Remember Romain Grosjean’s F1 car bursting into flames at the Bahrain Grand Prix? It looked apocalyptic. The cockpit was a ball of fire, the impact of the crash had registered at over 50 G-forces and the car was torn into two. Other drivers asked their teams over radio: “is he okay?” “is everyone okay?” “Please.” On Nov 29, the year was giving sport a final flying kick in the solar plexus. After an eternity, Grosjean emerged from the inferno, clambering over the barricade, and held out his hands (he imagined them melting). It took him 28 seconds. He was okay.
It’s been that kind of year for sport and has taken eight months to process. We are into 2021 knowing that, as of now we are okay. In 2020, the worth of modern sport in everyday life took on a dimension beyond whimsical, distractive leisure. We discovered just why and how much we needed sport. Because it forms the framework of our seasons, our summers and winters, the passage from teenage into senior citizenry. It addresses the room where champs, chumps, heroes, bullies, tears and fears rattle away inside our heads. In less than a week, it gave us 36-9 and Rahane’s Test.
When live, competitive sport suddenly froze in March, a context-less vacuum appeared in a world already wrenched free of its axis. Social media chats between superstars offered insight, but nothing made up for the absence of activity. In May, when the K-league, Korea’s premier football competition, resumed, it was like GPS navigation suddenly turned on for wandering souls. We picked teams and watched on our phones. We recognised no one but followed the play regardless, we didn’t care the stands were empty that there was no noise. What had gone missing from our lives until then was instant engagement with the action.
Live sport speaks to many, not just the obsessed like myself. Rajesh, a techie friend who had gone off watching cricket because of well, life and other stuff, returned to the game he had once loved deeply. The world was not up and running but, comfortingly, the captains of England and West Indies were going out to toss. Rajesh sat down to watch with his nine-year-old and today live cricket on TV has become the pandemic glue between father and son.
We knew we needed sport but the turbo speed with which elite sport returned also told us how much sport needed us. The professional leagues out of US and Europe returned first and fastest, creating complicated biobubbles, in which superstars played to silence. Television improvised with “fan walls” and overlays of appropriate ambient soundtracks onto their audio feed. Half an hour into this crafty earworming and the empty stands become irrelevant. This was the “sports industrial complex” on the move, with its internal combustion engine of media rights and live matches.
The 2019-22 Premier League broadcast deals are worth £9.2b (5b domestic & 4.2b overseas), Bundesliga €4.85b over four years, La Liga is €2.65b over three years. The NBA’s nine-year deal is $24b, or $2.6b a year. The mega events that must return in 2021 are today sweating buckets to ensure biosafety logistics get their events back on air.
Here, the conduct of the postponed Tokyo Olympics will be the ultimate examination. There are more people involved in an Olympic Games than any other co-operative activity on earth. The accreditations for the 2016 Rio Games totalled 222,467, including the workforce employed before the Games, the athletes, officials, staff, media, volunteers, allied, hospitality and spectators. In the light of a pandemic, with its December figures of over 75m cases and 1.6m global deaths, those numbers today appear overwhelming and utterly over the top.
Tokyo had called itself the Recovery Games, after the 2011 natural disasters that led to the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown. Maybe the 2021 Olympics could become the global reinvention games – of sporting priorities as a whole. Of moving from gigantism to proportion, perspective. The mega event without bankruptcy at the end of its shining lights. The virus has even given Olympic grandees the best reason to scale down.
This pandemic year also stole from sport tracts of its folklore, its legacy and its marvels. In Balbir Singh Dosanjh, PK Banerjee and Chuni Goswami, a triad of a young nation’s finest, the golden boys of a golden age. In Diego Maradona and Kobe Bryant, liquid symphonies of feet and hands, in Paolo Rossi, the promise of redemption. Cricket’s departed spanned a hundred seasons: among them, Sir Everton Weeks, the last of the Ws to go, Bapu Nadkarni, John Edrich, Rajinder Goel, Chetan Chauhan, Dean Jones and Vasant Raiji, the game’s oldest first-class cricketer when he died in July, aged 100. Raiji was also historian and author who’d had seen Indian captains from CK Nayudu to Virat Kohli.
Champions leave their handprints on our minds and when they go, we are reminded of the fundamental transience of everything.
As sport returned and the churn of champions resumed, we may have fallen back into old habits. To cheer and jeer, to be joyous and crushed, to root for one over another, to return to our invisible tribe. Yet, the unforgettably forgettable year also opened up a new wormhole. For fans to gather the breath and take it all in. To savour and turn over in our minds what we witness. Sport for pause, for reflection. To create personal freeze frames for our memory wall. To salute the knee bent and fist raised as much as fists pumped with roars of triumph. Because 2020 has schooled us. Taught us that everything and everyone we hold dear – not just from sport – can suddenly be gone. Taken away. We were made to be without sport for a while and it was not good. We’ve emerged from that wreckage, bruised and a bit burnt, but overall okay. Shaken and hopefully, humbled. Here’s to a better one, people.