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An Unnerving State of Play As the Coronavirus Interferes With Everyday Life

Major sporting events provide essential communal human experiences. Some of these events, like the Olympics, are where complex global systems intersect. How, then, should we proceed with them during a public health crisis such as the coronavirus?  

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I live in the middle of Pennsylvania, in a small town that COVID-19 hasn’t reached yet. We’re some of the lucky ones. Like a lot of people right now, we’re just waiting. Every news report brings it closer. One day it’s reached New York. The next day it’s in New Jersey. On Friday morning, the first two positive tests for the coronavirus were reported in eastern Pennsylvania. I don’t know when we crossed the not-if-but-when threshold, but it was a while back. If you live in a big city, or in a worse-hit part of the world, you probably passed through this phase days or weeks ago. But here, the sense of inbound reckoning, that hurricane-on-the-weather-map feeling, is still at a weird remove from everyday life. It’s only just coming into focus that there will be a day when the first person you know gets diagnosed with the virus. Maybe a day when the first person you know dies.

A few months ago, I was reading a book about the Great Fire of London, the inferno that destroyed much of the old city in 1666. It occurred to me that if you want to understand how a city is put together, one way to start is by imagining what would happen if the city went up in flames. What do people grab, and what route do they take to escape? Watch the gold coming up out of the basements on one street, the workmen bundling their tools on another, the crush of horses and carts and chests around the mouths of bridges, the narrow city gates. Taking the city apart in a wild haste gives you a glimpse of what people value, where their priorities met, how things were fitted together before the emergency dismantled them.

The town where I live is near the intersection of two major freeways, I-81 and I-76. The town itself is hundreds of years old. It was a frontier outpost back before the Revolutionary War. More recently, it’s become a shipping and distribution center. Amazon has a warehouse nearby. I sometimes walk past it with the dogs. Actually, “warehouse” is a poor word for a building that stretches so far, truck bay after truck bay, and “walk past” is a bad way to describe going by a building you can’t really get near, one you only see in the distance across an inhospitable belt of corporate lawns. There’s a nature trail they built to buffer an upscale residential neighborhood from the freight traffic, and when you come out of an opening in the trail, the complex is there, like: behold. The lawns are always immaculate. I don’t know who keeps them trimmed, but someone does.

Trucks are passing near town at all hours of the day and night. Through town. From everywhere, heading everywhere. There’s also a college in town, where my wife teaches. She’s an English professor. The students are about to leave for spring break. The ones who can, anyway—a lot of flights have been canceled. They’ll go away for a couple of weeks, to places all over the world, and then, if they can, they’ll fly back. It’s not exactly a striking insight at this moment in history to say that we’re all connected by complex systems, but it’s something you’re more keenly aware of as you watch a new virus spread over the globe. Not in a panicking way, not even in a worried way, necessarily. Just with a sharpened consciousness. You think about how the city is built: all the blinking lights moving across the map, where they pass near you, where they intersect.

Because I write about sports for a living, I’m thinking about all the major sporting events that are supposed to take place in the next few months. Euro 2020, the European soccer championship, is scheduled to start in less than 100 days. The Tokyo Olympics is scheduled to begin on July 24. NCAA March Madness starts in … well, look at what month it is. Sport—especially the big international events, the ones that last for weeks and generate their own multitiered economies—is one of those places where complex global systems intersect, where a lot of blinking lights come together. It’s almost literally the perfect staging area for the spread of an illness like the coronavirus: tens of thousands of people, hundreds of thousands, converging from all over the world in the same small areas, then further converging into tightly packed stadiums full of food and drink and refuse. Full of people screaming and weeping and passing beers down the line and hugging each other.

What happens to these events now? The organizers are saying they plan to go ahead with them. Should they? We might not know until it’s too late to do anything else. Because what happens in a sporting event is, from one perspective, so utterly inessential it’s tempting to say that it’s insane to go forward with something like the Olympics when lives might be at stake. A big part of me does want to say that. The latest fatality rate I’ve seen reported for the coronavirus is 3.4 percent. It seems likely that this number will turn out to be inflated, but we don’t know that for certain. The fatality rate during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918 was between 2 and 3 percent. Something like a third of the human population got sick; tens of millions of people died. It’s hard to look at those numbers and think, but I must find out who is the fastest swimmer over a given distance. There is a grotesque amount of money tied up in sport, of course, and money intensifies the perceived importance of anything it touches. But in this case, the ultimate stakes are just kind of like: hey, the 200-meter backstroke. That’s neat.

There are precedents for canceling or moving sporting events due to the risk of disease. Kind of a lot of them, actually. To name just two: Smallpox forced the cancellation of English soccer matches as far back as the late 19th century; in this century, the outbreak of SARS prompted FIFA to move the 2003 Women’s World Cup from China to the United States. (The decision was made in May, and the tournament kicked off in September.) The coronavirus has already caused more havoc to sports organizers than possibly any medical crisis in history. In Italy, the European country hit hardest by the virus, 10 Serie A matches have already been postponed, potentially rewriting the title race; as of this week, the government has decreed that all sporting events until at least April 3 take place in empty stadiums. The LPGA has canceled events in China, Thailand, and Singapore. The new Basketball Africa League has postponed its opening season. English Premier League matches are going ahead without pre-match handshakes. In this country, college basketball games are being canceled on the West Coast just two weeks before the start of the NCAA tournament. There’s been serious talk about American sporting events following the Italian model, going ahead without fans.

All of which seems, again, reasonable and appropriate—OK, maybe not the Premier League handshake thing, that one seems like the wrong person talked too much in the “Oh god, what do we do” meeting, but the rest of them? So sensible that it’s hard to see why the big international events aren’t being more aggressive in their own response.

As I type that, though, I’m aware of a tension. I think it has to do with the idea that if you rotate your gaze a little, what happens in a sporting event is not just the obvious thing of figuring out whether England or Germany is better at penalty kicks. (I can tell you that now; no need to play the tournament.) There’s also the dimension of communal human experience, which fills a profound psychic need for most of us. Sport is kind of silly in and of itself, and often corrupt and harmful in the way it’s organized and sold. Underneath all the clichés about “bringing us together” or “bridging our differences,” though, there’s an element of fragile truth.

The kind of collective dramatic engagement that sport offers, the way it lets you feel something intensely at the same time as thousands of other people, and without that thing being purely nationalistic or violent (though obviously, it’s vulnerable to those forces)—we need that. We need stories we can tell, and at the moment, we’re short on good sources for them. Sport is not the only form of vital communal experience that will be affected by the virus; film releases have already been delayed, including the release of the new James Bond movie, and the Louvre has been closed, though it’s now reopened. South by Southwest, Austin’s annual technology, music, and film festival, was canceled on Friday. I don’t know what it says about us—us meaning humans—but at any given time, sport is likely to be the dumbest thing happening in society and a powerful emblem of why we have society in the first place.

What I keep coming back to is the thought that even at a moment when the smart move might be to shut it down completely, sport is still serving us as a kind of strange focal point for disparate experiences—as a kind of map of a city on fire. That is, here we all are, in our own particular circumstances, in our own places, watching the coronavirus spread, feeling that contact with other people is both dangerous and essential, unsure whether the systems in which we’re embedded are doing more to contain or spread the risk; and here’s sport, acting as an emblem both of what we’re afraid will happen and of what we’re afraid we will lose. The problem sport represents in this moment is a microcosm of our anxiety, ambivalence, and hope—and for those of us living with the uncertainty of these days, of uncertainty itself.