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Explained: Why sport will continue to be played in Covid-19 shadow in 2021

These developments are a reminder that although the world has said goodbye to 2020, the complications it saw will spill over into 2021, meaning sport might not be the same at least in the near future.

Written by Mihir Vasavda , Edited by Explained Desk | Mumbai | Updated: January 6, 2021 8:39:48 am
Why sport will continue to be played in Covid-19 shadow in 2021The American Express Community Stadium, Brighton, Britain, on September 14, 2020. Last month, 2,500 fans were allowed inside the stadium to view a pre-season friendly between Brighton and Hove Albion and Chelsea. (Photo: Pool via Reuters/Richard Heathcote)

The New Year has arrived, and so have the vaccines. The dual dose had instilled a sense of optimism that things will magically change, fans will soon start flocking to the stadiums, and there will be a semblance of the old normal in this new world. But as thousands of athletes across the globe and organisers of major events are experiencing, the situation on the ground is belying the hope floating on the surface.

The reality hit hard when the year’s first tennis Grand Slam, the Australian Open, was postponed by three weeks because of the pandemic. Close on the heels of that decision, Japan temporarily stopped athletes from entering the country because of the new coronavirus variant. And China imposed a travel ban on its sportspersons as the government, according to the Olympic Channel, adopted strict measures to avoid a surge in cases.

These developments are a reminder that although the world has said goodbye to 2020, the complications it saw will spill over into 2021, meaning sport might not be the same at least in the near future.

Here is how some of the major events, which were impacted last year because of the pandemic, will be held this year – conditions apply.

The Tokyo Olympics

Dates: July 23 to August 9

What is known for sure so far is that the opening ceremony will be scaled down, athletes will be advised to come as late and leave as early as possible, their movement will be restricted inside the Games Village, and the budget has inflated by a couple of billion dollars. It’s not known whether there will be fans inside the stadiums – and if yes, how many.

All this can lead one to believe that the Games will certainly take place on the new dates, from July 23 to August 9. But it isn’t so straightforward, as the organisers are faced with challenges on multiple fronts.

The biggest of them relates to the completion of the qualification process.

When sports events came to a grinding halt last March, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said that 57 per cent of the roughly 11,000 athletes expected to take part in the Games had made the cut. There are six months to ensure the remaining 43 per cent, close to 4,700 athletes, get a fair chance to qualify.

Only four sports – cycling, equestrian, hockey and softball – have completed their qualifying process so far. In the remaining 29, the timelines have been extended and the system modified. But the prevailing travel restrictions mean it is still not clear if a lot of these sports will be able to finish their processes in time.

The Japanese government’s decision on Thursday to suspend entry for athletes and team officials travelling from countries that have reported cases of the new variant of the coronavirus has also added to the uncertainty. The decision comes at a time when there has been a spike in the number of cases in Tokyo.
Some of the host towns – the cities where visiting athletes, including some from India, were to train and get acclimatised before the Games – have also raised health and safety concerns, fearing that the athletes might be travelling from Covid hotspots.

Organising committee president Yoshiro Mori has made it clear that the Games cannot be postponed again. They will, instead, be cancelled altogether. The availability of vaccines (the IOC has suggested they would cover some of the vaccination costs) has raised hopes that the Tokyo Olympics will happen. The question is how will the Games look.

One way or another, it is expected that the fate of the Games will be known by March.

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IPL & T20 World Cup

Dates: IPL – March/April to May; T20 World Cup – October/November

A bio-bubble is evidently an answer to the challenges vis-à-vis bilateral cricket series but for multi-team tournaments like the IPL and T20 World Cup, which also involve players from different countries, the solution isn’t so simple.

Unlike last year, it seems certain this time that the IPL will be played in its original window from March-April. Like last year, however, it is uncertain right now if the tournament will be held in India or abroad, and whether the matches will be played in empty stadiums.

In its recent Standard Operating Procedure, the government said spectators will be allowed for outdoor sports up to 50 per cent of the stadium’s capacity. While that would mean the franchises could earn something from ticket sales, it is feared that the players and officials would be exposed to the virus because of the non-stop travel between the eight host cities during the tournament.

One option on the table is to hold the entire tournament in a city like Mumbai, which has four venues capable of hosting matches. The other tried-and-tested solution is to hold the tournament in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) again. It is learnt that the franchises are not averse to the second option as it saved a lot of money and energy spent on travelling.

More importantly, all 30,000-plus tests carried out during the 2020 tournament for 1,800 individuals returned negative, which has given the teams the confidence in the bio-secure environment that was set up in the UAE.

Travel restrictions and quarantine protocols would also decide how and where the Twenty20 World Cup would take place, given that these were the reasons the tournament was postponed last year. There is optimism that it will be held this year, especially because it is scheduled for later in the year, by when more vaccines are likely to be available.

European Football Championships

Dates: June 11 to July 11

In the middle of the pandemic, the Euros will be held in a pandemic-unfriendly format. The tournament will be staged in 12 cities across the continent, with teams having to travel from one country to another after nearly every match.

And while that might not be ideal, what has also added to the intrigue is the recent spurt in cases in England. There were record numbers of Covid-positive cases in the latest round of testing in the English Premier League, leading to calls to suspend the league for a short duration.

The Premier League – where a lot of star players ply their trade – is scheduled to conclude on May 23, just in time for the Euros. The organisers kept a few buffer days, foreseeing a scenario where some of the games could be postponed due to Covid-19. That happened in December when two matches were called off.

But if more matches are rescheduled, or if the league is temporarily suspended, it could have a domino effect on other tournaments as there are very few free days available in an already-congested calendar that is punishing on the players.

Things would get further complicated if a similar situation plays out in other countries as well.

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