Global sports face ‘unprecedented’ test amid coronavirus outbreak

The global sporting calendar is in disarray amid virus fears, with dozens of events cancelled, postponed or relocated.

Corona Sports
Organisers of the Tokyo Marathon reduced the number of participants out of fear of the spread of the coronavirus [Shuji Kajiyama/AP]

Dozens of international sport events have been cancelled or postponed around the world amid an outbreak of a new type of coronavirus. The pathogen’s effect has been felt across a range of sports – from athletics, rugby and golf to football, tennis and motorsports.

The epidemic, which began in China in late December, has plunged the global sporting calendar into disarray and cast a shadow over preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Qualifiers for the Summer Games in Japan are among a growing list of competitions either pushed back or relocated because of the virus.

“In the modern era, this virus has created what is fast becoming an unprecedented situation,” said Simon Chadwick, director of the Centre for the Eurasian Sport Industry.

“Sport has been beset over the last three or four decades by drug bans and boycotts, though nothing matches the scale of the coronavirus … With every match or event cancelled, the industry’s economic impact is undermined; revenues from ticket sales being hit; apparel and sportswear sales are down. For modern commercial sport, there has never been anything like this,” he told Al Jazeera.

“It is a test for leaders and managers working in the industry, but also for athletes and participants.”

The virus has now infected more than 90,000 people and killed 3,000, the vast majority in China. Some governments responded to the outbreak by banning travel to and from China and denying entry to foreign nationals who had visited the country.

The travel restrictions hit China’s athletes badly, affecting their ability to travel for competition.

Women's Olympic Football Tournament Qualifier - Australia v China PR
The Chinese women’s football team was kept in isolation in their hotel upon their arrival to Australia for the Olympic qualifying tournament in February [Mark Evans/Getty Images]

The Chinese gymnastics team was forced to pull out of the World Cup in Melbourne last month because of an Australian ban on foreign nationals travelling from China and despite none of the delegation showing symptoms.

China’s men’s tennis team also withdrew from the Davis Cup World Group I tie against Romania, scheduled for March 6-7 in the eastern Romanian city of Piatra Neamt, due to similar restrictions.

Chinese tennis star Saisai Zheng, said she was saddened for her fellow athletes in China. Speaking at a news conference at the Qatar Total Open in Doha on Wednesday, the 26-year-old said she has been able to attend tournaments as she was already on the road when the outbreak was declared a global health emergency in January. 

“Every day you see some news, it’s pretty sad,” the 34th-ranked Zheng said. “Many [Chinese] athletes were working pretty hard, and right now the situation is they can only stay home.”

The outbreak has also disrupted several sport events in China.

The World Athletics Indoor Championships, a key warm-up event for track and field Olympic athletes, was due to be held in the Chinese city of Nanjing from March 13-15 but has been postponed to next year.

The F1 Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai will no longer take place on April 19 and no alternative date has been set.

Besides athletes and organisers in China, sports businesses and manufacturers have also been affected.

Du Mingrui, founder and CEO of zx42195, the biggest running tour and registration company in China, said he has lost at least $1m in business. He said his factories in China’s capital, Beijing – which produce medals, t-shirts and other merchandise for more than 70 races around the world – were forced shut for more than three weeks because of the epidemic.

“We had to cancel most of our registrations [more than 2,000] for the first half of the year,” he told Al Jazeera. “We understand the situation… money is nothing now. The most important [thing] is that we finish this disaster first.”

General view of the hall during Asia and Oceania boxing qualifiers for Tokyo 2020 Olympics at the Prince Hamzah Hall in Amman
The Asia and Oceania boxing qualifiers for Tokyo 2020 Olympics were moved from Wuhan, China to Amman, Jordan [Muhammad Hamed/Reuters]

In South Korea, which has the highest number of reported cases outside of China, some athletes are being forced to train in isolation. The country has 5,328 cases and at least 28 deaths.

The national training centre in Jincheon remains locked down, as part of the country’s prevention measures, with athletes training inside.

“We were lucky enough to dispatch our top athletes to an overseas training camp in Australia in the middle of February,” Younghoon Chung, performance and development section chief at the South Korean athletics federation, told Al Jazeera.

“[But] the sprint team and others on the national team .. are affected domestically because of the coronavirus issue,” he said in a phone interview from the capital, Seoul. “Nobody can move out [of the national training centre], they can only train inside … and outsiders, teams that we wanted to join the national team for a joint training camp, they cannot any more.”

The virus has also plagued European football.

Several games in Italy’s Serie A have been postponed after hundreds of cases were detected in the country, while some English clubs have banned players from shaking hands at their training grounds. Switzerland’s top league has also been put on hold until at least March 23, after clubs rejected the possibility of playing behind closed doors.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino also raised the possibility of cancelling international matches this month.

“The health of people is more important than any football game and anything else,” the head of football’s world governing body told reporters in Ireland on Friday. “For the moment, it looks like it [coronavirus] is increasing. If games have to be postponed or played without spectators for a period of time until it’s over, well, then we have to do that.”

In Japan, which has 293 confirmed cases and 12 deaths, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called for the cancellation, postponement and reduction in size of large sports events in the country in a bid to contain the virus.

The Tokyo Marathon, which usually attracts more than 30,000 runners, was a low-key event with few spectators on Sunday after organisers restricted the race to only 200 elite runners.

“It’s disappointing, but there’s nothing much you can do,” said Canadian-Pakistani runner Ziyad Rahim, who was forced to cancel his plans to run in the Japanese capital. The 46-year-old Doha resident had been aiming to complete his set of six world marathon majors in Tokyo, as well run the Great Wall Marathon in May, which has also been cancelled.

“I think the people who are affected more are the organisers. But at the end of the day, everybody lost. I can’t see people gaining from this,” he said.

As the outbreak expands, there are increasing fears that the virus could hamper the Tokyo Olympics.

Japan’s Olympic minister Seiko Hashimoto indicated on Tuesday that Tokyo could be allowed to postpone the Games to later in the year, according to its contract with the International Olympic Committee. But the IOC has reiterated its “full commitment” to staging the Games as per schedule from July 24 to August 9.

“The IOC is in contact with the World Health Organization (WHO), as well as its own medical experts. Preparations for Tokyo 2020 continue as planned,” the Olympic body said in a statement. The WHO has advised that travel and trade restrictions are not necessary.

Amid the uncertainty, Chadwick of the Centre for the Eurasian Sport Industry said the sport industry was “suffering”.

He added: “Even when sport has escaped the grip of coronavirus, it may take the industry as a whole some years to recover the economic and financial damage.”

Follow Saba Aziz on Twitter: @saba_aziz

Source: Al Jazeera