Till the Covid-19 pandemic hit us, we never realised the value of the many small yet significant things that occur around us. The idea of living in the moment has suddenly taken precedence over everything else. One day at a time, or maybe one lockdown period at a time is the reality we live in now.
April 14, 2020. The only date that matters for most Indians right now — the end of the [first] lockdown period — is a little over two weeks away. We are counting them down desperately — the privileged ones cocooned in their homes, the less privileged negotiating the harsh highways towards home, wherever that might be. April 14 may bring some respite, everyone hopes. In all likelihood though — looking at the upward curve of the virus in other countries across the globe — a second and possibly third lockdown is a realistic possibility for us 1.3 billion Indians. Still, April 14 is the date that matters right now. Not birthdays, anniversaries, and certainly not a date 14 months away — the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.
July 23, 2021 — the starting date for the rescheduled Tokyo Games announced by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) — is not exactly a date anybody was keenly waiting to know. One is pretty sure this holds true not just for Indians but for everyone out there living under the all-consuming shadow of a global pandemic. It holds true for even athletes. Many are still in preparatory camps, locked down within sanitized training facilities across the country. Their immediate priority is to leave the camps and be with or be there for their families out there fending for themselves.
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The rush to announce the new dates for the Olympic Games do not make sense on several counts, considering the variables that need to be aligned to make it a reality are all in shambles. One is forced to wonder what the factors discussed before hitting upon the dates were. The IOC communications say, the dates — same summer window as this year — not perfect in any sense, were decided after taking into account the challenges ahead. Perhaps they did. But the rush to announce them, when, till a week or so back, the IOC itself was reluctant to acknowledge that the Games need to be postponed, reeks of arrogance, entitlement and privilege more than anything else. It shows that the IOC — a global body founded on ideals that extend its scope of responsibility to socio-economics, and beyond just organising quadrennial Games — has, in fact, belittled itself by limiting it to the role of a mere organiser of sport.
In these times of crisis, the biggest question the ilk of sports journalists which I am part of are trying to answer — partly to ourselves — is the relevance of sport in the larger scheme of things. “Sport seems to be irrelevant these days when people are suffering so much, and everyone is fighting for survival,” said a senior journalist in one of the many chat groups I am part of. The statement triggered an existential debate that stretched across platforms.
Sport’s relevance in society, even in times of unprecedented crisis such as a war, or a multi-front battle against a virus we cannot see or comprehend, is manifold. That is a debate that could and should be reserved for the coming days. That is a debate all stakeholders in sport, including athletes and organisers, should indulge in, introspect, and act. However, acts utterly removed from reality such as what the IOC has indulged in, will make the task of standing up and fighting for sport — an important part of human history, evolution, survival and well being — much more difficult.
The IOC was always reluctant to acknowledge the global pandemic when the whole world was shutting down, bracing for impact. Its reluctance to take a call on postponing the Games is understandable given the kind of money at stake. Then again, won’t everyone take a hit regardless of the Games given by the way things are at the moment?
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The IOC’s delay also meant that several athletes in training never received clarity and ended up in what can only be termed as detention, when they could have reached the places they wanted to be much before lockdown and travel restrictions were put in place. IOC president Thomas Bach, in his speech announcing the postponement, expressed concern for the athletes’ well being and also stressed that this would give them clarity and peace of mind. Well sir, it was a tad late for that.
The same reasoning — clarity — has been used now while announcing the new dates. It needs to be remembered that the IOC was initially planning to take a call on the fate of the 2020 Games by May. They had repeatedly stressed on sticking to that deadline, till Canada and Australia pulled out, and a Great Britain boycott was anticipated. Heat reached the higher echelons of the hallowed building of the Olympic movement in Lausanne. They acted first. But one still cannot make sense of the rush in coming out with the new dates for next year’s summer within a week, a good three weeks before the original deadline the global body had set itself to decide on this summer’s Games.
One can understand that the Games organisers, given the stature and magnitude of the event, need a lot of time to realign things. One would love to give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they need 14 months to plan and act. However, in the coming months, won’t the Japanese government, or any government or private entity for that matter, be using the resources at its disposal to shore up its fight against the virus? Or will they get back into working towards the summer Games of July-August 2021?
The most important factor that is being spoken about in the sports establishment at the moment is ways to work the calendar around the rescheduled Olympic Games. There were many world championships set for 2021. Everyone has to reschedule. But logic, and more importantly prudence, at the moment dictates that the only schedule that one should be taking into account while making plans for the future is that of the virus. And nobody seems to know where things are headed.
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Every morning for the past few weeks, the first thing one does after waking up is Google ‘Covid-19 vaccine’, trying to get information on the status of the research towards it. They say, it is a good 18 months away. Maybe fast-tracked, it would be a year away. But to place a global safety net would take much more time. That date, or rather time frame is important since till then, the only possible way to keep things safe is to avoid congregations, mass gatherings, sporting extravaganzas. The other hope, of course, is that the virus will run a natural course and subside, owing to the less than stable nature inherent to Coronaviruses. The SARS or MERS followed that pattern but were much less in reach compared to Covid-19. Fingers crossed on that, though.
The IOC, after making its decision, looks set to have their collective fingers — in quite a lot of different pies — crossed as well. It is clear that Mr. Bach, in his rush to set dates and deadlines, has not taken into account, once again, the ground reality.
Does sport matter in these days of fight? Does it take precedence over healthcare, over life and death, and the sad choices professionals — trained to save lives — are making: Who gets to live, who doesn’t. Sport does, of course, but not in the ways IOC envisages it would.
Does the Olympic movement matter? It does too. But, in the past two decades or so, we have also seen the Olympic movement, the IOC, diluting itself to cater to the demands of the market. A game of survival, in tune with the realities and demands of world economics. In doing so however, it has ended up diluting its take on what sport stands for.
For the honchos of the IOC, just like many people across the world including the professional setup this writer is part of, sport has become a consumable spectacle. However, it is quite the contrary for many involved and invested deeply in sport. Community football clubs for instance, or athletes and the immediate world they are part of. For them sport holds a higher significance and value. It holds hope and promise. Be it for the children of prostitutes playing football for a club in the red light area of Sonagachi in Kolkata, or the hockey players coming out of tribal belts in Jharkhand and Odisha, the meaning of sport is laden with such humanistic and social ideals. Small things such as hope...
It is the same hope and promise the IOC markets itself with, though acting contrary to the spirit in every other way. At this point, one, again as someone who was invested in travelling to Tokyo to cover the Games, and also as someone connected with many whose dreams centred around this edition, I hope for the best.
But, it is also a reality that things are not as easy as shuffling schedules right now. The IOC seems to be too caught up in its own set of priorities. And that is dangerous not just for itself but for sport as a whole. Irrelevance after all, they say, is much worse than death!
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