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17 March 2020updated 05 Aug 2021 10:40am

We inhabit a world that runs on rhythms and routines – and we crave the unifying power of sport

The evisceration of the calendar has been a weirdly disorienting disruption.

By Jonathan Liew

On an otherwise deserted basketball court in Oakland, a bunch of kids wearing latex gloves shoot hoops to pass the time. In Mexico City’s 87,000-capacity Estadio Azteca, local rivals Club América and Cruz Azul play out a fiercely contested derby game in deathly, echoing silence. In Naples, a judo coach called Gianni Maddaloni hosts video training sessions on WhatsApp for children bereft of their weekly fix. Like green shoots forcing their way through frost-bitten earth, somehow sport finds a way.

For the time being, this is how we will have to get by. There are bigger things happening than the shutdown of global sport, more important stories than whether the rest of the Champions League will be played, more pressing information to disseminate than what happens to everyone’s ranking points if coronavirus wipes out half the tennis season. But however obliquely, this stuff does still matter: not just to the thousands of athletes and support staff or the auxiliary and ancillary industries that rely on sport for their livelihoods, but to the rest of us as well. We inhabit a world that runs on rhythms and routines, and more than ever seem to crave the simple, unifying power of sport: the evisceration of the calendar has been a weirdly disorienting disruption.

It’s worth reminding ourselves just how abrupt this has been. As recently as 12 March, the Premier League and EFL were issuing statements assuring fans that all fixtures would continue as normal, crowds and all. The England men’s cricket team were still due to play their two-Test series in Sri Lanka. Early on 13 March, the Welsh Rugby Union insisted that its Six Nations fixture against Scotland would go ahead. One by one, each was forced within a matter of hours into a volte-face, their blithe pretence to normality – bolstered, naturally, by a healthy self-interest and half an eye on the bottom line – crumbling at the boots of a stampeding pandemic.

And so, here we are: a world without sport. Bleak, isn’t it? There are, it has to be said, a few sports that still tried to plough grimly on: rugby league’s Super League (now suspended), horse racing, snooker’s Tour Championship in Llandudno (also now suspended, although given the sparse crowds its run-of-the-mill tour events tend to attract, you could argue that this is a perfectly effective form of social distancing). Sports fans will largely have to satisfy themselves with highlights of classic events on television. It remains to be seen how long Sky’s “premium” subscribers – parting with around £80 a month – will be content to subsist on repeats of Premier League Years and Gary Neville’s Soccerbox.

Perhaps we will all learn a few lessons during these long weeks and months. For those of us who occasionally become ensnared in sport’s pomposity, who insist on talking about it loudly and obnoxiously to anyone who will listen, who rudely sit in the corner at social gatherings watching games on our phones, perhaps this hiatus will be a welcome corrective. Perhaps one of the tangential consequences of this crisis is to show sport’s true place in the order of things.

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Certainly, this was an unintended by-product of the last remotely comparable interruption to British sport. Three-quarters of a century ago, as the Second World War drew to a close, a population that had been ravaged by bombs and rationing for six years came to the euphoric realisation that of all the things that weren’t important, sport was the most important. Record crowds greeted the resumption of the Football League in August 1946. The London Olympics of 1948, organised on a shoestring budget in a capital city still bearing the deep scars of conflict, was a roaring triumph of ingenuity, collective endeavour and – in the absence of significant capital expenditure or grand infrastructure projects – the idea of sport as its own reward.

Perhaps the best example of this, however, came from cricket. In the summer of 1945, a series of games was organised between England and an Australian Services team, made up of military personnel stationed in Britain. In sharp contrast to some of the surly contests that had defined Ashes cricket in the 1930s, these “Victory Tests” were played in a spirit of ebullient camaraderie. The two teams shared dressing rooms, hotels, and even transport to and from the ground. To men who had quite literally walked through the shadow of death, “the warlike temper of 1930s Ashes cricket seemed stupid, almost obscene,” writes Malcolm Knox in Bradman’s War. Many on both sides would describe it as the most enjoyable cricket they ever played.

Here was a new and less confrontational vision of sport: one that compromised neither on quality of spectacle (a fiercely contested series was drawn 2-2) nor on revenue generation (total crowds of 367,000 ensured bumper profits all round). It didn’t last, of course. Self-interest and suspicion, austerity and the Cold War, would ultimately evaporate the pool of hedonistic goodwill that had built during the war years. But perhaps at some point later this year, when we finally shed our hazmat suits and emerge blinking into the light, it will seem genuinely possible to channel the spirit of those intoxicating postwar years and remake sport for the better.

Perhaps we will realise that arguing about VAR was not the most productive use of our time. Perhaps we will learn to stop fulminating about the latest thing Tyson Fury has said. Perhaps, on reflection, we will conclude that Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic are all extremely good, and that it’s pointless comparing them. Pipe dreams, one and all. But in these strange and shifting times, sport has a funny habit of finding a way. 

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This article appears in the 18 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The final reckoning