Empty stadiums, but the games go on: 2020’s highs and lows

 It now seems absurd to think it, said The Independent, but there was a time when 2020 looked set to be a vintage year for sport. The year got off to a thrilling start, with a comprehensive Test series victory for England’s cricketers in South Africa, followed by Tyson Fury’s extraordinary defeat of Deontay Wilder, which earned the outspoken boxer – recently brought low by drug and alcohol addiction – the WBC heavyweight crown. 

Then there was the spectacle of Liverpool’s utter dominance of the Premier League: by the last week of February, Jürgen Klopp’s team had moved 22 points clear at the top of the table, with pundits marvelling at the wondrous efficiency of their play. It was shaping up to be a superb summer as well, with the prospect of two mouth-watering quadrennial competitions – the Tokyo Olympics and the Euros – alongside the “usual annual treats”. We know what happened next, said Martin Lipton in The Sun. 

From mid-March, sporting activity ground to a halt as the pandemic suspended normal life. Sport after sport was abandoned: football, motor racing, cricket, tennis, cycling, baseball, basketball, American football, darts. Not since the Second World War had such a dramatic moratorium been imposed. The discombobulating, three-month hiatus that followed threw into relief one of sport’s enduring paradoxes, said Jonathan Liew in The Guardian: that simultaneously it does and doesn’t matter. From one point of view, the “human toll” of the pandemic rendered the concerns of fans utterly trivial. 

Yet, for millions of us, those sport-deprived months underlined how deeply woven it is into the fabric of our lives. Like few things in the modern world, sport “offers a liturgy, a structure on which to measure the passing days and seasons”; it’s a background noise as “reassuring as the ticking of the clock”. In the absence of its markers, many felt “shocked, concussed, even bereft”. Not that the interregnum lasted all that long, said Sam Wallace in The Sunday Telegraph. In mid-June, the Premier League got going again, with its 92 outstanding fixtures crammed into a frenetic six weeks. 

Golf resumed that month too, followed by Formula 1 in July and rugby and tennis in August. It was perhaps inevitable that elite sport would soon crank back into action, given the financial imperatives to do so. Millions handed over in pre-Covid broadcasting deals would have been demanded back if seasons had not resumed. Had the football season been abandoned, Premier League clubs would have reportedly lost £1bn. They were never likely to let that happen. What a shame, then, said Jack Pitt- Brooke on The Athletic, that in this rapidly reassembled calendar, the power balances within sport were so starkly revealed. By and large, it was elite male sportsmen – footballers, rugby players, cricketers – who got to resume their seasons, while those in less wealthy sports, including the vast majority of women’s ones, had to wait until at least September. As ever, it was money that talked: in football, the Women’s Super League didn’t resume in June for the “simple reason” that, unlike the Premier League, it couldn’t afford a “systematic twice-a-week coronavirus testing programme”. 

The return of sport was doubleedged in another sense too, said Matthew Syed in The Times: it revealed how fundamental spectators are. Most would agree that matches in empty stadiums – and with a host of other restrictions – are better than “no sport at all”. And yet over these past few months, it has often felt as if we haven’t been watching sport at all, but a strange simulacrum of it: the same players, the same competitions, but with some crucial missing element. The clue, perhaps, is “in the name”: the great spectator sports really do need spectators. Still, sport has provided some much-needed pleasure in recent months – whether that’s England’s last-gasp triumph in the Six Nations or the spectacle of Lewis Hamilton surpassing Michael Schumacher as the greatest F1 driver of all time. The crazy unpredictability of the current football season has also made a welcome change from recent years. Perhaps, then, this hasn’t been such a bad year for sport after all: not ideal in terms of quantity, admittedly, but a great one for reminding us why sport matters.