How Sport will be changed by Covid-19


So How Was your Sporting Covid-19 Lockdown?

Good and bad.

I was busy on a book called Everything, the Autobiography of Denis Coughlan, and being active was a great boost in the grim month of April when the whole country was battling to prevent our health system being overrun by the virus. Having a sense of purpose each morning and working my way through the book, sentence by sentence, provided me with a guiding light through the uncertain darkness.

My family were all safe and healthy and none of them, thank God, lost their jobs or anything like that. But the images of people being buried without their families and the very idea of so many dying alone and fearful was a horror that affected us all, I think.

In such conditions, the loss of sport and the postponement of championships seemed inconsequential, to be honest. Ironically, during April and May I was immersed in sport, in Denis’s sporting life – mainly in the 1960s and 1970s as a player – and I was vicariously winning and losing championship matches with St Nicholas, Glen Rovers and Cork. Mostly, in Denis’s case, there was great success, and it was wonderful for me to be retelling that story with him, reliving the glory days of ’73, ’76, ’77 and ’78 especially. A very different era for Cork than the one we’re currently experiencing.

In those early days of the pandemic, Covid-19 showed us how unimportant sport really is when we compare it to lives lost and threats to our health. But in retelling Denis’s sporting life and the sense of joy and fulfilment that he and his teammates bestowed upon so many, so often, I was reminded of the great gift we have in sport.

I was also conscious of the players, volunteers and administrators who were missing out so badly during the lockdown. All the plans that had been made and all the work for nothing, as event after event was cancelled. All the disappointment of young players who had worked hard to earn their places on teams which had been suddenly shut down. All the impacts on people, too – friends and acquaintances among them – who made their living from broadcasting and writing about sport. They lost out and they lost out badly.

In one way the sporting lockdown wasn’t significant at all, in another it was a painful wrench.


So, were you delighted when sport returned?

I was and I wasn’t.

I was delighted for all the thousands of volunteers in clubs up and down the country who give so much to so many and who had been missing the involvement in our communities. I was also delighted for the young players, the girls and boys whose lives are so enhanced by sport and who were locked away from their friends and teammates during that time. And I was delighted for those who make a living through sport and its coverage.

I recently read about an interview with David Byrne by Olivia Laing. In it she asked him what music was for, what its purpose was. And he replied that music connects people. I think this is the purpose of sport, too. And we missed all those connections when sport was locked down. Connections with our past selves and those who came before us; connections with our friends and neighbours, the ties that bind us as communities; connections with our rivals and those against whom we play, but secretly love.

When the lockdown ended I was living in a small town in East Cork. One day out walking I saw boys cycling to the playing fields, their hurleys inside their backpacks, their sense of shared purpose a shining light. The rightness of it all.

But for me, personally, the resumption of sport meant little enough. I had spent almost all of 2019 writing the first draft of a sporting memoir of my own. In that I had read and written and thought so much about sport that in December I decided to take a break from it, to give myself some perspective, allowing myself to see the trees again, as well as the wood. So, between January and August 2020 I didn’t watch a single game. And I didn’t partake in the lockdown sporting nostalgia fest, either. I don’t feel nostalgia for great games in the past – to me sport is all about being present in the moment.

So, in 2020, no hurling, no Gaelic football, no soccer, no tennis, no cycling, no golf (past or present) for me – nothing until I found myself watching the FA Cup Final by chance in a holiday home in Kerry. So when golf, first, and then the other games returned, it didn’t have much of an impact on me, personally.

The return of sport after lockdown meant a lot to me and it didn’t mean anything at all.


Will sport ever be the same again after Covid-19?

Yes and no.

I think we know that sport is such an important element in so many lives. Event those who hate sport acknowledge that.

Those of us who love sport have, for now, lost so many of the rituals we enjoyed and probably took for granted. The gathering together, the chats, the sense of purpose before games, the excitement being present at them, the physical proximity of thousands of people around us, the craic over pints or tea and sandwiches, the post-mortems and slagging. The great fun of sport.

The great shared willing on of teams and the players’ response to that – what Joyce Carol Oates called that ‘mysterious will’ of the fans. How strange to watch games on TV without fans, with piped sounds. How strange to watch our clubs’ games being streamed on social media or websites like the Irish Examiner instead of being present in them. But how glad we are to have such streaming, too, so we can at least in some way participate.

Who knows how long before real gatherings resume and who knows how sport and our dialogue with it will be altered by Covid-19?

But our love of sport and our need for the collective sharing of its great moments won’t change. The memories of our first sporting moments with a parent, sibling or friend won’t change. All the glories and disappointments in our sporting lives won’t change. Our longing to attend games, to watch games and to read about the players we worship and the teams etched into our sporting souls won’t change.

In many ways this love and longing, these memories, are all more important to us now and will be when the second surge strikes this winter. The desire for young people to come together and to connect in sport will not fade. The loss of such connections has intensified that desire, if anything.

In whatever ways the actual games are shaped and staged in the future, and in whatever ways we as players and fans interact with them, sport isn’t going away any time soon.

Sport has been utterly transformed by Covid-19 and sport is exactly the same.

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