Timid­ity and paral­y­sis in sport’s dark­est hour

Test events are vi­tal for se­cur­ing sup­port­ers’ re­turn – but the Gov­ern­ment is run­ning scared of try­ing

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

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

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