Witness to the pandemic: Sport on lockdown
Witness to the pandemic: Sport on lockdown
Since the start of the epidemic in late 2019 and the first sports games cancelled in the first weeks of 2020, CNN journalists have covered this unprecedented event from all angles. Here is the story of the pandemic that brought sport to a standstill, from those who have witnessed and reported it firsthand.
In late 2019, the World Health Organization was informed of a pneumonia-like illness in the central city of Wuhan, China. The story develops in 2020 with the first known death in Wuhan on January 11.
On January 22, following reports that the death toll had risen to 17, a “temporary” closure of Wuhan train stations and the airport to prevent people from leaving was announced. Eleven million people are suddenly stranded – the first of many. It was at this point that the sports world first felt the impact of the virus, with the cancellation of an Olympic boxing qualification tournament (January 22) and an Olympic football qualification event scheduled for February being distant from Wuhan due to the epidemic.
Christina Macfarlane, CNN World Sport Anchor, based in London: We started to see the first real sports impact of the coronavirus in January and February, when in China international events started to be postponed and closed – sports like football, tennis, golf. At the time, it looked like something that had to happen because Wuhan’s lock had just been put in place. So it seemed somewhat inevitable.
Will Ripley, CNN international correspondent, based in Hong Kong: I landed in Japan in early February and the big story at the time was the Diamond Princess cruise ship. There were 3,700 people on board; the virus spreads on the ship. And at that time, nobody thought that what was going on could affect the Olympic Games. It was not even on the radar.
The show must continue
The spread of the virus accelerates until February, with more cases identified outside of China. At the end of February, Europe knows a strong increase of the cases of virus – Italy became the epicenter of the epidemic and on February 25, the region of Lombardy is forced to impose the first locking of the country of some 100,000 people. Sporting events continue in Italy and throughout Europe. As the epidemic worsens, one wonders why sport always takes place.
Amanda Davies, CNN World Sport Anchor, based in London: People always used sport as an opportunity to get together. Organizers, sports authorities at the time said they were following government advice, and governments until then said that sport did not necessarily need to be touched. It is easy to use hindsight, but should they have gone ahead when they did? I do not think so.
Macfarlane: It seemed like it was as usual. I mean, we all got on the train to work. And in sports, there was no reason why people shouldn’t travel in big games and crowd in stadiums, and it didn’t seem comfortable, but nobody at the time said that it should to be different.
Don Riddell, CNN World Sport Anchor, based in Atlanta: The mayor of Bergamo – who eventually became one of the epicenters of the epidemic in Italy – blamed the UEFA Champions League match between Atalanta and Valencia on February 19 for the spread of the virus. It was performed in front of more than 40,000 people in Milan.
Pressure mounts at the International Olympic Committee
On March 3, Japanese Olympic Minister Seiko Hashimoto said the Tokyo 2020 Games “may be postponed until the end of this year.”
On March 4, the President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach, replied following a meeting of the IOC Executive Committee, declaring that “postponement” and “cancellation” were not mentioned in relation to the Tokyo 2020 Games.
Riddell: For the Executive Committee to hold this meeting and say that never once has it used or heard the word postponement or cancellation, I think that is absolutely extraordinary. When we think of what was already happening in Europe, the bodies were already piling up.
Davies: Let us be clear, the decision to cancel the Olympic Games is not a small one. There has been such a level of investment over a number of years, not only from the Japanese and Tokyo, it was so obvious how much they wanted these Games to go and how it is important for Japan as a country – also from a CIO perspective.
Ripley: I lived and worked in Japan for more than four years. I saw the blood, the sweat and the tears which were used to prepare Tokyo 2020. You cannot turn a corner in this city without seeing the signs for Tokyo 2020. Every taxi, building, advertisement, it is everywhere. If you had told me a few months ago that there was even a slight chance that Tokyo 2020 would be postponed, I would have thought you were crazy. I would have thought that the Japanese would never allow the Olympics to be postponed. In the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, while the rest of the world was fighting the virus, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was fighting to save the Olympics. It was his goal.
The virus is now rampant all over Europe, with certain sports matches being played without spectators or canceled. On March 10, Italian Serie A announces that the season will be suspended due to the seriousness of the situation.
The virus is also starting to spread in the United States, with northern California being one of the most affected regions. As a result, the power of the NBA, the Golden State Warriors, announced on March 11 that they will play the Brooklyn Nets in an empty arena following the instructions of the mayor of San Francisco, London Breed.
Riddell: March 11, I know it’s a day that I will probably remember for the rest of my life. There was so much going on, there was breaking news breaking down every 20-30 minutes. Donald Trump was talking and it sounded really important enough. So I activated that and he announced that almost all international travel arriving in the United States was closed. I was like, “wow, now this is going to really impact all of us in quite a profound way.” And then my phone started buzzing again. And it was with everything going fast in the NBA, so I changed the channel.
