ANALYSIS: The end of the sports season … and what comes next

The eerie time is upon us … a complete absence of frontline, live sport over a weekend. How will it, and its devotees, emerge? Rob Houwing explores.

This is it. Secure the straps. THAT weekend has arrived. 

We were challenged, irked, anguished a week ago when the Friday, Saturday and Sunday sports roster – perennial peak time for ball and other games, nobody needs reminding – already took a substantial, discernible slashing. 

Yet that period wasn’t a total wasteland. 

Domestic rugby fans, just for example, still had a high-stakes Sharks v Stormers derby in Super Rugby to soak in. The Bulls and Lions were in action, albeit in faraway climes, too. 

But given this weekend’s spookily novel blank itinerary … well, what we’d give to have the last one back, eh? 

The fullest extent of the global sporting shutdown through the ravages of the coronavirus has now, more than a little sombre-ly but inevitably, kicked in. 

Some say Christmas Day is an unnerving enough annual one for the more obsessive of sports devotees; a day when an addictive, reflex flick through the dozen or more SuperSport channels comes up noticeably short for events marked “live”. 

Never mind, Boxing Day quickly, customarily dawns as a significant, rebalancing antidote: you might well be able to luxuriate on the sun-soaked grass of SuperSport Park in Centurion for day one of a cricket Test match, and know that there will be a jam-packed fixture list in the UK and European soccer leagues to monitor as well. 

Sport rolls and rolls and rolls … like that tumbleweed that bounces onward, seemingly until kingdom come. 

But in a sporting context, friends, the brakes have been emphatically slammed, to the point of a screeching halt. 

 We’re in for a few blank canvas “Christmas Days” … many, many in succession, perhaps. 

It is sport’s own welcome to our new reality. 

Earlier this week, the New York Times’s Pulitzer-prize winning sportswriter John Branch observed, as American sport began its own lock down at levels from top to bottom as an attempted safeguard for participants and followers alike: “It is strange to think of sports as a threat, not a relief. 

“All this time, all these years, sports were the diversion from life’s problems, not a problem itself. 

“For decades, sports were a constant – part of the background noise of American culture, and maybe even an unhealthy obsession. Games were always on.” 

Branch spoke of enthusiasts viewing sport as an “invincible sheath”. 

Is that belief greatly different in South Africa? I suggest not. 

That is why the next few weeks and quite possibly months will be so awkward and unnerving, at best, to deal with. 

The more optimistic of scenarios, during this widespread, indefinite suspension of sport and pastimes, is that “all this will be over” within weeks, duly enabling the Sharks to press on toward an assertive crack at maiden title success, Kaizer Chiefs and Mamelodi Sundowns to resume their top-of-table tussle in the Absa Premiership to a rousing finish. 

A little less glass-half-full, however, are the increasing signs that the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, a still relatively distant time ahead from late July, won’t be able to take place. 

There was a biggie in outright cancellation terms just this week, remember: there will be no European Championships football (an event not massively lower in gravitas or superstar-laden appeal than the World Cup) this year. 

More than a little unfortunately in current pandemic circumstances with closure of borders, shrinkage of flights and the like, Euro 2020 had been scheduled to be held across 12 cities in as many UEFA countries – a departure from the more traditional one-country hosting model. 

It has been held unfailingly, every four years, since 1960: this break in the cycle (with the tournament now pushed out to 2021, meaning a gap of five years from the last in France) quite savagely underlines the magnitude of the coronavirus issue. 

For the moment, sports bosses, participants – both professional and amateur – and fans alike are left largely clutching at memories of matches; media coverage is already swinging toward “greatest moments” types of exercises in nostalgia, as preview-geared coverage dwindles to a trickle or more brutal non-existence. 

Our weekend “drug supply” has dried up, and the detox will not be comfortable. 

Still, the potentially constructive exercise in these times of dormancy will be to weigh up whether sport in its modern forms has been pursuing correct paths, and whether the hiatus can somehow spark some fresh, creative ideas for its superior well-being further up the line. 

Can we get a more iron-like grip on the rising damp of corruption, match-fixing? Has there been too much sport, to the point that we become either consciously or subconsciously blasé about it?

Is less more? 

Are some sports salaries obscene? Is the stadium experience really good enough, especially in this time of such rapid technological advancement in the quality and breadth of live television coverage? 

This is probably not the worst time for some spirited note-taking among sports aficionados, while we take a break from what many perceive as a treadmill – not always the best of imagery, let’s face it. 

As Branch puts it: “Maybe this (interruption) will be a reboot, a cleanse to slow or recalibrate our metabolism.” 

Whether sport emerges bigger, stronger, better may well parallel the wider hallmarks of life in general after the spine of coronavirus is decisively snapped: it takes a brave pundit to foresee with any accuracy how society, and sport somewhere on a branch of that tree, will look. 

All that said, the “how?” in picking up sport’s pieces will quickly become immaterial to millions when this great crisis ends (that will be for the administrators to unravel, whether it involves reworking the embers of existing leagues/competitions or starting with a clean slate). 

Knowing sports fans in South Africa and the world, the “when?” will supersede it in a blinding, whoop-laden flash: there is nothing quite like the anticipation of a new season. 

That hallowed green light – that confirmation we’re finally dealing with a “when” rather than an “if” – will feel as bloody thrilling as a live match. 

Well, almost … 

– Rob Houwing is Sport24’s chief writer. Follow him : @RobHouwing   

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