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Commentary: The Australian Open has lessons for large sports events in Singapore

With the Singapore Sports Hub hosting an ATP 250 event in late February, there are many lessons to ponder from the current tennis issues Down Under, says Shamir Osman.

Commentary: The Australian Open has lessons for large sports events in Singapore

A ball kid holds a ball during an Australian Open match. (Photo: REUTERS/Hannah Mckay)

SINGAPORE: Australia is split down the middle of an Australian Open muddle, livid that millionaire tennis players flying in for the tournament could possibly wreck months of hard work in keeping communities safe from COVID-19 and returning to some sort of normalcy.

And it is hard to blame them.

See, Australians had to seriously commit to the cause. In Melbourne, where the Australian Open proper will take place from Feb 8 to Feb 21, police enforced a strict four-month lockdown between July and October 2020, which led to businesses and schools closing.

Residents were allowed outside for an hour each day – later extended to two hours – to exercise or run errands like grocery shopping, and even then, had to remain within three miles (4.8km) of their home unless they had a permit. 

READ: Commentary: How did Melbourne become the centre of the ‘world’s strictest lockdown’?

READ: Commentary: COVID-19 has forced us to rethink stadiums and sports facilities

Across the net from livid Australians in Melbourne, are organisers who put together an expensive authorities-approved plan to bring tennis back to a country madly in love with the sport – a tournament that could well bring with it a bright spark in this pandemic gloom.

And here is the problem with all of this: Both factions raise valid points - points from across either end of the spectrum that make sense on a visceral level. 

But despite best intentions and preparation directed by expert advice, things can go wrong. And with this stubborn virus, implications can be terrible.

None of those factions are wrong. And indeed, they may all have been guided by the best intentions. 

FILE PHOTO: A staff member wearing PPE works to clean surfaces at Melbourne Park in between training sessions for tennis players undergoing mandatory quarantine in advance of the Australian Open in Melbourne, Australia, Jan 21, 2021. (Photo: REUTERS/Kelly Defina/File Photo)

But like most paths lined with best intentions, they can all lead to hell.

The problem is that each side is digging in within their own defined parameters. The organisers appear determined to push the event through, the residents are battling against any chance of falling back into lockdown – and the athletes wanting to do what athletes do – compete to win.  

But does it necessarily have to be a binary discussion - a choice between sports and safety? Can there be no middle-ground? Do we really have to choose between sports and safety? 

GAME, SET, MATCH

Singapore needs to sit up and pay close attention to the drama unfolding in Melbourne. We too will be welcoming tennis players soon, albeit on a smaller scale. The Singapore Sports Hub will host an ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) 250 event in late February.  

Of course, none of us want to put our vulnerable at risk of the invisible COVID-19 enemy, nor have to put ourselves through the brutal grind of another lockdown that will undoubtedly push us – all of us – way beyond the line of merely weird behaviour. 

FILE PHOTO: Tennis players undergoing mandatory quarantine ahead of the Australian Open leave a restricted training area in Melbourne, Australia, January 20, 2021. REUTERS/Sandra Sanders

Remember the strange happenings that swept across the island during our Circuit Breaker last year? Some folks hurling chairs from second storey windows, others stripping in public, and even the chap who tried to sell a McDonald’s sandwich for S$50.

But sporting endeavour uplifts the human spirit in a way that little else can. That Cristiano Ronaldo leap to head the ball, that Sachin Tendulkar swing of the cricket bat, that delicately powerful Roger Federer crosscourt backhand. That Serena Williams twirl. 

READ: Commentary: Singapore has its first multimillion-dollar football signing. But what next?

We know what each means. They evoke imagery and emotion that will start to bubble up from our core.

Even during closed-door matches last year, the Singapore Premier League (SPL) witnessed some fans plastered against stadium fences, others with necks craning from stairwells to get a better look, and fists shooting up into the night sky when goals were scored. 

Yes, the same local football league dissed and dismissed. However maligned, the SPL matches were sporting contests that saw Singaporeans come, uncourted, to immerse themselves in. 

The football produced excitement, elation and normalcy. Life as we used to know it.

SAFETY COMES FIRST

But while sport is visceral and can be uplifting, it appears to be – like art – relegated to “non-essential” at a time when both literal and economic survival are at risk. 

