On 28 February, Dr Mike Ryan, the executive director of the World Health Organisation’s emergencies programme, sat down with a grave announcement for every citizen of the planet.
"We are at the highest level of alert or highest level of risk assessment in terms of the spread and in terms of the impact," he noted, regarding a global pandemic that was en route at pace.
It shouldn’t have come as a big surprise, as a week earlier a cluster of cases were detected in Lombardy and the very next day another 60 instances cropped up in an unprepared Italy. Yet on 28 February, in Ireland, Leo Varadkar was mostly occupied with water levels and with the floods.
There was only ever going to be one chance to get this right. In that moment, there needed to be a closure of pubs and clubs, a limitation of restaurant numbers, army mobilisation to disinfect, unheard of levels of testing, curfews, heavy screening in airports, and a total cull on all sports.
It would have been an inconvenience but no more. The hour came and went.
Indeed a full two weeks after Ryan’s dismal warning and call for immediate action to avert disaster, Basketball Ireland had taken their own steps to stop as the government had yet to offer any guidance to organisations; meanwhile 15 days after Ryan’s warning, Irish racing fans were swarming off boats and flights from Cheltenham without a so much as a temperature taken.
Sport is so often a microcosm, but in this case it’s been a keyhole to peer in at the cluelessness.
By now it’s likely too late, as models suggesting as much have been correct each step of the way.
Varadkar’s speech on Tuesday evening was Churchill without the troops, filled with nice cliches and next-to-zero substance or detail. Having skipped the science, we were onto the spin, as has been the case across so much of Europe. All in all, people have been failed by what, we hope, our children will read about in school books as one of the most appalling lapses in many generations. Of course those in power didn’t mean it but that’s no excuse as, continent-wide, watching those in suits has been like witnessing someone throw a cup of water onto a house gone up in flames.
For this isn’t even the beginning of the end. It’s the end of the beginning.
On Monday, a full 45 days after Covid-19 came to Italy via two cases in Rome, their prime minister announced they were entering the "riskiest weeks". Back at home meanwhile, as reality dawned on some and as others headed to drink in Molly Malone's in Temple Bar, Ireland was a mere 16 days deep.
What’s that lot got to do with sport, you might ask? Well, this is the canvas it and all else is being painted on. And will be for a long time.
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On Sunday, a call came through from a person in a Premier League club unhappy with information leaked from a meeting. It pertained to which sides had asked that the season not only be stalled, but annulled. They were upset but began the conversation with "how are you?"
They seemed surprised at the response that it wasn’t all fine and dandy, what with the queues for supermarkets; the lack of governance; the inability to follow instructions; the rising death toll; and the fact that even when we do crawl out the other side of this, the world won’t be the same for most people for many years to come.
It reminded us that sport has, in many cases, lost touch with reality.
Right now, that was the pressing concern for this club. The Premier League itself expects us to care about their need to fulfill obligations around broadcasting rights or face some major fines. The International Olympic Committee, not happy with siphoning off the budget from some sucker country every four years, refused to budge on going one further and risking a chunk of our species via Tokyo 2020.
In fact, a training schedule from a senior GAA club team was passed on as well as photos of the entire squad doing hand-passing drills out on the back pitch in their town. Even some media justification for attending horse racing was about it being a necessary distraction, as if an unprotected orgy was the way to go when AIDS hit hard.
There have been good stories too, from the socially-conscious NBA not only taking swift action off their own backs, but owners like Mark Cuban and players donating wages to make sure the likes of arena workers don’t go short over this next while. The GAA, who are so often criticised, also remembered who and what they are in opening up Croke Park. But mostly, it’s been grim.
Even fans have shown a baffling line of priorities.
Who’ll get relegated?
Will Liverpool get the title?
What format should the GAA use?
What will a 2021 Olympic Games mean for the athletes?
Shouldn’t the questions be around how those better off and more famous faces are getting instant tests with no symptoms, when those with symptoms wait? Or why so many of the major companies that make billions can lay people off as they still privatise profit and socialise losses?
In what amounts to an absurd sociological experiment though, there is a balance here.
As this all enters a phase where social isolation really kicks in - and perhaps forced isolation before long - sport does hold a vital place in hearts and minds. Sure, it can be taken too seriously, but if sense prevails it can provide a break from constant talk of what is happening all around.
It’s no harm in having trivial debates if they give us a break and bring some needed normality.
As the great scene in Spinal Tap goes, with the band standing next to the grave of Elvis Presley:
"It really puts a perspective on things though, doesn’t it."
"Too much. Too much f**king perspective."
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There are solutions when it comes to the sporting calendar.
The cancellation of the European Championships for a year means that most domestic competitions can be played out into summer and continental competitions can be run off over a couple of weeks as an international tournament would be.
Closer to home, in football, while you can forget about the leagues, in a 31-team competition run without provinces in an old-school knockout format, that would mean five games to take the crown, easily done in two months. Hurling is swifter still. Domestic soccer’s big worry is finance rather than any dates available.
All this can be worked through with some common sense.
There’s a problem though. One merely created here for the sake of argument.
Speaking to a big Liverpool fan the other day, the conversation eventually reached his team of choice. He’s been waiting a lifetime for them to win the Premier League and from Christmas there’s been the feel of a countdown. Or at least there was. Whether they are de facto champions, awarded with a trophy without all games being played, or if they go on to play out the victory come summer, it has lost some of its sheen. Other sports ought to be no different.
When this year is out, who will want to be remembered as a champion of 2020? Who will want to be recalled as celebrating their tiny achievement in the face of so much misery?
It’s just one of a number of stumbling blocks with sport having been relegated to a new and lowly place. Consider GAA as another example of how this will struggle to matter for a while.
Yes, we will all need a pick-me-up but the community spirit could be put to so much better use. Kildare, as an example, are already pushing volunteers towards the HSE while Jack McCaffrey as a doctor (and Keith Earls over in rugby due to the health issues with his child) has begged people to listen. That’s how best their names and their fame can be used, far away from playing fields.
For while sport unifies, it’s also based on rivalry and dislike.
We don’t need that at the moment and won’t during the clean-up operation. Nor will we need the notion that it’ll give some a chance at celebration of their own, negating the fact that when someone wins, many more have to endure losses. We’ve had enough losers for the year already.
Besides, are we expecting elite players to continue to hoover up massive money, after so many have gotten the most brutal reminder of inequality? Are we expecting GAA teams to have money pumped into coaches and conditioning, meals and travel? With most people struggling, can you imagine selling tickets?
There are those who’ll disagree and see sport as a necessity, and to kill time it’s worth the back and forth. Ultimately though, it doesn’t really matter and won’t again for a long time to come. Instead, if there’s one lesson to learn from sport, it’s the journey of the boxer. For they go into isolation for six weeks with their minds tested like no others in this sphere, and come out the other side in the best physical shape, all in the name of being the very best they can be.
That’s worth clinging to as some form of real sporting inspiration.
No matter though, the shadow of this real world cannot be shirked as we have to deal with it too. The other day, queuing metres apart to get into a supermarket where workers were busy stacking shelves and operating tills, and trucks rolled in to keep us from total collapse, a thought came to mind. Maybe we can forget about sport for 2020 and give our attention to these people.
Rather than Messi and Van Dijk, rather than Fenton and Sexton, we could push positivity their way. For no matter how sport untangles itself, these are the real heroes worth our adoration.