Sport: The beckoning frontier for change in a post-COVID-19 world
Sport did not reappear within the context of modern civilisation in order to play a local or temporary role. The mission entrusted to it is universal and timeless.
- Pierre De Coubertin
Recently the English FA warned that COVID-19 was likely to see the demise of football clubs and potentially even whole leagues. In East Africa, pundits and fans alike are pondering whether some sports will survive at all in the region, and in China, whilst the Chinese Super League is largely back at training, a number of foreign players have been reporting that clubs are unable or are delaying the payment of wages. It’s fair to say that COVID-19 is bursting the bubble of sport, that a largely unsustainable industry is unravelling at an alarming rate.
Like it or not, we are one big global sports world, we are all interdependent. The English Premier League boasts players from all over the world, the Olympic Games next year in Tokyo won’t be an Olympic Games if the only competitors are from the most affluent countries on the planet. So, in what is likely to be a protracted period of serious difficulty for even the most well-resourced, we have a collective interest in ensuring that sports’ recovery from this horrible pandemic delivers mutually-assured survival for us all and protects the perennially disadvantaged and under-served.
Amidst a storm of uncertainty, there is the faintest of silver linings within our grasp. If we can pull together and use this most unnatural pause in the unrelenting, introverted focus of regular competition, to reconnect with the greater ideals and values of sport, free from the fog of the daily grind, we have an opportunity to live out a defining moment in the history of sport.
An appetite to return to the status quo in our wider lives is dwindling as the virus pulls the veil and confronts us with the realities of an unjust and unequal society. Amongst other stories, Spanish media were recently reporting that Spain are considering the introduction of Universal Basic Income, the CEO of Twitter has put $1billion towards the fight against coronavirus, but for any leftover funds to be used to redistribute wealth to the neediest. There is a growing yearning for change, a reconnection with optimistic idealism on how we design systems to serve us all and sport must not miss its opportunity to redefine itself and set itself a bold new path in a scary new world.
The jostle for post-virus positioning in sport has already begun, with some countries and sporting entities clearly seeking to build exit velocity.
- Professor Simon Chadwick
A post-COVID-19 planet will likely see a worldwide recession not seen since the World Wars, and a global population coming to terms with astronomical losses, not to mention huge levels of unemployment and the emotional tax from months of instability. For the world of sport to return to the no-compromise, over-funded, over-resourced pursuit of perfection that has become the aspirational modus operandi for sports organisations in the “developed world” seems at best, misguided, at worst, a little vulgar.
We have a collective interest in sport to start considering, start talking about and start designing a future of sport that caters not only to a new world where its very relevancy will likely be questioned, but one that perhaps better lives up to its stated values. Sport has long had the potential as a pioneer for social change and in a world of increasing turmoil and instability, sport is a beckoning frontier for us all; a physical articulation of pure endeavour, sport is where our cumulative efforts can show the power of universal access, of fairness and of equality for the rest of society to follow.
If sport is to wield its hypnotic power for good in a post-COVID-19 world and shine the light on what can be achieved when we all unite behind that yearning deep within all of us for fairness, then this is our time to grasp the baton of responsibility handed down by those who have walked this path long before us; that sport and all it’s opportunities must never become a luxury pastime of a leisured few. It’s time to reform our systems to better distribute genuine opportunity in sport.
In a post-WW1 Europe, the father to the modern Olympic Games; Pierre De Coubertin travelled the ballrooms of the French bourgeois to wax lyrical and raise funds for his vision for the role of sport in society, and amidst what was a period of nigh-on apocalyptic difficulty for many in society, he spoke of sports potential, and its responsibility to play its part in healing a battle weary and grossly unequal society.
It’s time for us to reconnect with those same responsibilities and to give ourselves the very best chance of being able to look back at the impact of sport in the 2020’s not as one that merely celebrated athletic prowess, but one that when the world needed it to step up to a higher calling, answered the call for global unity and for diverse togetherness and delivered an example for the rest of society to follow.
Let us rise up together and make sport what it ought to be, and let the words of Pierre De Coubertin echo through a new generation of athletes, administrators, fans and enthusiasts once more.
Tim Harper is the founder and chief executive of the capacity-building and advocacy charity; equitysport and has spent over a decade working in professional and elite sport across the world. Equitysport exists to tackle socioeconomic inequality and level the playing field in global sport.