Newry.ie

Just two weeks back the Nation reflected on its National Holiday, spent not in celebration, but in isolation. 

A normal St Patrick's Day would have seen many of us chewing the cud of another busy sporting day. A new McRory cup champion would have been crowned, another name engraved on the great Schools Cup. A whole hosts of events that would normally celebrate the culture of the Island have been cancelled. If you did not understand previously where sports sat in the culture, I think most people do now. 

This avenue of distraction, of fun and entertainment has become a Cul de Sac without warning. 

In years gone by, two new All-Ireland champions would have been crowned in Croke Park. Today, people queued in their cars on Jones' Road, awaiting a nurse to swab them for the Covid-19 virus. 

It was a St Patrick's Day like no other, but then this is a virus like no other.  Covid-19 has stopped the entire world in its tracks. Or at least it should have.   

Knowing when to begin sports again will be a difficult question to answer, but it will be an important green shoot of recovery. Knowing when to stop them turned into a controversial decision, when it didn't really have to. 

The Athletic Grounds in Armagh awaits another crowd like this January game. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie
The Athletic Grounds in Armagh awaits another crowd like this January game. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie

Decisions

Massive sums of money are involved rarely lead to good decisions being made. From a sporting point of view, it is hard to reflect on the last few weeks and not marvel at the incredulous decision to allow the 2020 Cheltenham Festival to proceed. The health repercussions of this event are yet to be felt, and it certain that history will not be kind to those who allowed a quarter of a million people to congregate over 4 days, while the country around it began to cower in submission

Globally, few events have survived the virus shutdown, a Post-Malone concert in Vegas proceeded in the midst of public quarantine, and a variety of early St Patrick's Day celebrations went ahead in oblivious ignorance. Swarms of people in the south and northside of Chicago led the Illinois Governor to make an unscheduled press conference, pleading with these people to go home. Indirectly, the people who thronged the pubs of Temple Bar on the Friday before the 17th March may have done Ireland a huge solid. 

The spine-tingling reaction that resulted led the Irish Government to close all pubs in the country, just a few days before their biggest trading day of the year. Fearing an onslaught from across the border, many pubs and bars along the border did the same, exercising immense restraint and social responsibility in the midst of a leadership vacuum in the British State. 

NBA

In the United States, a similar absence of clear direction from the federal government has led state governors and the leaders of sporting bodies to take matters into their own hands. As in the past, basketball was at the forefront of social responsibility in American sport. The events that led to the suspension of the world's most high-profile sports league were dramatic almost beyond belief.

Adam Silver, NBA commissioner has already dealt with two major catastrophes in his sport this season. The passing of Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash along with his daughter Gianna and three other people, led to a global wake of sorts, and an outpouring of grief previously unseen in American Sports. Bill Simmons of The Ringer described it aptly as "The saddest day in the history of the NBA". And indeed, the first crisis for Basketball like Covid-19 had its roots in China, when a pre-season tour for the Houston Rockets was suddenly cut short after its General Manager Daryl Morey expressed support for pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong. 

The swiftness in how the NBA season was shut down was stunning. The first ripple in the water was the confirmation that Frenchman Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz had tested positive for Covid-19. 

As Gobert's diagnosis was confirmed, the NBA's BrainTrust had already been drawing up contingencies. Plans had been made to play games behind closed doors for sometime, which would have led to some fascinating audio gathered from the stadiums. 

As it was, this never came to pass. The Utah / OKC game that night was never played, and officials and players were confined to the dressing rooms as medical teams decided what to do next. 

Down Camogie will have to wait like every other sports event in the land. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie
Down Camogie team will have to wait an unknown length of time before their next game, like every other sports team in the land. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie

Even more dramatic was how the game was postponed in the moment. When the diagnosis of Gobert was confirmed, the NBA brass were resolute. Clearly the no-fans games were dependent upon there being no infection among the playing base. Gobert's diagnosis shattered all of those plans. The Oklahoma City Medical Director sprinted on court literally minutes before the game was to start to gather the match officials together. Within minutes the stadium was emptied of fans and within the hour, the entire NBA season had been suspended. 

