Sports is the canary in the COVID-19 coal mine

So when will sports be resumed and how can they play a role in transitioning to normalcy again?

Bruce DowbigginCanada hasn’t been a trailblazer in much of the response to COVID-19. The federal government has been a day late and a quarantine short on some crucial issues.

But in becoming the first major Western nation to completely withdraw from the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Canada has made a bold step.

Now, an avalanche of nations saying “Sorry, maybe next time,” to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is sure to follow Canada. Australia already has. There can be no questioning the seriousness of where the country’s sports organizations stand.

Like few other factors in this grim tale of virus and betrayal, sports has had a way of refining the solution.

It’s clear today that the dramatic shuttering of all sports at the start of March probably confirmed the deadly seriousness of the virus to many who were otherwise on the fence. For  those, like me, who thought it an abstraction, the elimination of hundreds of National Hockey League, National Basketball Association, Major League Soccer and European soccer matches was a reality check.

The suspension of the larger economy that followed was prefigured by the NBA suspending its season.

And if sports is the canary in the coal mine here, the question is when will sports be resumed and how can they play a role in transitioning to normalcy again?

The quarantine advocates on TV talk about normalcy perhaps returning by July or August. Caution is advertised in rushing back too soon.

But can they hold back the tide of people wanting to live free again?

The key, of course, is the numbers of people infected or dead from the virus used to justify the draconian measures now being rolled out in the economy.

With all due respect to American immunologist Dr. Anthony Fauci, the vast majority of under-60s who emerge from quarantine in the next few weeks are going to need a very short, sharp shock to keep them from resuming their old lives – including the consumption of sports.

Perhaps grim mortality numbers will emerge and render this speculation moot. Lacking that, it seems that a graduated phasing-in of the population – with youngest released first from isolation – will probably work best if you’re trying to prevent social unrest among people denied work and entertainment.

If officials think it was difficult getting young spring break partiers off the south Florida beaches, wait until they try to resist when small business owners, employees and customers surge back into life.

No doubt Donald Trump, the most pro-business U.S. president in living memory, wants them back spending and investing as soon as possible.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who usually doesn’t cough without having the United Nation’s blessing on matters global, might be more circumspect.

All the major sports leagues paused their seasons earlier this month and are now trying to determine what part of the schedule and playoffs are salvageable.

A few athletes have tested positive in the meantime for COVID-19.

The National Football League has plenty of time to wait (training camps don’t open until July), while the golf and tennis tours can likely resume at any point in their year-long schedules.

But there’s an urgency for the NBA, NHL and the many soccer leagues in Europe and North America to get a protocol for resuming.

Should they simply go to a playoff format right away? Should they play for the Stanley Cup or NBA title in July or August? Can they play before live crowds?

For fans and the many people who depend on the sports industry, there will be a huge push to develop a testing protocol to determine who’s safe to play and then restart the games in empty arenas (if necessary).

(Ironically, it might have been better to expose all the athletes early on to develop immunity, as the Chinese allegedly did with their military.)

That leaves the final and most vexing sports cancellation in question: the Tokyo Olympics scheduled for July of this year.

While the Games could fall outside the danger zone for isolation, many of the qualifying events that determine who’ll participate have to be played by May or June. For this reason, Canada and a number of high-profile sports organizations have said, “Thanks but no thanks.”

It’s possible the Games might be delayed until later in the year, but that would mean a number of athletes from basketball, baseball, golf, tennis and other sports would be unable to attend because of conflicts with their professional obligations.

While Japanese organizers have said full speed ahead, Canada sending its regrets to the IOC dooms the notion of an inclusive Games.

Organizers must give a signal soon why they think they can organize so much so fast – and without Canada and Australia.

In the end, the question for sports re-emerging to soothe the fan base will be how the panic is brought to a close – and whether governments can safely reduce the pent-up energy without societal tumult.

With so many desperate to make money again or to save their businesses, using sports to soothe the anger and resentment of the population during any transition probably will be the key.

Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.

© Troy Media


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