Serena Williams and her daughter arrive in Adelaide where they, along with other superstars such as Naomi Osaka, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, have been allowed to quarantine ahead of the Australian Open. (Photo: AFP/Brenton EDWARDS)

And the question must be asked: Do sports events come at greater risk than a conference the likes of The World Economic Forum because of physical exertion? Do business and economic conferences bring greater value to humanity, especially at a time like this?

There are those who feel that such sports events – even the Olympics in Tokyo this summer – can wait in the interest of public health safety.

Australia may have hosted a cricket test series with nary an incident, just like our own SPL.

But over in the United States, the National Basketball Association has not shied away from postponing games even while soldiering on to excite, entertain and protect livelihoods alongside sponsorship dollars.

READ: Commentary: It is time social media played a more important role for football clubs

The English Premier League has taken a similar path after initially halting all play in 2020, threatening to derail English footballing history and Liverpool’s first title win in 30 years.  

VACCINES, ANYONE?

Perhaps, large sports events – especially with fans in attendance – are indeed higher risk and need considerable action beyond the routine to be mitigated.   

Novak Djokovic gestures from his hotel balcony in Adelaide, one of the locations where players are quarantined for two weeks ahead of the Australian Open in Melbourne. (Photo: AFP/Brenton EDWARDS)

We can put plans in place, like Tennis Australia chief Craig Tiley did - plans that meet medical experts’ standards of pandemic safety measures. Like athletes who arrive early to serve the quarantine that they know they must. 

From bio secure bubbles, to strict mask-donning protocols for officials and fans, if allowed, and stringent policing of itineraries for visiting athletes, various practices have been tested and implemented.

But these may not be enough. Perhaps it may well be that events such as the Australian Open and Singapore’s ATP250 as well as other large sporting events need to be vaccine-only zones, assuming the vaccine prevents transmission. 

That is, whoever is within them – players, officials, organisers, fans, media and more, need to have been vaccinated against COVID-19. 

READ: Commentary: Are EPL broadcasting rights just too expensive for television now?

Restrictions on crowd size might have to stay. Spacing out groups of spectators may be a new normal. We may even see rules against cheering.

The system of on-site stalls to sell food and drinks as well as paraphernalia may have to be reviewed – scrapping them altogether, allowing purchases to be made digitally so as to better manage queues or even allow people to visit such stalls in allocated time blocks. 

Entrance to game venues will also have to be better managed in the spirit of crowd control.   

A rebalance catering towards a digital audience to earn dollars too might be needed.

Fresh solutions to save our beloved sporting events are needed.

DECISION DOESN’T HAVE TO BE BINARY

There are no easy answers or solutions that can work for everyone all the time. Just ask the lower ranked players quarantined and unable to train in Melbourne, for whom a good showing at the Aussie Open means money to pay for necessities to keep their careers alive. 

Some players have been banned from practising after positive COVID-19 tests from the flight bringing them to Melbourne for the Australian Open. (Photo: AFP/William West)

But like Australia now, we are all in a right messy muddle of protecting life, continuing life-affirming work and keeping livelihoods alive. And none should exist without the other. 

The tennis players quarantined in Melbourne will need to train as best they can in hotel rooms and stay sane enough to compete, even as COVID infections continue to rise in the Victorian capital. 

The most inspiring among us, like our very own Joseph Schooling, should continue to train like the Olympics comes tomorrow, but accept that for the good of the many it may not even take place.

So, as we stand at the start of a year that should welcome four Grand Slams, football’s European Championships, the 2020 Olympics and Singapore’s first ATP event, let’s try and learn from a 2020 that flipped everything upside down – that everything needs to be protected and nothing is sacrosanct no matter the precautions and preparations.

READ: Commentary: Lewis Hamilton has dominated F1. But the sport has also gained from his success

Decisions will not be obvious but we must keep the wheels in motion - safely. 

Importantly, decisions need not be binary – we can find ways to be inspired through sports while mitigating health risks such large sports events may bring in a COVID-world.

Shamir Osman was a former sports journalist for 12 years before crossing the aisle to work in public relations.

Source: CNA/ml

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