in sight either. New players taking to the game may find the online format less daunting, encouraging larger numbers, but, with very few over-the-board events currently, existing mid-level players may find it hard to transition. There’s also the question of norms, titles and rankings, which can only be played out at offline events currently unless FIDE opts to make a change.
– Susan Ninan
Indian women’s hockey coach Sjoerd Marijne was understandably frustrated when he first learned he would be stuck in India due to the coronavirus lockdown. Not only would he be unable to travel back home for a break, he also wouldn’t be able to use the time he had to work with the Indian team owing to the restrictions in place at the SAI Bengaluru campus.
Instead of moping though, Marijne opted to work on the aspects of the game that didn’t need a field. With the Olympics only three months away at that point, these aspects wouldn’t even have been prioritised in a normal year. This largely meant a focus on team-building activities and opponent analysis. He had the side take English lessons, which had no immediate benefits, but would hopefully help him communicate with his players better when it mattered, next year in Tokyo.
With the Indian team’s draw for Tokyo already known, Marijne also had the team stay focused by getting them to analyse all possible opponents. “They do the analysis, then they share the analysis and then we all discuss. I asked them to learn better English too because the better they can understand me, the better we can compete,” he said.
Another boon Marijne felt the unexpected and isolated break provided for them was the ability to practice the often overlooked art of mindfulness, a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment. “Normally, you have less time for this. You are constantly racing against time but this is a perfect time to make an asset in mindfulness. Because you have to deal with it right now in this lockdown. It helps us stay positive, it helps us stay in the moment and at the moment that is the best we can do,” he said.
With physical preparation only possible in a curtailed form at least for a few months, Marijne’s focus on the mental aspect of the game kept his side focused on the task at hand. “It’s a continuous process, you cannot stop. Because one day you think everything is fine in the team and the other day, it’s not. It’s not easy, always being with each other, always being on top of each other, with a lot of little girls. You have to keep working,” he says. He’ll hope it pays dividends when faced with the crunch situation Tokyo.
– Jonathan Selvaraj
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