For fans of televised sport, there will always be that golden Sunday, in July last year, when the broadcast of a topsy-turvy Wimbledon final overlapped with a British Grand Prix and England’s blockbuster victory in the Cricket World Cup. Oh my Djokovic: an unimprovable time to be an armchair spectator, an afternoon of channel-hopping and ad-dodging, hurrying wees and tea brews, juggling screens and streams and replays till we sweated like athletes ourselves.
Unthinkable, then, that 10 months on, the sport schedules would be empty. Wimbledon 2020 is off. The cricket season has been picked apart. Everything from motorsport to football to darts has been put on hold while the world deals with coronavirus.
What are we left with? How are fans, broadcasters and sportspeople themselves coping with the dearth of live competition on TV? On a recent Sunday evening, the hero of last summer’s Cricket World Cup, Ben Stokes, agreed to take part in a virtual grand prix that was broadcast at primetime on Sky. It was a kind of high-end Mario Kart that, with some squinting, looked almost as good as the real thing. But it was fatally devoid of risk. The seriousness of the contest never fully recovered after a restless Stokes started speeding backwards around the track, colliding with drivers coming the other way. One of the cars was piloted by Liam Payne. I decided then that virtual sports were not going to cut it for me.Ben Stokes taking part in a virtual grand prix in April. Will he catch Jenson Button? Photograph: F1 Esports
For a while I managed my cravings for sports programming – 15 hours a week, pre-pandemic – by taking in a diet of football documentaries, season-in-review DVDs and YouTube clips of outrageous or obscure goals from years gone by. A striker for Brighton, I remembered, vaguely, had scored a last-minute goal with his penis in 2019. I watched the clip several times.
The documentaries were more nourishing, especially the multi-hour Netflix series Sunderland ’Til I Die that charted, in immaculate turn-by-turn detail, the fortunes of the north-east club as it moved between the lower leagues. Viewers were introduced to fans for whom watching footie was more than just a diversion, it was a crutch. I was especially taken by a diehard called Michelle Barraclough who hadn’t missed a Sunderland game in years.
I called up Barraclough, one afternoon, to ask how she was coping. She’d watched something like 20 hours of live sport a week, before the lockdown, and had now gone a fortnight without. The country’s response to the coronavirus, she told me, had made her question her hero-worship of footballers in the past. “Football feels very small in the grand scheme of things,” she said. “People can’t see their families. I haven’t seen my five-year-old granddaughter since the lockdown started. If I told anyone, ‘Oh, I’m missing the football,’ they’d probably give me a slap.”
There was a pause. But are you missing the football, I asked? “Oh God, yeah,” she said. “Massively. Massively.”
I was, too. I’d heard there were armchair fans out there who were looking east for their fix. Leagues had been suspended in England, Scotland, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. But not in Belarus, where the Premier League season kicked off in late March. A team from the outskirts of Minsk called Energetik (they’d been rechristened to honour the Belarusian state energy company) won the opening game of the season 3-1. Energetik then went on to beat the incumbent league champions and had a chance to go top of the league, if they could beat their local rivals, Minsk.‘An afternoon of Ukrainian table tennis was like watching events from space.’ Illustration: Gym Class/The Guardian
I watched the derby live. Energetik scored in the first half. They had a player sent off in the second. They won the game in injury time, their goalie running the length of the pitch to celebrate with his teammates while, at my end, in my bedroom in London, I gave my laptop a celebratory waggle and clicked to close the small pop-up window I’d been watching in. One of the gambling websites, Bet365, held streaming rights to the Belarusian league and this was the only way to watch along: a square of video the size of a couple of postage stamps, surrounded by flashing sports odds and gaudy ads for an Irish-themed casino game called Spin O’Reely.
Production-wise, it wasn’t quite what I was used to: there was no commentary, only the sound of huffing players and (crystal clear) the Energetik coach screaming angry criticism at his players and the ref. Even so, I found myself looking forward to the next round of fixtures, in a week’s time.
“You’re watching football from Belarus? Getting your hit wherever you can find it, eh? You’re like someone who’s run out of single malt whiskey and has started drinking hand sanitiser.” This was James O’Brien, the LBC radio presenter, who I’d called up at home. O’Brien, who used to watch about eight hours of live sport a week, was one of the first to wonder aloud what its absence would be doing to the nation’s mental health, and I was curious to know how he was managing. “I’m not watching Belarusian football, no,” said O’Brien, “but there is a massive gap that’s been left and nothing is quite filling it.”Energetik take on Minsk in the Belarus Premier League in March. Photograph: Sergei Grits/AP
On his radio show, he said, he was hearing from dozens of people every day as they described their lives in this strange and unsettling period. “And this has really come across to me, speaking to people, how hard it has been to find moments of mental space. I see now that sport was one of those doorways to a clear mind. I realise what value it had, emotionally. Because there was the distraction of the sport itself – but, almost as important, there was the comfort and reassurance that the sport was there.” He said he still found himself flicking to “the 400s” – the sports channels on Sky – just in case.
What else was still showing live on TV and online? There was Australian horse racing, but it didn’t start till the middle of the night. Malaysian volleyball? Russian ice hockey? I settled, in the end, for an afternoon of Ukrainian table tennis, following the progress of a pale and furious young player called Vadim Smetenko, who happened to be on a winning streak that day. The physically distanced players squeaked around a leisure centre, footage of the matches shot using a fixed camera above the table, the sound coming in and out, and the feed occasionally rippling with distortion. It was all a little like watching events from space.
Soon it was time to watch Energetik play their next fixture. It was a bleak affair, and not only because they were beaten 2-0 by a team called Torpedo. “I’m not sure,” O’Brien had said, “that Belarusian football is a market you want to be supporting at the moment. What, have they discovered something about coronavirus the rest of us haven’t?” He was right. Belarus was currently the only country in Europe with an active football competition. The country did not seem to have any special handle on the problem of coronavirus; its sports administrators had just decided to carry on regardless. The country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, made the questionable claim that sport should not only be allowed to continue but that it “is the best anti-virus remedy”. The chief of Fifpro, the world footballers’ union, had described the situation as “not comprehendible”. Wishing Energetik well, I decided to let the Belarusian Premier League carry on without me.
Watching sport, you can be irrational, or elated, or fuming angry, or goosebumpy. And that’s why we need it