THE FINISH LINE

Decimated by virus, sporting world will rebound stronger

There's nothing much to look forward this year, but 2021 is poised to be a year of celebration once sports events can safely resume

ONE by one, the world's most prestigious sporting events have fallen like dominoes, felled by the overwhelming might of an invisible opponent that is seemingly growing stronger and more lethal by the day. The sporting world has never known a force that is the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, with the 2020 calendar already battered beyond recognition.

Scores of tournaments big and small have been canned altogether. Others have been pushed to later in the year or even to 2021, but could still be scrapped if the stubborn bug delivers another sucker punch. These are truly depressing and distressing times for everyone, and sports fans are no exception.

On Wednesday, the Wimbledon Grand Slam tennis tournament was cancelled for the first time since 1945, at the end of World War II. That the announcement came out on April Fool's Day was not lost on many, but it was not a prank or another piece of fake news, even though we secretly wanted it to be.

To rub salt into the wound, the entire grass-court season has been abandoned, and there will be no professional tennis played anywhere in the world until at least July 13. Even a resumption on that date looks highly unlikely.

Wimbledon, which was scheduled to be played from June 29 to July 12, is the latest major sporting event to be struck off the calendar. Two other major summer events - football's Euro 2020 championships and the Tokyo Olympics - were postponed for a year.

Unthinkable just a couple of months ago, but the worsening global health situation meant the organisers were left with little choice but to pull the plug, as painful as doing so would be.

Marathons in cities like London, Boston, Amsterdam, Paris and Barcelona have all been pushed back to the later part of the year.

The Formula One (F1) season, originally scheduled to start in Australia on March 15, has been delayed to the middle of June at the earliest, with a further delay looking all but certain.

The National Basketball Association season has been suspended indefinitely. With the number of infections and deaths in the United States soaring by the day, it's hard to even think about when the basketball season - or any professional sport in America, for that matter - could potentially resume.

The list goes on and on - rugby, cricket, boxing, badminton, cycling, golf, swimming. One can almost hear the maniacal Covid-19 virus chuckling away in some hidden corner, busy plotting when and where to wreck more havoc.

Of course, at a time when millions of lives are at stake, it is hardly an appropriate time to talk about restarting sports and putting even more people - athletes, coaches, spectators, healthcare workers, and so on - at risk.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp perhaps summed it up best when, after the English Premier League season was suspended on March 13, he sent a classy message to his club's disappointed fans. The all-conquering Reds were on the cusp of sealing their first top-flight league championship in 30 long years, but the virus has scuppered those hopes for now, and some supporters are worried that the entire season could be declared null and void if the virus situation in the United Kingdom gets worse. Nonetheless, Klopp insisted that, as difficult as it may be for some, football should be the last thing on people's minds these days.

"All of us have to do whatever we can to protect one another. This should be the case all the time in life, but in this moment I think it matters more than ever," the German said. "I've said before that football always seems the most important of the least important things. Today, football and football matches really aren't important at all. If it's a choice between football and the good of the wider society, it's no contest. Really, it isn't."

His message came out three weeks ago, but those words still remain very relevant today. It's not just football, of course, but sport as a whole. Yes, as much as we would love to see our favourite football league or F1 race resume as early as possible, it's unrealistic to expect this to happen any time soon, at least for several months. Even so, matches and events will probably take place behind closed doors for a start, before we can even think about allowing tens of thousands of spectators into a stadium or arena again.

But as scientists and governments figure out a way to eradicate the virus once and for all, what's clear is that one day, whenever that may be, sport - like most other industries crippled by Covid-19 - will bounce back, and hopefully stronger than ever before. Sport has that unique power to rally, motivate and inspire. Sport can unite the world and celebrate the true power of the human spirit. That time, however, is not now. Like all good things in life, we will simply have to wait.