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COVID has revealed the ugly side of sport ‘show-business’

with Rochelle Eime

The business of sport has unplugged from where it all began. It has forsaken the people, players, families, volunteers and local sports communities that once came together mainly for fun and fitness.

Professional sport is now in the business of entertainment, and more motivated by corporate greed than community care. Just last week we saw the European Super League’s insensitive attempt to form a new competition without considering what members and fans might want, and they were rightly outraged.

Elite athletes the world over continue to train in bubbles for an Olympics abandoned in 2020, but likely going ahead in less than 100 days. This is despite Tokyo being currently in lockdown and into its third state of emergency.

Worryingly, many countries planning to participate in the Olympics have worse case numbers now than when the Olympics were originally cancelled last year. Even Australia’s Sports Minister Richard Colbeck has acknowledged that Australian athletes will likely be exposed to COVID while at the Olympics, and will need to face hard quarantine upon their return despite them getting fast-track vaccines.

Australian cricketers persist with a global cricket competition in playing bubbles in India – one of the most pandemic-plagued countries in the world – despite some admitting to personal stress and a hold on flights from India preventing them to come home.

The Australian Institute of Sport reports a nearly 80% increase in demand for its Mental Health Referral Network from the start of 2021 compared to the same time in 2020, highlighting that the health and wellbeing of our top athletes is being compromised.

This profit-above-people philosophy is also taking its toll on community sport. While neighbourhood ovals and community centres across Australia are slowly returning to play, there is uncertainty whether clubs will fully recover due to a lack of volunteers – the critical force behind them. Some clubs are soldiering on, playing now without volunteer umpires.

A study of more than 6000 Victorians conducted during the height of last year’s lockdown conducted by Victoria, Federation and Flinders Universities found respondents on average participated an hour less in sport or physical activity a fortnight compared to pre-COVID.

While restrictions hit organised sport such as golf, bowls, cricket, netball and swimming the worst, teenagers in particular turned to cycling, walking and jogging at higher rates than before COVID. Perhaps this critical group have found replacements to community sport?

Before the pandemic, five-year sport participation trends showed a welcome strong increase among young girls in particular, but will all those gains now be lost?

It’s time to think about the value of all sport, not just the show-business of sport. And in doing so, to remember that people matter: the players and volunteers in community sport, just as much as our elite athletes who are now being put at risk for the sake of profit.

Elite sport that once inspired grass-roots players and volunteers, and supported community clubs now need to step up more than ever before – and not just by providing corporate-funded backpacks filled with marketing paraphernalia that ends up as landfill.

The Olympic Games and the Indian Premier League exist because once upon a time, common citizens wanted to play sport and socialise with kindred spirits. It was people, not profit driving them. Which sport is going to stand up for its community and show real leadership during troubled times?