The sporting world displays resilience to overcome Covid-19 pandemic challenges

This is the ninth of 12 primers on current affairs issues under the news outreach programme by The Straits Times and the Ministry of Education.

Japan’s high jumper Ryoichi Akamatsu during a test event for the Tokyo Olympics in Tokyo on May 9, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

Since the modern Olympic Games began in 1896, the quadrennial competition has been cancelled only thrice in 1916, 1940 and 1944 - all three cases due to a World War.

More than seven decades after the last Games was called off, it has once again come under threat, this time because of the Covid-19 crisis.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics was postponed until this year but even then, there were doubts over whether it would take place as the pandemic raged on.

But months of mental anguish over whether it would proceed seem to be coming to an end as athletes have begun arriving in the Japanese capital for the July 23 to Aug 8 spectacle.

It will be held under very different circumstances though, with an extensive list of Covid-19 protocols as Japan prepares to host about 15,500 athletes for the Olympics and Paralympics.

These measures include a daily testing regime for athletes and the mandatory wearing of a mask in most situations. No international or local fans will be at the Games as organisers agreed to hold it behind closed doors under a Covid-19 state of emergency.

The Summer Games is just one of the many major events that have returned to the international sports calendar after the coronavirus wreaked havoc and halted competitions around the globe last year.

Everyone loves a great comeback story in sport and it was no different this time as the sporting world found ways to bounce back amid the pandemic.

Football's Euro 2020 finally kicked off on June 11, nearly a year after its original start date, and was played across 11 cities with thousands of fans flocking to stadiums to support their national teams, thanks to vaccines and Covid-19 testing.

Before that, competitions like basketball's National Basketball Association (NBA) adapted to operate in this new normal.

After it was suspended in March last year, the NBA returned last July and was held in a bubble environment at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, until the season concluded in October.

For many of the players, coaches and staff from the league's 22 teams, as well as league staff and media members, that meant spending months away from home.

Persisting through the pandemic

While the season wrapped up successfully without a single positive coronavirus case, being confined in the bubble for several months came with its own challenges.

Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma described it as being "like prison" and said: "You couldn't leave. We only ate about three or four of the same meals every single day for three months and we didn't see family. So that was really tough."

For other athletes, navigating uncertain waters in the middle of a global pandemic proved to be a true test of their mental grit.

The postponement of the Tokyo Games forced tens of thousands of athletes who were gunning for the Olympics and Paralympics to put their lives on hold for another year.

Yet, that did not deter athletes from training and they found ways to get around Covid-19 restrictions, especially when the virus put many parts of the world into lockdown.

During Singapore's circuit breaker last year, which lasted from April 7 to June 1, national paddler Yu Mengyu's sparring partner was a multi-ball machine that served balls to her at different speeds.

While training remotely, national shuttler Loh Kean Yew hit the shuttlecock against a wall at his void deck and also used a BlazePod, a smart light-based reflex training system, to fine-tune his reaction time and agility.

As long as there was a chance that the Olympics would go on, national rower Joan Poh never gave up on her dream to qualify for the Games. Even if that meant that the nurse, 30, had to put in 20 hours of training per week while juggling eight- to 10-hour shifts at Tan Tock Seng Hospital for several months.

Poh, who eventually earned her ticket to Tokyo in May, said: "If you'd stopped training because you thought it may not happen, you may have missed this train."

Coming together in trying times

Even when sport came to a standstill last year, it remained a global unifier.

NBA stars such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Zion Williamson and Blake Griffin donated thousands of dollars to employees at basketball arenas missing out on pay when the competition was suspended last year. It showed that even off the court, sport stars can exemplify fairness, a value many prize all the more today in a world riven by inequality.

Social activism also dominated the sports world last year.

Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford started a campaign to end child food poverty, successfully lobbying the British government to continue providing free school meals for children over the summer holidays.

Many athletes also took a stand against racism, showing their support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

And fans around the globe were thrilled when live sport action returned, even if they could only watch it on television as many competitions were held behind closed doors.

The restart of football's Bundesliga in Germany in May after a two-month hiatus drew record TV viewership as over six million domestic viewers - a record for broadcasters Sky - tuned in to the first game between Borussia Dortmund and Schalke.

With Major League Baseball on hold, Americans turned to South Korea and Taiwan for their baseball fix, catching games in the wee hours.

Fans were eager for the return of professional sport and so were league executives and team owners, but for very different reasons.

With each game or event that was cancelled, revenue from broadcasting deals, sponsorships and match tickets were impacted severely.

