Sport’s re­turn is be­ing stran­gled by a lan­guage of fear and trep­i­da­tion

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - Oliver Brown Chief Sports Writer

Of all the stark mes­sages de­liv­ered by the Gov­ern­ment’s lat­est re­port on our Covidrav­aged times, per­haps the most ar­rest­ing was its call for the na­tion to re­turn to sport and ex­er­cise “with­out fear”. And yet fear, alas, re­mains its po­tent weapon. For an ex­am­ple, the De­part­ment for Dig­i­tal, Cul­ture, Me­dia and Sport, which pub­lished the doc­u­ment this week, should look no fur­ther than its own min­is­ter, Oliver Dow­den, who her­alded this sum­mer’s re­as­sur­ing thwack of leather on willow thus: “Covid-se­cure cricket is back.”

In this neu­rotic cli­mate, plain old “cricket is back” would not suf­fice.

Ap­par­ently, no mea­sure sig­ni­fy­ing sport’s shift towards nor­mal­ity can be an­nounced with­out the ad­di­tion of such caveats as “Covid-se­cure”, “virus­proofed” or “sub­ject to strict so­cial-dis­tanc­ing”, all serv­ing to re­in­force pub­lic ret­i­cence and trep­i­da­tion. Some­times, it feels as if the only com­pe­ti­tion be­ing en­cour­aged in this coun­try is the one to see which sport can be the most slav­ishly com­pli­ant with pro­to­col.

It falls to cricket, snooker and horse rac­ing to wres­tle over the next fort­night for that du­bi­ous hon­our. In re­cent weeks, there has been an odd craze on so­cial me­dia for de­scrib­ing the grand­est sport­ing mo­ments in the most blood­less terms pos­si­ble. As an illustrati­on, Tiger Woods’s fifth Mas­ters vic­tory be­comes “43-yearold Stan­ford grad­u­ate in a red shirt wins golf tour­na­ment in a Ge­or­gia for­est”. Satur­day at Glo­ri­ous Good­wood is reimag­ined as “day out in the South Downs with cream teas, fin­ger sand­wiches and a few horses for com­pany”.

The dif­fer­ence is that the sec­ond of th­ese is real. So acute is the para­noia about pinch points that when a sem­blance of a crowd re­turns to Good­wood next week, it will be in the form of eight mem­bers-only en­clo­sures, with no move­ment per­mit­ted be­tween them to limit con­ges­tion along the rails, around the pa­rade ring, and in any place where those pay­ing al­most £400 for the priv­i­lege might dare to ex­pect the glimpse of an an­i­mal.

Doubt­less it will all pass muster with the Gov­ern­ment, which will de­clare the test event a tri­umph and an ob­ject les­son in how pan­demic-era sports­go­ers are ex­pected to be­have. But it is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine what ex­actly will have been learned, be­yond the abil­ity to stage a sparsely-at­tended equine Glyn­de­bourne. The true ex­am­i­na­tion will come not with high-sum­mer English gar­den par­ties, but with the mo­ment that th­ese op­pres­sive Covid rules are im­posed upon foot­ball fans.

The early por­tents are not aus­pi­cious. Liver­pool sup­port­ers were warned time and again not to con­gre­gate out­side An­field for the pre­sen­ta­tion of the Premier League tro­phy, but still gath­ered in their thou­sands, their flares wreath­ing the sta­dium in a plume of red smoke. As for newly-pro­moted Leeds, the club rather un­der­mined their own stay-at-home ad­vice by ar­rang­ing an open-top bus pa­rade past El­land Road, invit­ing a mass homage to man­ager Marcelo Bielsa.

The snap re­sponse is to be cen­so­ri­ous about all this, to de­pict the rev­ellers as feck­less rene­gades en­dan­ger­ing pub­lic health. But pas­sions in foot­ball are never go­ing to be un­leashed with two me­tres of sep­a­ra­tion.

Shar­ing in a first league ti­tle for 30 years or a first top-flight ap­pear­ance since 2004 is not an ex­pe­ri­ence that con­forms eas­ily with the edicts of the Covid po­lice. It is why the Prime Min­is­ter’s plan for crowds to re­turn to sta­di­ums by Oc­to­ber “in a Covid-se­cure way” strikes such a dis­cor­dant note.

When the emo­tion of foot­ball runs free, any no­tion of dis­tanc­ing flies out of the win­dow. One-way con­courses? One in ev­ery three seats filled? For­get it. It is such a grotesquel­y sani­tised sim­u­lacrum of the match­go­ing rit­ual that you won­der if it will do more harm than good. Den­mark was hailed as a bea­con of progress last month when it al­lowed 3,000 fans in for Brondby’s derby against FC Copen­hagen, all of them placed at least four seats apart.

Far from be­ing stir­ring, it was one of the sad­dest sights of the year, on a par with the Maoist scene of pri­mary-school chil­dren chang­ing the words of “Row, row, row your boat” to “Wash, wash,

Pas­sions in foot­ball are never go­ing to be un­leashed with two me­tres of sep­a­ra­tion

wash your hands”. When the UK’s epi­demic first took off in late March, the Sci­en­tific Ad­vi­sory Group for Emer­gen­cies listed “co­er­cion” as one op­tion for in­creas­ing ad­her­ence to so­ciald­is­tanc­ing. Com­pul­sion, it ex­plained, all too prophet­i­cally, could com­bine pow­er­fully with the dis­ap­proval of one’s friends and neigh­bours. We are now four months into this night­mare, and the co­er­cive im­pulse re­mains alive and well. Go any­where near a foot­ball ground to share in your team’s glory and you will find your­self pub­licly shamed.

It is a trend the Gov­ern­ment has done lit­tle to dis­suade, tend­ing to as­so­ciate sport’s re­sump­tion only with fear. No sooner can you start up your five-a-side team or go swim­ming out­doors than you are stran­gled by the de­crees of Covid bu­reau­crats. What sport in the UK needs in­stead, as the DCMS re­port ac­knowl­edges, is a mes­sage of af­fir­ma­tion. It high­lights the suc­cess of “This Girl Can” as a case study for what can be ac­com­plished when peo­ple fo­cus more on the op­por­tu­ni­ties in front of them than the dan­gers.

Who wants to live for­ever in fear? Not even Ju­r­gen Klopp. In March, he was scream­ing at fans to “put your f------ hands away”. Now, he is promis­ing them a proper post-ti­tle hoe­down “when this bulls--- virus is gone”. It is im­per­a­tive, then, that the Gov­ern­ment spells out a plan for how the sports com­mu­nity can come back to­gether in the fullest sense, not in a state of in­def­i­nitely dis­tanced ter­ror.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.