“In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer” – Albert Camus.
There’s an elephant in sports waiting room, it is tethered to a ball and chain, the chain is under increasing strain…the ball is beckoning.
Here’s a kick for touch.
In terms of the ‘big three’ contact sports I think 2020 is a write off. I hope I’m proved wrong but I remain to be convinced.
Beyond the guarded rhetoric of governments and the cautious, arguably naive optimism of sports governing bodies, there is a conversation to be had.
Are those of us desperate for the return of contact sports just a little delusional in thinking that it’s coming back anytime soon?
We’ve only taken the first steps
Ultan Power and I used to hurl together for the Bredagh Club on Belfast’s Ormeau Road.
Like me, Ultan loves the game he is also Professor of Molecular Virology at Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine at Queen’s University, Belfast.
“We’re in a pandemic and on this journey its crucial to remember we’ve only just taken the first steps,” says Power.
“At some point we’re all going to bump into this unwelcome viral visitor.
“In the history of mankind, developing an effective vaccine in less than 18 months would be unprecedented. Developing drugs to treat Covid-19 is also difficult and will take time to ensure safety and efficacy.
“I expect sports bodies are being guided by their own experts but for me it’s difficult to see any meaningful contact sport here in 2020.
“For players and coaching staff who have had confirmed Covid-19, increasing evidence indicates that they will likely become immune to the virus, although the jury is still out on the duration of this immunity.
“For those who haven’t, they would need to undergo regular testing for the virus to lower the risk of transmission during training or matches.
“For spectators, returning to crowded stadia in the current stage of the pandemic would be highly risky in terms of virus transmission and would add substantially to the disease’s burden in society as a whole.”
It’s a case of when, not if
“How likely, in your expert opinion, is a second wave of the virus?”, I ask.
“It’s inevitable. It’s not if, it’s when and then all bets are off again,” Power responds.
“The big questions are: ‘Will we be better prepared for it next time to nip the virus spread in the bud? How will we cope with Covid-19 in addition to all the other seasonal respiratory viruses, such as influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, which greatly stretch our health care systems every year as it is?’.”
The World Health Organisation concurs. As countries begin to relax and ease lockdown restrictions Dr Hans Kluge, WHO’s regional director for Europe, pulled no punches in a statement earlier this week.
“I’m very concerned about a double wave – in the autumn, we could have a second wave of Covid and another one of seasonal flu or measles,” he said.
“Our behaviour today will set the course for the pandemic. As governments lift restrictions, you, the people, are the main actors.”
To a greater or lesser extent, we are all players in an ongoing social experiment.
And that’s the elephant in the room, a double wave in autumn or winter and the return to sport argument becomes redundant.
One step forward, two steps back.
Put your boots in the bin
Liam Heaney used to play gaelic football for Down and loves his sport.
He is also Professor of Respiratory Medicine in Queen’s University and is currently based in the Belfast City and Nightingale Hospital.
“We must remember that social distancing is not a panacea, the lockdown was all about slowing the virus down and ensuring health services didn’t get overwhelmed and it has been pretty effective here,” he states.
“Stormont’s five-phased approach feels about right and in a purely sporting context the Bundesliga and South Korea experiments, where football has returned behind closed doors, will be useful yard sticks for the start of similar sports here.
“In a wider context, the experience of European countries and England’s relaxation of their lockdown, particularly in London, will help inform others watching on.
“If they hit a bump on the road fairly quickly with a rise in infection rate, then we should all prepare for a very slow and gradual emergence from lockdown with persistent social distancing measures for many month.”
What about those sports men and women who say ‘no vaccine, no return to play’?
“To be blunt, to anyone stipulating that a vaccine is mandatory before returning to training or playing, I would say put your boots in the bin,” Heaney continues.
“There is no guarantee an effective and safe vaccine will be developed and even if it does happen, it will take time.
“We must not hurry a vaccine and we must get it right, it’s quite likely Covid-19 will be a recurrent event.
“I think going forward in the new normal, whatever that is, we must factor in some degree of managed risk and sport, like many other things in life, can never be completely risk free.”
‘Covid-19 came to our door’
I’ve been a sports broadcast journalist for 25 years.
Just a few months ago, for the first time in my privileged career, I stepped back from covering a major event.
My wife Ciara and I have three boys. A decade ago our middle son required life saving surgery as a baby due to a congenital heart defect.
Uncertain if he fell into a vulnerable category, I was hesitant about covering a four-day event with over a quarter of a million people in attendance. The BBC was understanding and upon raising my concerns it was agreed, without hesitation, that I wouldn’t travel.
As it transpired Covid 19 came to our door anyway. Ciara is a senior physiotherapist for the NHS in Belfast.
She and her colleagues worked in one of Northern Ireland’s first Covid-19 hotspots. One by one, they came down with the virus – some were floored and others recovered quickly. All have returned to work a month on.
The week in which Ciara isolated (with our youngest son who was also exhibiting symptoms) was one of the most stressful of my life. When she re-emerged from quarantine, I cried.
In many instances, it is human nature to think of the worst case scenario and work your way back, at the extreme end the virus is life threatening and that’s a sobering thought.
Having Covid-19 in my home rendered me completely paranoid like some kind of 21st-century Howard Hughes. As with so many other families, we pulled the shutters down, prayed and rode it out.
I, and my two other children, had no symptoms and were not tested for the virus or for the antibodies.
We self-isolated for two weeks and re-emerged feeling very fortunate but also a little unclean and in my case that is because so few other people have had it.
I asked Professor Heaney how likely it was that I’d had coronavirus and been asymptomatic.
“Without a test you can’t be definitive but in my experience this virus is quite contagious so when living in the same household with family members with proven infection, you’re also very likely to have had it,” he replied.
‘Do you think we’ll ever have sport back?’
I have a little dog called Fiach, who has been my lockdown lifeline.
I missed our daily walk, where over such a short period of time random strangers had become familiar, if socially distant faces.
Invariably talk of sport began to dominate our routinely brief chats.
“Do you think we’ll ever have sport back?”, I get asked.
“All this blether of being back at major events anytime soon that’s just pie in the sky isn’t it? The economy needs sport, it’s vital for our physical and emotional well being, surely we must get back soon, don’t you think so? What are you hearing?”
And so the questions continue, and having taken the elephant in sports waiting room out for a walk, I don’t have the answers, indeed few of us do.
I do know that sport without spectators is like bread without butter – dry and unpalatable. Take away the fans, and you strip sport of its soul.
In researching this story, it has become apparent to me that we must, for the foreseeable future, factor ‘risk’ into the life equation. Not least when considering a return to contact sport.
About the only other certainty I feel comfortable broaching in this emerging ‘new normal’ is we are only just approaching a bend on the road, around which w will be able to glimpse the foothills of the climb which lies ahead.
The foothills obscure a mountain which in turn is shrouded in cloud. Beyond those clouds, the sun shines.