Guest contribution from Christopher Merrett in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa: the sporting question

Runners in the Comrades Marathon

June 9. From the Thornveld: I had expected that lockdown might provide us with blessed relief from pollution, litter, noise – and professional sport. That was naïve. The airwaves and newspaper pages remained saturated with the clichéd thoughts of players, endless speculation about the completion of leagues and resumption of ‘normality’, and truckloads of utter trivia.

Sebastian Coe, head of global athletics, recently spoke of ‘frustration’ that ‘top events’ had no firm dates for resumption and said that athletics might act unilaterally and without approval. His attitude was deplorable; but also self-defeating because national health authorities make the decisions he appears to want to arrogate to himself and they are backed by legislation. But he demonstrates a blatant example of sports hubris fuelled by popular adulation and millions of dollars. And it is the last factor that is behind the agitation for leagues and competitions to resume as soon as possible: big money deals.

Here in KwaZulu-Natal it was not until 8 May that the Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) accepted there would be no race this year between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. Given that it has been blindingly obvious for months that a (perhaps the) main cause of viral infection is human proximity and density, clearly the CMA has been living on another, apparently Covid-19-free, planet. The very essence of the ultra-marathon is mass: the numbers of runners, the packed nature of the start, the race culture of group running, and the exuberant involvement and sociability of spectators (see the photograph above near the end of the 2019 race in Pietermaritzburg). Some of the classic moments of this gruelling race involve runners physically assisting others, particularly at the finish. There’s a very high chance that there will be no race in 2021, the centenary year, either.

One problem according to the CMA was that T-shirts had been printed and goody bags prepared. Sponsors had already coughed up funds, so yet again it all comes back to money. But it goes beyond financing to issues of entitlement and continued refusal to recognise that professional sport is simply a business. Indeed, many critics persuasively argue that it is just another arm of global capital.

Lockdown has cut a swathe of destruction across economies and societies. Many businesses will disappear without trace and hundreds of thousands of people will never work again in the formal sector. Why should professional sport think it is owed any favours; any more than, say, theatres, opera houses or concert halls? Commodified sport produces nothing of lasting value, material or intellectual.

But perhaps the virus and its lockdown will produce a positive outcome. Vast sums of money are locked up in sport courtesy of sponsorship and broadcast rights. In some sports people who have minimal skills beyond dealing with a ball earn enormous salaries and perks. Teams fly endlessly around the world impressing a gigantic carbon footprint. We are told the world will never be the same again. If so, maybe a great deal of this will end and international sport will be cut down to more appropriate dimensions and influence.

From the Thornveld is a site that provides access to writing by Christopher Merrett, a former academic librarian, university administrator and journalist based in Pietermaritzburg. He has written on a wide range of topics – specialising in the past on human rights issues in South Africa, particularly censorship and freedom of expression, and on the politics of sport.

https://www.fromthethornveld.co.za/