February 1, 2023



Sport in lockdown: ‘Someone pulled the rug out from under the summer’ | Membership

8 min read

Will Woodward, head of sport

Sport’s unravelling happened haphazardly – and then suddenly. With Champions League and Europa League games behind played behind closed doors or postponed, and plenty of debate about whether other sports should continue, the turning point was Arsenal’s head coach Mikel Arteta’s diagnosis with coronavirus, which popped up on Thursday 12 March, a few hours after Boris Johnson had warned that many families would lose their loved ones. The next day, everything fell away.

Other sports fans will have their own shoulder-slumping moments; mine was coming back to my desk to be told that Wales’s Six Nations match with Scotland on the Saturday and the Masters golf in April had both been scrapped, within minutes of each other. That day the Premier League, Women’s Super League, Scottish Premier League, London Marathon and England’s Test series with Sri Lanka all went. Somehow that day’s Gold Cup at Cheltenham went ahead, seeming even then to misread the mood – it does even more so now.

“Sport was actually quite good wasn’t it,” tweeted our chief sportswriter, Barney Ronay. After a spell in which the ground shifted beneath our feet almost daily, we’ve settled into some kind of routine. Inevitably we’re covering a lot about postponements, cancellations and hopes for restarts. Our reporter David Conn was quickly on to fears that the virus had spread after the Liverpool-Atlético Madrid game, and the Guardian has looked hard at evidence linking the virus to Cheltenham. Otherwise we’ve had time to wallow – not too much, but enough – in some of the great moments of the past, not least in our retro minute-by-minute series and the My Favourite Game series. Plus we’ve delivered interviews with some sporting personalities – including Andy Cole, Fabio Capello, Ada Hegerberg, Rory McIlroy – that we would have been proud of in the busiest times. Sport isn’t even close to the most important thing right now. But do we miss it? Like crazy.

Jonathan Liew, sports writer

It’s like a metaphysical conundrum: how do you write about sport that doesn’t exist? In a way, it’s analogous to describing the silence that follows a piece of music: yes, technically you’re trying to define the shape of something that isn’t there. But if you listen closely enough, you can feel in the absence the weight of what was once present. And perhaps it’s only in the void that sport leaves that you can truly appreciate its worth.

How do you fill the void? Archive features and retrospectives are perhaps an inevitable upshot of the shutdown, a chance to reconsider the past with a fresh eye and the benefit of time. But our readers don’t simply want to wallow in nostalgia; they want to know when sport will return, what it will feel and taste like when it does. That’s the balance I’ve tried to strike, and in a way it’s the balance we’re all striving for: equal parts realism and escapism, the same bewitching brew that drew us all to sport in the first place.

Cardboard cutouts replace supporters at Borussia Mönchengladbach’s stadium in April.

Cardboard cutouts replace supporters at Borussia Mönchengladbach’s stadium in April. Photograph: Sascha Steinbach/EPA

Claire Tolley, sports features editor

Sports journalism’s rhythm is defined by the diary. But that diary is empty, at least in the immediate future, despite ongoing meetings to provide a roadmap of how and when live sport can return. Global championships, events and league seasons have been cancelled or postponed, falling like a row of dominoes in the past couple of months. And so the first part of lockdown has been shaped by a news agenda chasing what will no longer be happening this spring and summer and the repercussions of those cancellations or delays. That has now been replaced by talk of when live sport might get up and running again, and the ethics of such a return.

There has been a glaring hole left in the absence of any live sport to cover. Interviews and features, too, are usually pegged to the news agenda or forthcoming events. Beyond those related to the pandemic itself, we have recast interviews or features to reflect the new reality of lockdown. We have also looked for different ways of engaging with our readers. Our hugely popular live minute-by-minutes have had a retro makeover, some pegged to anniversaries or events that had been in the diary; we have brought in regular columnists such as the England cricketer Moeen Ali to answer readers’ questions and commissioned follow-up features off the back of readers’ responses to articles.

As the lockdown continues, and the news ebbs rather than flows, we are embracing opportunities to turn back the clock, source interviews that we could never quite find the right time to publish, and investigate wider issues.

Barry Glendenning, sports writer and broadcaster

Before all this, the problems we were most accustomed to dealing with on the Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast involved how best to cram in all the big weekend talking points on a Monday morning. All four divisions of the English league had to be discussed, along with the latest news from Scotland and the major continental leagues, as well as any other business. That’s a “hella lotta” football chat.

