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Opinion

A look back at an unprecedented sporting year impacted by COVID-19

(Michael Dodge/Getty Images)
Roar Guru
28th December, 2020
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1020 Reads

The 2020 sporting year started just like any other year, with the Australian Open and the visit of the New Zealand cricketing team kicking off the Australian sporting calendar.

But while many of the world’s best tennis players were battling it out for the titles at Melbourne Park, an unknown virus that causes a fever and breathing difficulties struck the Chinese city of Wuhan, sending the city into a strict lockdown for over ten weeks.

Nobody around the world would have forecast the impact that the novel coronavirus would have on everyday life for the 12 months ahead.

This forced the Matildas’ Olympic qualifying matches to be relocated from China to Australia, with the Chinese team spending their time in Australia in hotel quarantine, which was to become the norm for all Australians returning home from overseas.

Eventually the Matildas were able to qualify for the Olympics, which were to be postponed by 12 months as COVID-19, which started its rapid and violent spread around the world.

In March the World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, which would see all sporting stadiums emptied and events played behind closed doors in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus.

In the United States the ongoing Indian Wells tournament was called off before a ball was served in anger, and subsequently the ATP and WTA both suspended their seasons until August.

General views of the empty stands at the MCG.

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

In Australia the NRL proceeded with its opening round with crowds still permitted to attend matches. On 13 March, Cricket Australia announced the first one-day international between Australia and New Zealand was to be held without a crowd in attendance.

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The NBL also announced the remainder of the grand final series between the Sydney Kings and Perth Wildcats would continue behind closed doors.

That foreshadowed a Council of Australian Governments meeting in which Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that all “non-essential” mass gatherings of over 500 people would be outlawed from 16 March.

At the time it was feared the ban on non-essential mass gatherings would last for up to six months, which would have meant the majority of AFL and NRL matches would be played behind closed doors.

Later that day the AFL announced Round 6 of its AFL Women’s season would go ahead with fans not permitted to attend matches, though fans were still allowed into Kardinia Park for the match between the Geelong Cats and North Melbourne.

Anticipating that the AFL season would be suspended at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, CEO Gillon McLachlan announced that the season would be reduced to 17 rounds, with every team playing each other only once.

And only 24 hours out from the start of the season he also announced that Round 1 of the premiership season would go ahead with all matches played behind closed doors.

AFL Chief Executive Officer Gillon McLachlan speaks to the media

Gillon McLachlan (Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

But as case numbers started to rise and various states and territories started to close their borders, the decision was made to suspend the season for at least ten weeks, and nearly all players were sent back to their home states before the closures came into effect.

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The AFL Women’s season was also terminated at that point without a premiership awarded.

The following day the NRL also shut down its season after playing the second round of matches behind closed doors. This followed an announcement by Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk that her state would be closing to visitors from interstate.

Only a few rounds out from the start of the finals series the A-League was also suspended, putting a pause on Sydney FC’s bid to win a third title in four years.

In England the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club announced Wimbledon would be called off, marking the first time since World War II the world’s most prestigious tennis event would not proceed.

This followed an announcement by the French Tennis Federation that the French Open, typically held between late May and early June, would be rescheduled to the second half of September, taking place after the US Open, which became the second major of the year.

While many sports were shut down around the world as at least half of the global population entered some form of lockdown, horse racing continued in Australia, albeit behind closed doors, so as to provide some live entertainment to locked-down Australians.

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Channel Seven and Fox Footy ran a batch of classic AFL matches, with the latter utilising their current roster of commentators to ‘live call’ classic matches such as past grand finals, heartstopping preliminary finals and the like.

Likewise, Fox League also went back to the future using their roster of commentators to commentate classic matches, while Channel Nine ran a program called The Greatest which looked back at classic league moments, including grand finals and State of Origin.

Just two and a half weeks after suspending its season the NRL began discussions about rebooting the competition, with a tentative restart date of 28 May set, which officials argued was too soon.

But as the infection rate decreased the league gained approval from state and federal governments to resume, with teams returning to training on 4 May.

The New Zealand Warriors were given permission to fly into Australia for the purpose of resuming the season, with the team training while serving its two-week quarantine period in Tamworth, while the Broncos, Cowboys and Titans were not required to relocate to New South Wales as first feared.

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The Warriors’ selflessness in leaving behind their families and basing themselves in Australia for the remainder of the season saw them earn the respect and trust of the Australian sporting community despite all the hardships they were faced with.

All ten NSW-based clubs as well as the Melbourne Storm, Canberra Raiders and Warriors were granted exemptions to fly into Queensland for the purpose of playing matches, with all teams flying in on game day and then flying out immediately after full-time.

The Broncos, Cowboys and Titans did the reverse trip – that is, flying into NSW for their matches and then returning home to Queensland after full-time.

Once teams touched down at the airport they were bussed straight to the stadium, where they would play their matches before heading straight back to the airport to fly home, with most landing in the early hours of the morning.

The NRL thus became the first full-contact sport in the world to resume when the Brisbane Broncos hosted the Parramatta Eels at an empty Suncorp Stadium on 28 May, paving the way for other sports to eventually resume.

Matches were initially played behind closed doors, as had been the case for Round 2, before stadiums slowly started to allow fans to attend matches once again from Round 5 in New South Wales and from Round 6 in Queensland.

Michael Jennings scores a try

(Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

The AFL also announced a return to competition on 11 June, also with fans locked out of matches, with the exception of the Round 2 Showdown between Port Adelaide and the Adelaide Crows and two matches in Sydney that were being played on the same day.

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But just when we thought we were past the worst of the virus, a second wave in Victoria forced all of its professional sporting clubs to evacuate the state, with most basing themselves in Queensland.

