An opportunity to make sports human again: will we take it?
What are we talking about when we talk about sport? Since news about the spread of covid-19 began to pile up, and the whole world was engulfed by the unprecedented erosion of our social lives, we were confronted (albeit not for the first time) with many uncomfortable realities: that our economic systems are dysfunctional, that we are not ready for this, that our ways of life are not sustainable, among many others.
The toughest realization, however, has been that no matter how much people try to differentiate themselves, and hold on to illusions of immunity, we are all interconnected - and vulnerable, as such. We have been made acutely aware of our humanity. But why is this acknowledgement important for sport? Because sport is, essentially, a human phenomenon - and it seems that this has been long forgotten.
As event after event was cancelled, professional leagues suspended their activities, and the sport industry began to feel the financial impact of the covid-19 pandemic, many stakeholders in the sport universe (which stretches well beyond the ‘industry’) began to engage in conversations about what could be expected in the future, the challenges we now face, and how we can prepare for it. What presents itself, though, is not just a challenge that will profoundly alter the business of sport: it is an opportunity to think, carefully, about what sport ecosystem we want to create, not just prepare for. And this starts with how we think and talk about sport.
Much of the wording used to talk about sport nowadays is jargon from the business world, and is indeed accurate to describe the matters pertaining to the sports industry: systems, frameworks, projects, plans, efficiency. This is one of the reasons why we have been left with a feeling that sport itself was brought to a halt, when it is actually the industry that is facing a hiatus.
The communities sport helps build were not brought to a halt; the collectiveness it inspires did not evaporate when in-person gatherings became restricted; for athletes at home, the ‘pursuit of excellence’ did not stop. This is not to say that this impact is not being felt across the spectrum in the sports world; but we must be more conscious of our words so as not to delegitimize the experiences related to sport that are still possible under the current circumstances. For many, this support network that stems from belonging to a sports team, and sports-related virtual encounters are working as a life vest that help them navigate such uncertain and unknown waters. The human bonds that are built through sport transcend the training sessions and competitions, and the way we talk about sport should reflect this understanding that sport brings people together not only literally, but also intangibly - even when circumstances are challenging.
The sports industry names people for their roles in the business: athletes, spectators, fans, coaches, consumers. But the human beings that comprise each category experience sport (and are experiencing this moment) in ways that surpass the role they perform within the industry; many will emerge from this experience altered in ways that exceed the realm of their roles as consumers or producers of sport. So, sport in the world post covid-19 will need to, more than ever, speak to us as humans. And, as humans, what draws us to sport is more than the entertainment it provides, or the spectacle it creates: it is about belonging, about joy, about togetherness, all things that we are so dearly missing right now, and that no other social phenomena can emulate.
Sport, as a human, social phenomenon, is irreplaceable. So why are we not talking about this more? Why are we not priming ourselves to create a future that embraces more of the assets of sport that go beyond the charts and spreadsheets in the sports industry?
For sport and development, then, the covid-19 crisis may present itself as an opportunity to shine a light on and propel that which makes sports so special, and so potent: the fact that sport touches the core of our humanity, and can help launch endless possibilities from it in a world that will certainly be facing enormous, unprecedented challenges.
Marjorie Enya holds a bachelor's degree in History, an MBA in Project Management, and is currently a master's student in the International Olympic Academy. She serves as an athlete representative at the executive board of the Brazilian Rugby Union, was awarded an executive leadership scholarship by World Rugby, and worked in a number of sports mega-events in the past 4 years, including Rio2016 and Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018.