Andy Scholes, CNN Sports correspondent, based in Atlanta: It was really a surreal scene. Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz were there on the ground. I mean, just moments from the peak, but the Utah Jazz All Star center Rudy Gobert felt bad and they tested it for coronavirus. His positive tests arrived moments before they started this match. So the officials came out and said, “Wait, we have to talk about this.” And after some discussion, they decided that we couldn’t play this game. And then moments later, NBA commissioner Adam Silver decided to suspend the game indefinitely for the entire league. The NBA was the first to close, and it really snowballed from there.
Coy Wire, Atlanta-based CNN sports correspondent: You immediately thought of the worst case scenario. You knew that if the NBA did this – if it suspended its season – well, the NHL was going to do it, the MLB … And then you start to think about this avalanche of sporting events taking place their way, but are now potentially endangered.
The Domino effect
Within 24 hours, the English Premier League, Major League Baseball, Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix, Masters and German Bundesliga were all suspended, postponed or canceled. The governing body of European football, UEFA, then announces the suspension and postponement of their flagship international and interclub tournaments, Euro 2020 and the Champions League.
Macfarlane: All of these events had been canceled in a short time; it was clear that the Olympics were now under threat.
On March 24, after increasing pressure to postpone, a decision was made and a declaration made: “The IOC President and the Prime Minister of Japan concluded that the Games … must be postponed beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021, to protect the health of athletes, all those involved in the Olympic Games and the international community. ”
Ripley: By the time the Olympics were postponed, most Japanese had seen it coming for weeks. I was surprised when I spoke to people on the street, weeks before the announcement, that there was no way that Japan could host these Games safely.
Riddell: I think the only thing the IOC really let go of was the athletes. Athletes who find it increasingly difficult to train. Athletes who find it increasingly difficult to qualify. And the IOC is supposed to represent them. These guys are the stars of the show and it seems they were the last thought and consideration of the International Olympic Committee. They failed these athletes and it is truly a shame.
Cable: Look, these Olympic athletes are really affected by the decline of the Games. The mental and physical transition of Olympians to back off their plans or goals and aspirations by an entire year is so difficult. Operating at a high level in sport is 99% mental. The pros, the Olympians, they are all physically gifted. So the thing that separates the powerful from the mundane is their competitive nature, their preparation, their state of mind.
The illustrious Wimbledon tennis championships are canceled for 2020 on April 1. At this point, almost all professional sports are suspended with a few minor exceptions.
Scholes: Never in my life have I ever had sports to watch or events to go to. So it was really tough, and when we look at the 2020 sports calendar, it will certainly be unforgettable.
Riddell: We have all experienced current events, and we have experienced major current events, but nothing that affects us in any sense of our life, as has happened. And sport has suffered a lot – and not just professional sport, amateur sport too. If you are not a runner or cyclist, you are not playing sports either now.
Cable: For sport in general, this pandemic has been a complete punch. Almost the entire world of sport is on its stomach, with no real hope of seeing it recover on its feet anytime soon.
As door receipts dry up and huge questions remain on television offerings, almost all sports leagues, teams and athletes are feeling economic pressures brought on by the pandemic. With sports on hold, many athletes use social media to share their home workouts and spread positive messages to fans. As the lockdowns in some parts of the world begin to loosen, and with billions of dollars of revenue at stake, the sports world is focused on how and when to get back on the playing field.
Davies: We still don’t really know what the long-term financial impact will be. There is money in high-performance sport, but it does not necessarily filter through leagues and clubs. Individuals who are not in the world top 10, for example, their lives will change on a fairly large scale.
From a fan’s point of view, with everyone in society affected, will sport always be up there like what you do on weekends? Are the Olympics always going to be the thing you go for your vacation? Or will you stay at home this year?
Riddell: We don’t know when the sport will start again and when it will start again, what will it look like? These key factors must therefore be taken into account in the short term. When will it be safe enough to be able to bring athletes on the same field or on the same field to compete against each other and without infecting each other? So when are we going to be able to safely pack stadiums with tens of thousands of fans? Nobody knows.
Scholes: The return of sports is going to be an incredible day. It may have to be a national holiday in the future, because people want their sports so badly back. If we are able to overcome this and get through this difficult time in spring, the end of summer through fall could be epic. You may have an NBA final in September-October. You could have major golf tournaments and Grand Slam tennis tournaments one after the other, not to mention football. And then you would have baseball at the same time.
It’s tough right now, but we could be in for a great late summer, great or fall for sports.