World class sport, but not as we’ve known it

Pandemic means panic for sporting events

by Robert Rigby


Can they, can’t they? Will they, won’t they? Well, after months of deliberation and debate and only weeks after it was claimed they definitely wouldn’t, it appears to have been decided that the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games can and will go ahead this summer.

The Games are scheduled to run from 23 July to 8 August, with the Paralympics due to follow from 24 August to 5 September. And that, according to International Olympic Committee (IOC) chief, Thomas Bach, is that. There is, in his words, “no plan B”. Which is encouraging for all those sports men and women worldwide who have been training and preparing for the biggest event and ultimate challenge of their sporting lives, whilst at the same time having to cope with the “will they, won’t they” confusion.

After Japanese Prime Minister, Yoshida Suga, confirmed in December that he wanted the Olympics to proceed, reports later emerged from Tokyo that the Japanese Government had privately conceded that the games would not go ahead. Those reports were disputed by IOC President Bach and the Japanese Government and then dismissed as “rumours”. Finally, Tokyo 2020 President, Yoshiro Mori, confirmed that Japan would indeed host the Summer Olympics regardless of the situation with the Covid-19 pandemic and was working closely with the IOC to make the Games happen. He stressed that discussions from now on should focus on how, not whether, the Olympics will happen.

“We must consider new ways of hosting the Olympics as a part of that,” he said. Pandemic pressures appear to have got to Mr Mori in more ways than one. After a subsequent meeting of the Olympic Committee, he had to apologise for making “inappropriate” remarks about women. Mr Mori, 83, a former Prime Minister of Japan, remarked at the meeting that women talk too much and that board meetings with many female members would “take a lot of time”. He later retracted the comments, but public outrage ensued, and Mr Mori was forced to resign in the middle of February.

Olympic spirits have understandably been flagging since the postponement of the Games last year, but perhaps the recent positivity will see the Olympic flame, currently hidden from public gaze but flickering bravely on in a secure location in Tokyo, emerge again into the light to blaze through the summer Games. The 2020 Olympics were of course postponed due to the global spread of coronavirus. And a recent spike in infections in Japan, triggering a state of emergency in some areas, added to doubts over the possibility of the rescheduled sporting bonanza going ahead.

Japanese public support for a Games go-ahead currently remains low, with around 80 per cent of respondents in a recent poll favouring either a further delay or outright cancellation. But organisers continue with their brave words, claiming that even if the pandemic is not under control, they are producing safety measures that will allow the Games to proceed without requiring vaccinations.

Worldwide, international sports events continue to suffer, with the effect of the coronavirus frequently making bigger sporting headlines than any team or individual performance on the fields of play. Just days before the Australian Tennis Open was due to start, preparations were thrown into turmoil after a worker at one of the specially organised quarantine hotels tested positive for the virus. It meant that around 600 players, officials and support staff had to isolate until they returned negative tests of their own. And as a further safety measure, more than 60 warm-up matches were postponed. In cricket, Australia pulled out of their February/March, threetest match tour of South Africa because of increasing coronavirus concerns. England had previously withdrawn midway through their limited-overs tour of the same country. And problems continue at national as well as international level. Top-level football across Europe struggles valiantly on in massive, echoing and virtually empty stadiums, with supporters having to watch matches on TV. But with the continuing catastrophic effect of the virus on national economies leading to business closures and subsequent job losses, it also means that in today’s largely “pay-to-view” world of top sport, many devoted sporting fans can already no longer afford to watch. Regionally and locally the picture remains grim, with sport largely on hold and sports men and women reduced to watching the grass grow as officials and organisers call off matches or entire tournaments. All sports, major and niche, must now relearn, rearrange, and adapt. Ultimately, the legacy and the likelihood is that in sport as in almost every other area of life, things may never again be quite as we have known them. But for now, we will close on a positive note, confirming that the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games are definitely going ahead in July – unless they are cancelled again!

Did Sonny dive? We might never know

S onny Liston, having twice demolished former world champion Floyd Patterson with first-round knockouts, had fully earned his reputation as the most intimidating and ferocious heavyweight boxer of all time. Many reckoned he was on the way to becoming the greatest. But then he came up against fast-talking 22-year-old, Cassius Clay. Against all the odds, and all the predictions, Clay won their first world title bout in February 1964, when Liston controversially retired on his stool at the end of round six. But it was the rematch more than a year later that was to cause uproar, outrage and arguments that continue to this day. Midway through the first round the new champion, now of course known as Muhammad Ali, threw a quick right, which most ringside observers and the referee didn’t even see make contact. But Liston went down as though pole-axed. Ali jigged and danced around the ring, screaming for Liston to get up and fight. The referee chased after Ali, trying to make him go to a neutral corner as demanded by the rules. Finally the ref succeeded, but as he turned back to Liston to start counting, the ringside timekeeper was already out of his seat, waving both hands and shouting, “I counted him out, I counted him out – the fight is over!” So did Sonny dive? No one will ever really know, but multiple allegations and accusations of a “fix” were spreading before the stadium even emptied. Liston later claimed he did take a punch and was ready to get up and box on but was confused because the referee never started counting. Sceptics will always prefer the more notoriously romantic legend that Sonny owed money to the Mafia so bet against himself and took that dive.

Rigby’s Sports Shorts

Subbed standard
Even greats need time to impose their skills on a match, but Zimbabwe football coach, Zdravko Logarusic, hooked off poor Qadr Amin after just two minutes of the recent African Nations Championship encounter with Mali. Amin incurred his coach’s wrath by dashing in to take a free kick ahead of the team’s set-piece specialist but sent the ball well wide. That was enough for Logarusic and the substitution board was raised. It got worse for Zimbabwe – Mali went on to win by a goal to nil.

Mighty Mouse
Don Thompson was the only British man to take gold in the 1960 Rome Olympics, winning the 50 km race walk. Just 5’5’’, he trained for the Italian summer in his steam-filled bathroom. His mother made him a kepi hat to keep the sun off and during the race Don, who was also wearing sunglasses, was nicknamed “Il Topolino” (Italian for Mickey Mouse but literally “Little Mouse”) by cheering fans. He won by 17 seconds in a time of 4 hours, 25 minutes and 30 seconds. Don continued racing for 40 years, representing Britain for the final time aged 58 before dying in 2006 at the age of 73.

Head injuries update
In our last issue we reported on severe and life-changing head and brain injuries within sport, arguing for the issue to be swiftly addressed by sport’s governing bodies. It’s reassuring to record that in football the Premier League has begun a trial concussion substitution scheme. The new rule means up to two permanent substitutions can be made in the event of head injuries, even if all designated replacements have already been used. The trial will run until the end of the season but can be extended. It will also be held in the Women’s Super League, the Women’s Championship and the Men’s FA Cup.

Robert Rigby is a journalist, author and scriptwriter. His sport-themed fiction includes the novelisations of the “Goal!” movies and the four official London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics novels for children



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