Presenter Max Rushden and I immediately promised our audience that, health permitting, we would continue recording twice a week until somebody higher up told us to stop. We hoped it would go some way towards maintaining our own sanity as well as that of the hundreds of thousands of listeners for whom Football Weekly seems to provide a reassuring sense of normality and routine. Our listening figures suggest that if anything, football has been holding us back for years.

With no action to discuss, Max and I have had to come up with other ways to fill time. The most difficult part? Finding the right balance between discussions about particularly grim virus-related issues and more frivolous topics of discussion, such as the conspicuous absence of bookshelves full of intellectually weighty tomes in the background of each other’s “home studios”, and general chit-chat about how we’ve been coping in a world where pub-going is not an option. It should go without saying that our guests and listeners have been a source of welcome inspiration, their contributions and correspondence regularly sending us off on strange, often hilarious and always welcome tangents.

While Max and I don’t like to talk about the selfless manner in which we are putting our lives on the line each week in the interests of boosting public morale like a pair of modern-day Vera Lynns, we recently received an email from a nurse named David from the United States who could identify with the stress and hardship we are currently not enduring.

“Your voices cheerfully ring through the darkness of semi-rural Connecticut during my long drives into my night shift and balance out my thoughts of how many Covid patients my hospital now has, or how many of my co-workers have either tested positive or are now under quarantine,” he wrote. “I am sure there are thousands and thousands of people like me around the world that deeply appreciate what you do. Please carry on.”

Just try to stop us.

Louise Taylor, north-east football correspondent

Maybe I was in denial but covering my last, pre-lockdown, match – Sheffield United 1 Norwich 0 on 7 March – the sight of locals staggering past Bramall Lane laden with toilet rolls failed to alert me to the surreal nightmare ahead.

Back home in Newcastle, another train was hurtling down the tracks and about to blindside everyone. A largely Saudi Arabian-funded consortium was buying the city’s football club for £300m. Devoid of the usual framework of matches and press conferences – which provided welcome structure and routine for us “patch reporters” who routinely work from home – there was something to write about again.

Instead of debating whether teams should be playing 3-4-3 or 4-2-3-1, there is Newcastle United’s extraordinary role in a bitter proxy war between Saudi and Qatar to consider: a Doha-based satellite broadcaster has urged the Premier League to block the takeover, arguing that Saudi Arabia should be accountable for a pirate network that illegally transmits English top-tier games.

Amnesty are rightly concerned about Saudi’s human rights record but Newcastle fans are broadly delighted – and extremely excited – by the prospective departure of the club’s loathed owner, Mike Ashley. It’s an ethical quagmire. Sophisticated sports-washing or Saudi modernisation?

Match reporting is infinitely more straightforward – and adrenaline-rich. Perhaps the biggest thing I crave is the adrenaline: reports invariably have to be filed against tight deadlines, either on the final whistle or, at night games, as “runners”, with chunks of copy delivered at half-time. They always involve a mild sense of panic. I miss that.

The Premier League has been hit hard by the crisis – and the supply of sporting news has almost dried up.

Andy Bull, senior sports writer

Even now, looking back at it from a distance, the speed with which everything changed feels bewildering. On Saturday 7 March, a few weeks and half a lifetime ago, I was at Twickenham, reporting on England’s victory against Wales in the Six Nations, one in a crowd of 80,000. Boris Johnson was there too. Five days later he was on TV telling us that we were in the midst of the “worst public health crisis for a generation”. And then, all of a sudden, someone pulled the rug out from under the summer. The rest of the rugby season was postponed, then the beginning of the cricket season too, and the Masters, the Open, Wimbledon and the Olympics, all events I was supposed to cover.

Instead, I’m a sportswriter with no sport to write, apart from marble racing videos and back garden marathons. I’ve been craving some escape from it all. Sport’s a glorious triviality, after all. So I’ve been busy losing myself in writing about my favourite old games and players, or reporting on forgotten stories about the Moscow Olympic boycott and the CIA’s attempts to recruit Soviet athletes in the 1960s, anything that I think will entertain readers, and give them something else to read and think and talk about, to try to help them forget about everything else, if only for a few precious minutes.

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