Yesterday, the playground below my house was a silent reminder of the unprecedented times we are living in due to the coronavirus pandemic.
I was looking down from my flat on the 14th floor and the empty playground caught my eye. The kids were missing and instead, around 30 crows had settled on the field… they had it all to themselves.
On a regular day, this space would be teeming with children and even grown-ups. Children on cycles, some playing football, a few making the lamppost their stump, others running up and down the slides or doing the monkey crawl. But yesterday, it was quiet. I cannot remember a time like this. I cannot even remember reading about a time like this. There have been times when sport in a country comes to a stop. But never like this; never a complete global shutdown.
Scoring a goal, even in a playground game, gives you a high. It makes you feel good. Taking a wicket or hitting a six has the same effect. And you share that joy with your team. But suddenly, the playgrounds are empty.
They talk about the Spanish flu, also known as the 1918 flu pandemic. But that was more than a hundred years back and it never quite led to this kind of global shutdown.
During the World Wars, we had sport. In two areas — sports and entertainment — all the combatant countries tried to maintain at least a semblance of normality in order to keep up civilian morale. It was important because it allowed the children to dream and the elders to escape from reality for a few hours. Even prisoners of war on either side were allowed to play.
Even at the time of the great depression, there was sport. Seabiscuit, the racehorse, became an unlikely champion and a symbol of hope to many Americans during the Great Depression. The story of Seabiscuit, taking on and beating the mighty War Admiral, who had won the 1937 American Triple Crown, inspired so many to believe that the odds were never impossible.
During civil war, we had sport. In January 2016, the story of an Afghan boy wearing a Lionel Messi jersey made out of a plastic bag went viral. The image, which garnered global attention after it was posted on a Messi fansite, sparked a manic search by fans to find the six-year-old from Jaghori, southwest of Kabul. He was eventually found after 11 months, taken to Qatar, allowed to meet Messi. It gave him hope, a goal and a picture of a better world.
After an earthquake, we had sport. When Chile were pleading their case for hosting the 1962 World Cup, their country had been devastated by earthquakes and Charles Dittborn, the President of the Chilean Football Federation coined the magnificent non sequitur, ‘We must have the World Cup because we have nothing.’
When riots end, the first pictures we tend to see are blood and gore. But soon, those pictures give way to images of children playing in spaces they clear out for themselves. Sport helps us move on, to forget momentarily and focus on the job at hand.
But now, all we have are empty playgrounds and a constant stream of cancelled and postponed sporting events. It’s surreal because we take the right to play sport for granted. We’ve always had sport. On our screens and our grounds. In our arguments. Fuelling small talk or even simply making us nostalgic. We’ve never really had to think about kicking a ball before or playing a game of cricket or even just running with friends. But we have to do that now and it’s unsettling at a very base level.
The stars probably welcome the break. Sport is a job for them. But for so many others, it was a break from their jobs... from their lives. Maybe, they will turn to their imagination or nostalgia or even reruns.
At the end of the day, humanity will find a way past this crisis and sports will play a role. After all, sports are about those incredible moments where human will and desire overcomes the odds. But one wonders whether we will look at the place sports has in our lives differently once the coronavirus crisis ends.
We all know about the physical benefits of playing sports but perhaps now, we’ll learn so much more about the mental benefits. For now, one can’t wait to see the empty playgrounds fill up with kids again. That is when we’ll really know things are getting back to normal.