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Fear and uncertainty grip sports due to Covid-19 outbreak

There is nothing normal about life under the coronavirus. That fact didn’t make the meeting between stakeholders at the department of sports, arts and culture this week any less surreal.

Here sat the sector’s most powerful men and women, people we have emboldened with the responsibility of overseeing our most beloved pastimes. In attendance were a few members of the media — those tasked with holding these powerful men and women to account. Yet everybody in that room now faced a common enemy; an enemy that no one, regardless of prestige or position, knows exactly how to fight.

Almost everyone had concerns and questions and there was a collective hope that Minister Nathi Mthethwa — the convenor of the meeting — might be able to provide some answers. He had very few.

In the aftermath of the meeting it has become clear that it is up to the country’s federations to map the way forward. And, make no mistake, it is a crisis of the highest order. For as much as the popular refrain positions sport as secondary to our wellbeing — which yes, is unquestionable — there is the human factor that we too often turn our backs on.

Even if for a second we ignore the hundreds of millions of rand set to be lost by the major governing bodies, we must still consider the most vulnerable members of the sector, who now face job losses and an indefinite suspension of income.

What about the boxer who earns his living fight-to-fight? Or the referee who is paid a salary to officiate third-tier games?

Over the coming days, our administrators will have to find answers to countless such questions and undertake the unenviable task of working out how to reduce the effect of Covid-19 on their sectors, while playing their part to minimise its spread.

“This crisis has the potential to bankrupt some of our federation,” said South African Rugby Union (Saru) president Mark Alexander.

“When it comes to broadcasters and sponsors, we are losing tens of millions of rands per week.”

With Super Rugby suspended, franchises across the country are expected to incur huge financial losses. Saru, as well as Australian and New Zealand authorities, are deliberating on potential ways that local derbies can be held to keep the action going and possibly preserve some of the lost TV revenue.

Cricketing bosses, meanwhile, consider themselves fortunate that the domestic season was coming to an end by the time it was decided to suspend the sport for 60 days.

Aside from the visit by the Australian women, there were no significant tours planned either, meaning the monetary losses should be minimal — for now. That will all change should the pandemic not relent before winter’s end.

“To give an idea of the financial impact,” said acting Cricket South Africa chief executive Jacques Faul,“India is scheduled to play three T20 matches on 21, 22 and 26 of August. Should that not happen, we will lose R150-million.

“We generate between 55% and 65% of our income through a lens [TV rights] and the majority of that is incoming tours from India. So it is significant for us. We’ve got outgoing tours to India and West Indies, which will be on hold.” 

Olympic uncertainty

As dire as the situation may become, many sports administrators competitors can take solace from the fact that most of their international colleagues are similarly relieving themselves of an obligation to travel. Not so for those athletes hoping to go to the Olympics.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has refused to publicly entertain ideas that it could postpone the quadrennial showpiece slated to begin in Tokyo in July. The refusal to budge has left athletes around the world unsure and confused about to how to prepare. South Africa is no different.

“We have got so many athletes that have already qualified for the Olympics,” Athletics South Africa president Aleck Skhosana said.

“So we need to decide on a quarantine centre for the Olympic athletes and coaches. Whether the Olympics will take place or not; whether we will have a state of emergency.

“We cannot allow athletes to be scattered all over. We need to come up with a strategy.”

The South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) has also said that it will look into the idea of setting up a special quarantine centre to allow athletes to prepare adequately for Tokyo. 

“I have seen that some facilities have been closed, so athletes training for the Olympics are wondering where to go,” said Sascoc executive Debbie Alexander.

“How do we make it possible for our athletes to train? I do know that other nations have camps where these athletes are in quarantine and that’s all they’re doing.”

Access to training is only half of the issue, however. There remain many potential Olympians and Paralympians who are yet to qualify (or to be classified) and were hoping to do so in upcoming events around the world — mainly in Europe, the new epicentre of Covid-19. How either the IOC or South African authorities intend to solve that crucial problem is unclear at the moment, but both have promised that it is an issue that is being discussed.

“It’s a challenge for us,” said Alexander. “We need to look after the citizens of our country and take all the precautions that we need to take, but the athletes are keen to continue training and doing what they need to do. So it’s a conflict and a little bit of a challenge for them.”

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Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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