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/

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: Winter tennis and a daytime koala

Kensington Gardens Tennis Club in Adelaide

June 11. Our winter tennis competition started today, almost two months late. Its a more casual affair than our summer grass-court competition and is played in my local park about 3 kms from our home. We play 3 sets, first to 9. Surrounding the courts is a veritable forest of old eucalypts – most of them being the enormous and long-living River Red gums or Eucalyptus camaldulensis. A winter-rain river runs through the park and a new wetland is being planned in order to slow the river and clean its waters before they reach the Gulf of St Vincent.

Everyone was excited to start our tennis once more. Maybe even more so on a glorious sunny day with the temperature at 16o C. I stripped down to a tee-shirt. There is a greater sense that we are getting back to normal. What remains to be done is to open the state borders. West and South Australia, the NT and Queensland are reluctant as a few new virus cases are popping up in the most populous states of Victoria and NSW (7 overnight). Some of the cases are people in quarantine, newly arrived from overseas. Once our state borders are open, New Zealand’s government is considering a travel ‘bubble’ with Australia. Australians love travel and the snow fields around Queenstown in South Island, New Zealand are popular. They have real mountains there.

On the way to tennis I encountered a koala on the move. They seldom walk in the daytime. These are their hours of relaxation in a fork of a tree. This one was loping up the driveway in that strangely uncomfortable gait they have. The back legs look almost malformed and they have a grey patch of fur on their behinds. But once the animal reached a tree trunk it leapt up in bounds and I realised why HE was on the move. A female koala was perched on the next tree. The males smell the tree trunks to check on local ladies and this chap was hot on her trail. At night, we often hear the males proclaiming their territories. The sound is similar to a donkey braying. Not pretty.

We can start making plans once more: for lunches at local restaurants; for trips with my husband’s geology club to the Flinders Ranges in August; for our walking group to plan excursions and for more bridge sessions. What we are not planning is to apply for the 2,000 tickets for this weekend’s footy clash, or ‘Showdown’ of our two AFL clubs: the Crows and the Port Adelaide Footy Club. Even if we wanted to go, the tickets are in extremely short supply. Only 2,200 socially-distancing people will attend at the Adelaide Oval which seats 53,000+. But the show is starting….

from John T. in Brighton, UK: the obliteration of sport …

“I’m gutted” to dip into my football lexicon. I’ve been pre-empted to borrow from the bridge equivalent. For a while I’ve been thinking about another blog and earmarked this one specifically for today for one good reason. Then in yesterday’s Observer Kenan Malik nicks my thunder with an excellent article on a similar theme – corona and sport. Apart from trundling around on my bike my sporting base is largely block W1G at The Amex aka Brighton and Hove Albion, the boundary at Hove or an armchair. In the flesh is so much more atmospheric – my brother could watch England rugby on terrestrial telly but will happily travel from Cornwall to Twickers as a day out with adrenaline flowing, euphoria or dismay both mitigated by a pint or two ….of champers or beer depending on the outcome.

As a season ticket holder I’m sure that our first response as the fixture list comes out is to look for the zingers, the not-to-be-missed and for some at Brighton that would be arch rivals Crystal Palace but for me it’s Liverpool as a club that’s had a cachet for as long as I can remember. Bill Shankly was not only a great manager but had the odd pithy comment in his broad Scottish brogue perhaps most famously declaring football more important than life or death. His current counterpart Jurgen Klopp was perhaps closer to the truth as the coronavirus took a hold “football is the most important of the least important things but today football isn’t important at all”. Great teams over the years but has there been one better than the present –  World club champions, European champions and now 25 points clear at the top of The Premiership?

To borrow a much used word of late, that’s unprecedented. Why specifically today for the blog as alluded to above? Well as Rod Stewart sang “Tonight’s the Night” …or at least it should have been. I should have been at The Amex for an 8pm kick off to watch first hand the brilliant team and their charismatic manager, no rain and perfect conditions – today it doesn’t feel like it’s not important but of course it is in reality. 

And there’s something even bigger about Liverpool and a key feature of sport that we are missing. The crowd, the social side, it’s like a family – we celebrate the highs together and commiserate as we drift towards the dreaded “bottom three”. Congratulations to Michael Ball and Captain Tom on reaching the top with “You’ll Never Walk Alone” but I’m afraid it will never top the Kop’s version in full voice. The Anfield anthem sends a shiver down the spine. I wish we had a song …so I started to write one:

Beware, before the season’s throu’

The mighty Seagulls will shit on you.

But they won’t – we lose more games than we win. And the BBC would probably ban us. So I gave up.

It’s not just a social event. Sport is an escape whereby for a few hours the mundane and the stress moves to the back-burner. A couple of hours watching Sussex cricket is so much more peaceful and genteel but has a remarkable calming effect lacking , at least for me, the passion that accompanies football. Willow on leather and some gentle applause is almost Ye Olde England. And it’s a chance to witness the thoroughbreds playing at a high level  – those who achieved what we might have aspired to but quickly realised was never to be. The Open golf comes South once every five to ten years and for the first time ever I have a ticket for Day 1 at Sandwich but I’ve no doubt it’ll be cancelled. Surely watching the very best golfers in the World will clarify why they make the game look ridiculously easy whilst us hackers tack from rough to rough and three putt to boot.

And then sport offers the chance to express a bit of national pride. For years we waited for a British winner at Wimbledon only to meet a debate as to whether strictly speaking Andy wasn’t one of us – he’s Scottish so keep your hands off him you Sassenachs. Will it happen again in my lifetime I wonder, certainly not this year thanks to corona? And of course The Olympics, arguably the pinnacle of international sport, has been postponed for a year.

So there it is the buzz, the highs and lows, the social contacts of sport knocked out (boxing is one sport I eschew) not by a hunky muscleman or a nifty sprinter but by a spiky little ball (that’s as near as it gets to sport) of genetic material coated in lipid and a mere 80-billionth of a metre diameter.  As Kipling said :

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster 

And treat those two impostors just the same

For many of us the obliteration of sport feels like a disaster and we can but hope that a vaccine will kick the virus into touch and the good days and evenings resume before too long but I’m not optimistic.