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SINGAPORE — Pete Townshend, guitarist of legendary rock band The Who, once said, “Rock and roll is very, very important. It is also very, very ridiculous.”
That quote summed up his lifelong passion. On the one hand, rock and roll music is a powerful social and cultural phenomenon, capable of lifting people’s spirits and inspiring positive movements that make the world a better place to live in.
On the other hand, it can also spawn mindless dancing, pointless adulation of rock stars, and senseless anti-social behaviour. Ridiculous, indeed.
What Townshend said about rock and roll, the same can be said for sports. It is a social phenomenon that can be incredibly uplifting, yet utterly inane.
Just think: 22 men chasing a ball for 90 minutes, and billions around the world pay to watch that? Yes, that’s football.
And with the world being consumed by the battle against the COVID-19 coronavirus, sports seems less and less important – and more and more ridiculous by the minute.
This is the reality that is facing the organisers of major sporting competitions around the globe: the sooner they realise that their events are becoming increasingly ludicrous under the shadow of COVID-19, the better.
Finally, IOC comes to its senses
In fact, the biggest organiser of them all has finally coming to its senses.
How the International Olympic Committee (IOC) managed to resist calls to postpone the 2020 Tokyo Olympics for weeks, hoping beyond hope that somehow the COVID-19 pandemic would die down by July and everyone would be happy enough to enjoy the Games, is a perfect example of the ridiculousness of sports.
Did it believe that the Olympics is so important to humanity that it would be able to lift the spirits of the world during this health crisis? Or did it believe that, after spending billions over the past seven years in organising this sports fiesta, no one in the world would want to see the money flushed down the drain?
Whatever the IOC was thinking, the sporting world has resoundingly responded, with countries pulling out of the Tokyo Games (kudos, Canada) and sports bodies urging postponement as their athletes struggle with daily disruptions to their training regimes.
Nothing dispels delusion quite as effectively as outcry within the ranks.
Yet, even after athletes, sports officials and IOC members voiced their strong objection to holding the Olympics on its original 24 July opening date, the IOC still hesitated on its next move, saying it needs about a month to officially decide its next course of action.
Presumably, it needs that period of time to appease the television networks that paid millions in rights money for the 17-day broadcast of the Games; or to placate the myriad of sponsors who also paid millions to have their ads plastered along with those live TV telecasts; or to sort out any costly legal wrangles with Japan for not being able to deliver the global spectacle.
Meanwhile, it ignores its biggest, most prized commodity – the athletes eager to showcase their sporting prowess – who remain in the dark over whether they should resume intensive training, or stay at home to stop the spread of the virus.
But that’s the Olympics these days – intoxicated by the pompous self-importance of the event, bloated beyond what most cities could afford to host, and held ransom by its plethora of sponsors and media-rights holders.
Maybe this coronavirus crisis could help the IOC realise its excesses, and work towards making future Olympic Games more sustainable, nimble and athlete-centric.
It’s a huge maybe, but all of us do need hope in this period of intense doubt and uncertainty.
Events still going on amid coronavirus crisis
But the inherent ridiculousness of sports has also reared its head in many other events during this crisis.
Amid the worsening COVID-19 outbreak in Britain, organisers of the Bath Half-Marathon insisted that the show must go on, that medical experts deemed it a “low-risk event”, and let 6,200 runners run in a huge congregation on 15 March despite a huge online outcry.
Meanwhile, the popular English Premier League (EPL) suspended its 2019/20 season until end of April – a wildly optimistic resumption date, judging from the grim outlook of the pandemic in Britain.
Yet, there is belief among its chiefs that football should resume even before the pandemic is over – if not amid a packed stadium, then behind closed doors and telecast live to the homes of football fans.
Why? As Southampton chief executive Martin Semmens said, “We can give people entertainment and show that we're fighting back.”
Across the Atlantic Ocean, where the pandemic is reaching worrying levels in the United States, the Ultimate Fight Championship (UFC) and the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) actually held their fight events in empty indoor arenas – presumably because these made-for-TV sports spectacles have multi-million dollar broadcast contracts to fulfil.
Picture this: the fighter defeats his opponent, lets out a victorious roar, raises his hands in triumph – and not a single soul is around to cheer him back. That was how surreal the closed-door, no-fan UFC and WWE fights played out.
Overestimating its importance will make sports look ridiculous
The word keeps popping up, but ridiculous is the most apt sentiment to feel when sports overestimates its importance.
To be fair, it is easy for organisers, athletes and fans to believe that sports trumps everything around. When they are participating among thousands of other like-minded enthusiasts, when the ecstasy of victory gives them that exuberant adrenaline rush, when they feel rejuvenated and inspired after successfully challenging their physical limitations – yes, sports feels utterly important.
But in times like this coronavirus crisis, when survival is of utmost priority, sports – like rock and roll music, or any form of recreational undertaking for that matter – has to take a back seat in terms of importance.
This is not to say we can’t do sports, or music, or any kind of recreation. These definitely help in maintaining personal sanity in the midst of a lockdown or a quarantine.
But let’s not kid ourselves and insist that sports, in this moment of escalating health woes, can “heal the world, make it a better place” as what Michael Jackson once sang. Only proper medical attention and astute precautionary measures can make the current situation better.
To insist that large-scale spectator sports must go on is to invite scorn – as the IOC, the Bath Half-Marathon organisers, EPL, UFC and WWE have found out. To the troubled public, these sports events are nowhere as important as they were in less tumultuous times.
Sports’ time will come again, eventually. But for now, the sporting world must get off their high horses and accept their “unimportance” – or there will never be another time when they will look more ridiculous.
The author has covered both Singapore and international sports for the past 17 years, and was formerly sports editor of My Paper. The views expressed are his own.