Although he has been humble contrite since his illness was confirmed, the sight of Gobert childishly rubbing the microphones of the assembled media members leaving a press briefing a few days earlier is am image he may never be able to recover from. 

Preventing Parish from meeting Parish

A similarly swift reaction in Ireland was the decision of the GAA to immediately cease all activities. This decision will undoubtedly save lives down the line, as in one statement, the authorities in Croke Park were able to dramatically limit the movements and gathering of literally millions of people. In some ways, this decision was more important even than closing of schools, as it prevented parish from meeting parish, and sent a strong message to the nation that it was not 'business as usual'. 

All over the country, people have been trying to create their new normal. A burst of sunshine of the first quarantine weekend led to massive backlashes, and a rationalisation of what was allowed. More and more public parks and spaces have been closed, in the aim of reducing the appeal of travelling any distance from your home.

With pitches closed and trainings on pause, clubs have been engaging their members in different digital ways, and in some ways it has been uniting to see Olympic athletes and stars like Leo Messi and Padraig Harrington come up with new novel ways to entertain themselves and their children in the back garden. Their gardens may be a bit nicer than most, but keepie uppies with a toilet roll is something anyone can identify with. 

Lone Practice

It did occur to me that this period may engender a new appreciation for the value of individual, lone practice. Certainly, as a young lad I spent hours by myself hitting balls of varying descriptions off whatever wall I could find, and made it to the ripe age of 23 before I broke my first window. Perhaps this enforced isolation will impress upon a generation that they do not need communal practices to become great, it is through a lonely, obsessive routine that improvement is seen in anything you do.

Clones in better times. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie

Huge Hunger for Games

As sports fans, all we can do now is dream of the day that we can cheer again. It seems clear that the path out of this abeyance of games will not be fast or sudden. Society will slowly start to turn itself back on. People will be afraid to do that. The months of warnings we have absorbed about mass gatherings and the contagion that we risk in these settings will not simply melt away. And there is the solemn fear we all contain inside, knowing that many families will lose loved ones before society loses its restrictions. Their lives will not in the moment be celebrated or retold to congregations. They will quietly fade from view until a time comes when friends can gather to remember those gone.

That day will come, and when it does there will be a huge hunger for games. Both in the public, and certainly in the teams of athletes who can only take so many weeks of sit-ups with their kids and washing-up liquid treadmills. So too amongst the sports media, who for weeks now have had to content themselves with speculation about how each sport will design their comeback, along with some backyard commentating on their Labradors and toddlers. 

There have been some individual charitable contributions which have risen above the fray. In America, Kevin Love was one of the first NBA stars to shine a light on the cause of the arena workers, whose zero-hour contracts saw them in almost immediate financial jeopardy when the sports shut down. Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the great philanthropists in sports today and has already donated millions towards the fightback and asked for a suspension of his wages from Juventus. 

GAA clubs were of course to the fore of the Covid-t19 fightback in Ireland, knitting together the loose threads in their communities, vital searchlights in the dark days of this virus. It is crucial those fallen between the cracks get found again and sewn back into the fabric of their neighbourhoods. 

There will be a great, joyous day when Ireland and other countries around the world can laugh, sing, dance and hug again. Sport will be a part of that celebration. It is the icing on the cake of life. The fizz in our glass, the biscuit with our tea.  It allows us to unite as tribes, and bang our clan drums in defiant abandon. For now, the tribes must unite in defiance of our common unseen enemy. 

Until then, its washing our hands, maniacally spraying ourselves with sanitizer, and staying a Michael Jordan's length away from everyone in the street. Waving to our mums and nannies through the kitchen windows, will soon turn in to waving our flags and banners on the terraces and stands. For now though, we all know what the score is. We’re down a few scores, and we’ve a way to go before half time. 

Author: Conor Keenan

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