When Covid-19 first brought a stop to sport it was sudden. Within days of the first events being hit, the entire sporting calendar had been brought to a halt in a way never previously witnessed outside of wartime. But with the second wave of the virus, the question on the lips of many fans fearing for their sport has been ‘At what point will it all stop again?’
It is a good question, with an unprecedented pandemic having ripped up the rule book, but instead of a single question, it is a million, with a million different responses. Sport is international, so it’s a question of what happens to different sports in different countries, governed by different bodies covering different levels of competition. So with the UK Government currently giving no indication of any pressure to bring sports to a close for the time being at least, we take a look at how elite sport is coping with such an unpredictable, and tumultuous, obstacle.
Leyton Orient were eliminated from the Carabao Cup last month after they were forced to postpone their third-round clash with Tottenham Hotspur due to as many as nine of their players testing positive for Covid-19. On the precarious international scene, the Czech Republic had to name a whole new squad for their match against Scotland after a member of their backroom staff tested positive, while over in Italy, Napoli were handed a 3-0 loss, and deducted one point, for failing to show for their Serie A match against Juventus, after being banned from travelling by local health authorities following two positive tests. Such inconsistent responses show the difficulty Covid presents.
The Premier League gives regular updates on the amount of weekly testing, with positive outcomes now requiring a self-isolation period of 10 days. Should a club refuse to fulfil a Premier League fixture an independent panel will be appointed to decide upon a suitable punishment ranging from a fine to a potential points deduction depending on the case. However, the necessary procedure is deliberately without definition.
“We will speak to all of the clubs constantly and monitor everything quite closely,” a Premier League representative tells The Sportsman, “So if we do start to see that there are more positives at a particular club, then we will deal with it at a particular club.
“We can’t come out and say ‘If X number of positive tests happen at this particular club then they will not be able to play’. We can’t say that because they might have just enough players left to play, but four of them might be goalkeepers.
“It is a very unique situation at each club. Obviously some have more players travelling in the international break than others. There are many factors that are delicately looked at by our football department.”
The season is well underway using a reduced calendar but sporadic outbreaks have unsurprisingly raised their heads. Racing Point drivers Lance Stroll and Sergio Perez have both tested positive during the truncated season, and were replaced for races whilst in imposed isolation.
Lewis Hamilton made history with his record-breaking 92nd F1 Grand Prix win in Portugal, but conceded that the season has taken place under strenuous circumstances. Two Mercedes race team personnel tested positive for Covid-19 at the Eifel Grand Prix, with Hamilton’s team forced to quarantine them and four other staff members who had been in close contact. Last-minute replacements were called up from the team's UK base. Formula One has adapted with an almost tag-team operation, conceding that future cases will arise and compromises will have to be made.
“I wouldn’t be surprised in the future if, even though you’ve taken every possible precaution, you can get the virus and you have to miss one or two races," said McLaren driver Carlos Sainz.
“I am pretty sure it is likely because it is a virus we still don’t understand fully and it depends clearly a lot on luck. We still travel, we still go to hotels, we still have to continue with our lives, and I think at some point, you might get it.”
In total, the Covid-19 pandemic affected 48 major tournaments on the tennis circuit, with the French Open postponed until autumn and Wimbledon cancelled for the first time since World War II. In a highly significant case, world number one Novak Djokovic fell on the wrong side of the fine line he was precariously treading when the Adria Tour he had organised brought about a spate of positive Covid-19 cases, including among a number of elite players. The final of the event, which would have featured Djokovic, was cancelled shortly after as a result.
The ATP and WTA Tours returned in August with new protocols, including one ensuring all individuals complete a daily self-declaration of being Covid-19 symptom-free and not having had any high-risk contacts in the last 14 days. Players are also subject to daily temperature screening at events.
Ultimately, the individual nature of the sport at a basic level, despite the jet-setting, means that tennis is in a better position than most other sports, with players also having greater control of which tournaments they enter.
In Rugby Union if a player or individual who tests positive for Covid-19 has attended a training session and been in close contact with any person at a club in the 48 hours prior to when the test was taken, all individuals defined as close contacts will be required to self-isolate for 14 days as per national guidance.
But, despite this, England’s international schedule was left in ruins when a match against the Barbarians at Twickenham scheduled for last Sunday was called off after the RFU discovered a second breach of Covid-19 protocols by a group of Barbarians players. The financial cost of the cancellation was a gargantuan £1m, but had the fixture gone ahead it could have put England’s final game of this season’s Six Nations Championship - at Italy on Saturday - in serious jeopardy.
Meanwhile, Rugby League is currently approaching the end of a campaign regularly compromised by Covid-19. The Betfred Super League will be decided on win percentage rather than total points due to a raft of postponements, such has been the eagerness to get the season completed come what may. Even a temporary rule outlawing scrums has not been enough to prevent numerous close-contact withdrawals following positive tests.
Currently there is no mechanism to ensure professional boxing in the UK is 100 per cent free from Covid-19 infection, with operations viewed on a weekly basis by the British Boxing Board of Control. All licensed tournaments will operate under ‘closed doors’ format until further notice.
“The whole thing is a complete disaster, and we are just learning as we go. It’s just more challenges,” said outspoken boxing promoter Eddie Hearn, himself having recovered from a positive Covid test, in conversation with Boxing Social, “I always talk about the ups and downs of boxing - well this is just on another level. In Fight Week, there’s [normally] a one or two per cent chance that a fight might fall out. Now it’s 30, 40 per cent.”
In October the all-British women's WBO world middleweight title fight between Savannah Marshall and Hannah Rankin had to be postponed after Marshall's trainer, Peter Fury, tested positive for coronavirus, showing how agile the sport has to be at this time.
Hearn, who has taken to hosting some bouts on a makeshift arena in his garden, added, “If we want to keep trying to maintain the momentum of the sport and delivering it for our fighters, we just have to accept that we’re going to get kicked in the bollocks on a regular basis.”