Financial incentive

While there were public health concerns over the Tokyo Games proceeding, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) remained adamant that the Games would go on and that was partly down to the fact that billions of dollars were on the line.

Japan had already pumped in US$15.4 billion (S$20.7 billion), including an additional US$3 billion incurred because of the one-year delay, while the IOC could also stand to lose US$4 billion in TV rights income - 73 per cent of the organisation's revenue - if the Games does not take place.

Ensuring that competitions go forward is one way to mitigate the financial losses, especially since major sports leagues and teams have already been hit hard by the pandemic.

If Europe's top five football leagues - the English Premier League, Spain's La Liga, the Bundesliga, Italy's Serie A and France's Ligue 1 - had not been able to restart their suspended seasons last year, they could have lost as much as €4 billion (S$6.4 billion) in combined revenue, a report by auditing firm KPMG said.

A follow-up report by KPMG estimates that the top six football leagues would lose over €5 billion in operating revenues over the 2019/20 and 2020/21 seasons.

Sports in a post-pandemic world

Recovering from the impact of the pandemic may take a while, but there is a glimmer of hope as fans begin to fill sports venues around the world again.

But even as some semblance of normalcy returns, sports in this new world may not be exactly as it was a year and a half ago.

Just as how competitions were staged differently like the NBA's bubble environment, fans' experiences have also changed.

Technology now plays a much bigger role in the way fans experience sport.

Vaccine passports, which are digital certifications to confirm inoculations against the coronavirus, are being used at some events to determine whether one can be allowed into a venue.

In the United States, sport has been undergoing a digital transformation as teams are speeding up the transition to mobile ticketing and cashless payments at venues.

They have also been reassessing ticket prices and offering fans a variety of ticket packages in order to enrich the fan experience.

In many stadiums across the world, crowds have returned in the thousands after last year's Covid-19 interlude to share in the drama with their beloved teams and athletes. It is a small bit of normalcy, reminding us that the show must go on and an important lesson in perseverance in these uncertain times.

The Singapore perspective

When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, the local fitness industry, which had been enjoying significant growth in recent years, was badly hit.

Measures aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus forced gyms and fitness studios to operate at a reduced capacity. There were times, such as during the circuit breaker, when they had to halt operations temporarily.

The effects of the pandemic were also felt by thousands of student-athletes who were left disappointed when the National School Games (NSG) were axed for the second consecutive year.

After the annual school competition was cancelled last year - the first time in its 61-year history - things seemed to look up in March when the NSG returned, although it featured just 12 of the competition's 29 sports.

But a spike in community cases brought the A Division competitions for badminton, tennis, volleyball and table tennis to an abrupt halt in May, before the competition was eventually called off.

Meanwhile, in what has been a trying time for the sports and fitness industry, some retailers have thrived. With gyms closed, demand for home workout equipment skyrocketed.

Since the pandemic struck, outdoor activities such as running, cycling and hiking have become popular pastimes for many here. Brompton folding bikes are being advertised online for as much as $8,000, more than triple the price at retail stores which have a long waiting list.

For some, exercise was a respite from work as working from home became the default.

A Virgin Active Singapore survey of 1,000 adults showed that nine in 10 respondents defined happiness as leading a healthy lifestyle, with 96 per cent saying that being active had a positive impact on them mentally, physically and emotionally.

The industry itself has pivoted to cope. Hybrid events and training programmes, which involve a mix of virtual and in-person components, have become commonplace in the Covid-19 era.

Last year, the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon, which regularly attracted about 50,000 runners, incorporated a virtual race and featured augmented reality for the first time. It drew over 12,000 entrants, with about 37 per cent participants from overseas.

The pandemic wiped out several marquee events on Singapore's sports calendar such as the Singapore Grand Prix last year, but since live sport returned here last October, the country has successfully staged major events.

These include the Singapore Tennis Open, several One Championship mixed martial arts fights, the HSBC women's golf competition as well as three international e-sports tournaments, including the US$2 million (S$2.7 million) Free Fire World Series in May.

  • About The Straits Times-Ministry of Education News Outreach Programme

    For 12 Mondays until Aug 2, in the Opinion section, this paper's journalists will address burning questions, offering Singaporean perspectives on complex issues.

    The primer articles are part of The Straits Times-Ministry of Education News Outreach Programme which aims to promote an understanding of local and global issues among pre-university students.

    The primers will broach contemporary topics, such as the future of work and evolving global supply chains. Other issues include the economics of modern cities and Singapore's blueprint for green development.

    Each primer topic will give a local perspective to help students draw links to the issues' implications for Singaporeans.

    This programme is jointly organised by The Straits Times and the Ministry of Education.

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