Global sports face ‘unprecedented’ test amid Coronavirus outbreak

The global sporting calendar is in disarray amid virus fears, with dozens of events cancelled, writes by Saba Aziz.

Dozens of international sport events have been cancelled or postponed around the world amid an outbreak of a new type of corona virus. The pathogen’s effect has been felt across a range of sports – from athletics, rugby and golf to football, tennis and motorsports.

The epidemic, which began in China in late December, has plunged the global sporting calendar into disarray and cast a shadow over preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Qualifiers for the Summer Games in Japan are among a growing list of competitions either pushed back or relocated because of the virus.

“In the modern era, this virus has created what is fast becoming an unprecedented situation,” said Simon Chadwick, director of the Centre for the Eurasian Sport Industry.

“Sport has been beset over the last three or four decades by drug bans and boycotts, though nothing matches the scale of the coronavirus … With every match or event cancelled, the industry’s economic impact is undermined; revenues from ticket sales being hit; apparel and sportswear sales are down. For modern commercial sport, there has never been anything like this,” he told Al Jazeera.

The virus has now infected more than 90,000 people and killed 3,000, the vast majority in China. Some governments responded to the outbreak by banning travel to and from China and denying entry to foreign nationals who had visited the country.

The travel restrictions hit China’s athletes badly, affecting their ability to travel for competition.

The outbreak has also disrupted several sport events in China. Besides athletes and organisers in China, sports businesses and manufacturers have also been affected.

Du Mingrui, founder and CEO of zx42195, the biggest running tour and registration company in China, said he has lost at least $1m in business. He said his factories in China’s capital, Beijing – which produce medals, t-shirts and other merchandise for more than 70 races around the world – were forced shut for more than three weeks because of the epidemic.

“We had to cancel most of our registrations [more than 2,000] for the first half of the year,” he told Al Jazeera. “We understand the situation… money is nothing now. The most important [thing] is that we finish this disaster first.”

In South Korea, which has the highest number of reported cases outside of China, some athletes are being forced to train in isolation. The country has 5,328 cases and at least 28 deaths.

The virus has also plagued European football.

Several games in Italy’s Serie A has been postponed after hundreds of cases were detected in the country, while some English clubs have banned players from shaking hands at their training grounds. Switzerland’s top league has also been put on hold until at least March 23, after clubs rejected the possibility of playing behind closed doors.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino also raised the possibility of cancelling international matches this month.

“The health of people is more important than any football game and anything else,” the head of football’s world governing body told reporters in Ireland on Friday. “For the moment, it looks like it [coronavirus] is increasing. If games have to be postponed or played without spectators for a period of time until it’s over, well, then we have to do that.”

In Japan, which has 293 confirmed cases and 12 deaths, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called for the cancellation, postponement and reduction in size of large sports events in the country in a bid to contain the virus.

As the outbreak expands, there are increasing fears that the virus could hamper the Tokyo Olympics.

Japan’s Olympic minister Seiko Hashimoto indicated on Tuesday that Tokyo could be allowed to postpone the Games to later in the year, according to its contract with the International Olympic Committee. But the IOC has reiterated its “full commitment” to staging the Games as per schedule from July 24 to August 9.

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