Tipping Point: Society can gain more than it loses by increasing crowd sizes

Words need to match actions but return to some sort of normal can boost morale

Waterford huddle before their Airtricity League game against Shelbourne at an empty Tolka Park. Photo: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Waterford huddle before their Airtricity League game against Shelbourne at an empty Tolka Park. Photo: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

The shape of any new norm will become clearer this week when the Government decides whether or not to go ahead with the deferred phase four stage of its roadmap for reopening the country. Its implications for sport are considerable, which helps explain the impatience felt in many governing bodies here.

Not too many are publicly shouting their frustration. Organisations feeling the financial and logistical pressure of a year decimated by coronavirus may be privately exasperated at Government caution, but have largely kept that irritation to themselves. After all, a pandemic produces its own pecking order of priorities and sport hardly tops the table.

A salutary reminder of just how fluid the situation is came in England on Friday when permission was withdrawn for fans to attend some trial events – including the World Snooker Championship in Sheffield – due to fears of about rising Covid-19 infection rates. Increased positive test rates here too underline how little can be taken for granted.

As it stands the implementation of phase four will see an increase in outdoor assembly size to 500. That includes sporting events. It’s still notably lower than the 5,000 attendance originally planned for Goodwood races on Saturday. That would have been a similar sized crowd to what the French authorities have permitted for some weeks, provided people wear face masks.

In such unique circumstances sport walks a thin tightrope balancing the demands of public health and people’s livelihoods.

‘Lab rats’

Snooker star Ronnie O’Sullivan’s statement about players at the Crucible being treated like “lab rats” inevitably overshadowed more substantive comments about coronavirus still being a deadly serious issue, particularly for the most vulnerable. O’Sullivan backed the decision of his fellow-player, Anthony Hamilton, an asthma sufferer, to withdraw. But he has still opted to compete himself.

Such individual compromises occur every day here when racing takes place behind closed doors. This is sport but also a shop window to an industry employing thousands and which is worth more than €1 billion to a national economy desperately trying to regain traction. Racing’s current norm has appeared to work well overall.

Its impact on the ground, however, was stamped all over last week’s Galway festival. Irish racing’s most social event of the year became a grim exercise in functionality. Horses and jockeys competed and a wider television audience watched and bet. But without spectators it was a largely sterile exercise in making the best of a bad lot.

That so many have had to endure a much more dire lot due to Covid-19, and many more are justifiably frightened of a disease with the potential to return with a vengeance in the coming months, provides stark context to how best any partial return of spectators to live sport can be safely organised.

The return of other sporting action such as rugby and League of Ireland football means the question of how best to strike the right balance between lives and livelihoods is concentrating a lot of minds. It’s curious then that the organisation which has been most vocally calling for increases in spectator sizes is the GAA.

A couple of weeks ago its president, John Horan, called on the government to make it an exception, pointing out then how county boards are relying on an increase to 500 as a means of catering to demand from supporters. Failure to do so, he said, would be a hammer blow.

The GAA is rarely shy in proclaiming its exceptionalism. Many other prominent figures have voiced dismay at the impact of current public health guidelines. It is a jarring sort of assertiveness from a voluntary sector involving minimal job numbers and with a membership rooted in communities everywhere which are supposedly all in it together in the fight against a killer disease.

The country’s biggest sporting organisation has also been seen to occupy itself in recent weeks with internecine squabbles about club and county which comes across as remarkably tin-eared considering the rather more fundamental dilemmas about lives and livelihoods many others are having to face.

Obvious stance

If Horan’s pronouncement seemed like a gaffe then other organisations have learned from it and are resolutely toeing the government’s line ahead of the cabinet meeting. Being seen to agree with erring on the side of too much caution rather than too little seems an obvious public stance to take.

Inevitably the wider social and economic focus is on pubs and the hospitality industry in general. Black and white regulatory enforcement often also means many sectors get swept under the one administrative blanket. But on its own terms, a gradual increase in crowd sizes for sporting events, under the appropriate safety guidelines, looks a relatively straightforward call.

Of course whether or not fans are able to watch live sport is a relatively trivial matter in the context of a public health emergency. But the relevance of fans to sport has been all too apparent in their absence. Whether at a football pitch, a racetrack or an arena, competition is a largely hollow experience without some kind of audience prepared to invest importance in it.

At some point any new norm has to start taking shape. If possible it has to be more than just functional. Allowing a few hundred people to watch sport in the flesh mightn’t be substantial in itself. But it would be an encouraging step in the right direction. Its impact in morale alone could far outweigh the actual numbers.

That in turn would represent a major responsibility for all sporting organisations. Turning a blind eye to protocol breaches cannot be tolerated, whether it is a prestige event or a nondescript junior hurling match. Words need to match actions. Given that, however, the risk-reward juggle looks to tilt heavily towards a welcome note of optimism and society gaining more than it loses.

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