Wuhan is not Vegas.
What happened there didn’t stay there. And like everything else, sports too changed due to Coronavirus.
Some of those changes were entirely Covid-induced, such as bio-bubbles. Some, like mental health awareness, had already set in, but were accelerated by Covid. They could prove to be permanent changes, or at least are here for the long term.
Travelling for athletes was never easy with their boat-sized kit bags. Now, Covid tests and extra paperwork have added an additional layer of rigmarole. Gone is the free mingling with other athletes or a stroll to a café to unwind. Gone are a lot of things. How could they not, when we are even distrusting air.
“Training, tournaments and travel, I felt the biggest change [in these],” Kidambi Srikanth, recent finalist at the World Badminton Championships in Huelva, Spain, tells Moneycontrol. “Travel, because you need to have a lot of documents. Unlike before, you can’t eat a lot of things (certainly not bat meat fried rice, if there is such a thing). You can’t eat everywhere. Tournaments, because twice or thrice you have to give a Covid test. Training also because unlike before, you can’t mix with a lot of people.”
With time, the 28-year-old has gotten better at dealing with the harsh truths of current times.
“I’ve been playing tournaments for three-and-a-half months now,” Srikanth says. “Things felt a little different in the first week but slowly I got used to it. I feel the bio-bubble environment is manageable.”
Former India bowler Zaheer Khan feels that sportspersons will pay greater attention to aspects like their immunity to infections post-Covid. Mental health is another area he feels has become more critical.
“Players are going to be aware of things like their immunity more than earlier,” says Khan, the Director of Cricket Operations at Mumbai Indians. “The preparation, the bubble life, the management around that, this is something new which has come into play. The mental health aspect is also being looked at in a different way. These are changes that are going to make sport even more professional, I feel. Earlier, with sports, you’d think more about the physical aspects.”
If sports is the sun, then there are several satellites around it - ancillary industries that make sports a multi-billion dollar galaxy that glows and hums 365 days of the year. Two of the more powerful satellites around sports are television and tech. These bring in money and take action and advertisements to millions of homes around the globe. Any changes in sport also reflect upon these two worlds.
The trend of short highlights and videos had already begun due to the smartphone and content boom. After Covid, as spectators stayed away from stadiums, producers have had to further focus on churning out the content equivalent of finger food.
Divyanshu Singh, Head of Sales and Marketing, JSW Sports, says, “As consumption on digital platforms rises, right holders are being pushed to customise their offerings to fit the rapidly changing demands of consumers - consumers want short form, snackable content, storylines and documentaries. A lot of traction will also be seen in digital collectibles and fan tokens as active modes of engagement for fans.”
A big change is also being seen in grassroots sports. Among the more woeful Covid sights was of children with face masks, snatching rationed moments outdoors. At a time when parents were stressed out due to job losses and pay cuts, when schools shut, children’s playtime and local sports were early victims of a rampaging virus.
Says Singh, “In India, the impact on grassroots has been more pronounced due to a lack of access to training, an irregular calendar, and a slowdown of investment by sponsors.”
Dinesh Lad, the Mumbai-based cricket coach whose trainees include Rohit Sharma and Shardul Thakur, says, “Many parents are on the back foot, they are worried about sending their kids to play or for coaching. This is a change I have seen.”
Not a fan of overbearing parents lured by money in cricket, Lad highlights an ironic situation. Some parents of those kids who do go for coaching are interfering more in their children’s sporting lives, he says.
“Every parent is teaching their kid cricket,” Lad says. “I never discussed cricket with my own son (Siddhesh) once he came home. Shardul’s parents hardly ever asked me how his progress was. As for Rohit’s parents, I didn’t meet them till four years after he became my student. So Rohit and Shardul bloomed on their own merit.”
A left field take on changes in sport due to Covid comes from Mahesh Bhupathi. The former Wimbledon doubles champion says, “Honestly I don’t think there is any change. There are no real different ways to prep or organise global events other than now ensure safety protocols. In September, I went to a few EPL (English Premier League) games and except for having to show your certificate they were packed stadiums.”Going by Bhupathi’s words, perhaps we have just gotten used to the not-so-new, not-so-normal. That too could count as a permanent change brought on by Covid.