Timidity and paralysis in sport’s darkest hour
Test events are vital for securing supporters’ return – but the Government is running scared of trying
In forging his cult of personality, the Prime Minister owes a sizeable debt of gratitude to sport. As Mayor of London, he was heralded by Time magazine as the “biggest winner of the 2012 Olympics”, a man who could somehow recast the horror of being left dangling on a zip wire as a PR triumph, and who, at the closing ceremony, drew a louder cheer than the Spice Girls. Little wonder that when it came to arranging the setting for his final rally ahead of last December’s general election, he chose the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
Sport would often strengthen his connection with voters. Even when he flattened a 10-year-old boy during rugby practice in Tokyo, the old Boris alchemy ensured it could be passed off as harmless eccentricity. But in the top job, the sporting landscape he surveys is no longer one of milk and honey. He cannot craft his usual crowd-pleasing lines, such as: “The Geiger counter of Olympo-mania is going to go zoink off the scale.”
Under his premiership, sport in 2020 has been plunged into perhaps its darkest hour, and the easy answers have stopped flowing so freely.
Any answers at all would be helpful. Instead, sport continues to be sabotaged by a rhythm of timidity and paralysis. Early September marks an inflection point, a time when the casual bliss of the summer holidays gives way to a resolve to go back to the grindstone. Not that you would know it from the Government, who have left sport in the same parlous state of limbo to which it was consigned six weeks ago.
On July 31, Glorious Goodwood was, with just a few hours’ notice, put back behind closed doors despite going to drastic and expensive efforts to be Covid-secure. Now the St Leger meeting at Doncaster has suffered the same fate. The move was made with no warning, no detailed reasoning, no parliamentary scrutiny. There is nearuniversal consensus that, with a virus that thrives on close contact still circulating, any return to mass attendance at sporting events needs to be careful, measured, graduated. No one is seriously suggesting that Anfield should be stuffed to the gunwales next month. But you have to start somewhere, if you do not want once-prosperous clubs and institutions to go to seed. “Test events” are so called for a reason: they are necessary experiments, admitting fans under the strictest conditions and to only a tiny fraction of stadiums’ capacity. Then, they can be ratcheted up so long as infection levels are not shown to spike in the aftermath.
The Government is hesitant even to try. As it embarks on the most tentative trials – already poised to be “revised” and “abridged”, according to the Prime Minister’s description, with caps expected of just 1,000 people per event – it is continually running scared of its own shadow.
Other states are not displaying the same sense of fright. In Monaco, a Diamond League athletics meeting was staged last month in front of 5,000 spectators at Stade Louis II, a venue capable of holding almost 20,000. All reasonable distancing protocols were enforced, and to date there have been no local virus flare-ups.
And yet here we are, encouraged to believe that racing at Doncaster represents an unconscionable danger to public health. The official line is that the risk of outdoor transmission of the virus is minimal, but the Government cannot even countenance allowing a gate of 3,600, as planned for the opening day, to be spread out across a huge racecourse.
This is before you try accounting for the sheer bewildering incoherence of it all. It is, on the one hand, the most welcome news that parkrun is due to resume next month after a six-month hiatus. But on the other, the busiest of these runs draw more than 2,000 people to the start line, so how can this be squared with the Government’s insistence on limiting all gatherings to six people?
The absence of clarity threatens to leave sports with nowhere to turn. Time and again, they hatch the most carefully-structured plans to return, only to have them scotched at the last minute. The PM must accept the essential truth that sports without fans present, particularly at the professional level, are fated to oblivion. At some stage, he needs to show the confidence to coax an industry so crucial to his success as London’s mayor back into a semblance of life. To bring supporters back in the coming weeks is not, he will realise, a task without risk. But his natural chutzpah should remind him that the only true failure is the failure to try.
It is in the same parlous state of limbo to which it was consigned six weeks ago
Capital gain: Boris Johnson owes much of his political success as London mayor to sport