This included all ten Victorian AFL clubs, the Melbourne Storm (NRL), the Melbourne Vixens and Collingwood Magpies (Super Netball), and Western United, Melbourne Victory and Melbourne City (A-League).

Round 6 of the AFL saw all matches played behind the rugby league side of the so-called Barassi Line, the first of them a match between the Geelong Cats and Brisbane Lions at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

Football later returned to South Australia and Western Australia, with several clubs entering a three-week hub in the latter state, which still had a hard border imposed on all interstate visitors.

A second wave of coronavirus infections in New South Wales later forced the Sydney Swans and GWS Giants out of the state, while the NSW Swifts and the Giants were also forced to relocate when Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk again closed her state to visitors from New South Wales.

The entire netball season was therefore played in Queensland and Adelaide, while the remaining matches of the A-League season were played wholly in New South Wales, with most matches played behind closed doors, including those featuring Sydney FC and the Western Sydney Wanderers.

The Melbourne Storm entered a hub on the Sunshine Coast, where they would play the remainder of their home matches, while also playing their ‘home’ finals at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane.

After Round 14 of the AFL no further home-and-away matches were played in Western Australia, with Queensland playing host to all but three clubs, the exceptions being the Adelaide Crows, Port Adelaide and Hawthorn, who all based themselves in South Australia.

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The first championship to be awarded since the resumption of play in any competition in Australia was the A-League title, which went to Sydney FC after they defeated Melbourne City 1-0 in the championship match played at Bankwest Stadium.

Sydney FC celebrate after they defeated Melbourne City during the 2020 A-League Grand Final

Sydney FC celebrate (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

On the other side of the globe Liverpool claimed the Premier League title with seven rounds still to play in the season, marking the earliest that any team has won the title. Thousands of fans defied lockdown laws in the United Kingdom to celebrate their team’s victory.

In August the Tour de France, which was postponed by two months due to the pandemic, was held with roadside fans of up to 5000 permitted to attend. Tadej Pogacar claimed the yellow jersey and won the event.

In the United States grand slam tennis returned, with the US Open being played behind closed doors at Flushing Meadows, with only players and essential personnel permitted through the gates.

After men’s world No. 1 Novak Djokovic was controversially defaulted in the fourth round for recklessly injuring a lineswoman, Dominic Thiem outlasted Alexander Zverev to win his first major title, while Naomi Osaka saluted in the women’s draw, coming from behind to defeat Victoria Azarenka in a three-set thriller to win her third major title and second in New York.

The rescheduled French Open saw fans permitted to attend, albeit in a reduced capacity, with Court Philippe Chatrier permitted to hold a maximum 25 per cent capacity daily.

The undisputed king of clay, Rafael Nadal, saluted at Roland Garros for the 13th time, in the process winning a record-equalling 20th major men’s singles title, putting him equal with Roger Federer.

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In the women’s draw Iga Swiatek emerged from the upset-ravaged women’s draw to claim her maiden major title, ousting Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin in straight sets to become the latest-born major men’s or women’s singles champion.

Rafael Nadal of Spain

(Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images)

Back home in Australia, the MCG’s unavailability to host the AFL grand final due to Melbourne being in Stage 4 lockdown saw the Gabba awarded hosting rights to the match as a reward to the state of Queensland for saving the AFL season.

It was the first time since 1991 the match was not played at the MCG, while it was also the first time it was played outside of the state of Victoria. Further, it was to be the first grand final played at night, so as to avoid a clash with the Cox Plate.

Richmond, which had based themselves on the Gold Coast for nearly four months, claimed their third flag in four years after defeating the Geelong Cats by 31 points, having to come from as much as 22 points down in the second quarter to do so.

The NRL season, meanwhile, concluded with the Melbourne Storm defeating the Penrith Panthers by 26-20 in the grand final, with Storm captain Cameron Smith paying tribute to the people of Victoria who had been locked down since July due to the devastating second wave of COVID-19 infections in the state.

The week beforehand, the Melbourne Vixens claimed the Super Netball title, defeating the West Coast Fever in the championship match.

The success of the Vixens, Tigers and Storm brought some much-needed joy to Victorians who, after the longest COVID-19 enforced lockdown in the world, officially exited Stage 4 restrictions at 11:59pm on Tuesday, 27 October.

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The Melbourne Cup was thus able to be held, but with fans locked out of Flemington Racecourse, racegoers had to improvise for this year’s event, including holding their own event in their own backyards.

Jye McNiel on board Twilight Payment returns to scale after winning race 7 the Lexus Melbourne Cup

(Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images for the VRC)

State of Origin was also played in November for the first time in the concept’s history, with what was dubbed ‘the worst Queensland team ever’ upsetting the highly fancied New South Wales team by winning the series 2-1.

The Maroons were also successful in the women’s tournament, defeating their southern counterparts on the Sunshine Coast.

The Women’s Big Bash League had their season played entirely in Sydney and with some matches played behind closed doors, including those featuring the two Sydney clubs, the Sixers and Thunder.

The Melbourne Stars could not add to the state’s sporting success, going down to the Sydney Thunder in the final at North Sydney Oval.

After serving two weeks in quarantine upon entering the country, the Indian cricket team contested three ODIs and Twenty20 matches against Australia, winning only the latter series.

The first Test was held at Adelaide Oval before live sport returned to Melbourne for the first time since early July with the annual Boxing Day Test at the MCG.

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It was also the first time since 13 March that fans were permitted into any sporting event in Victoria and at the MCG since the Women’s T20 World Cup final on 8 March.

Pat Cummins of Australia celebrates

Pat Cummins. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

But the coronavirus pandemic did claim one final event – the Sydney to Hobart, which was canned when Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein imposed 14-day quarantine requirements on arrivals coming in from greater Sydney in response on the ongoing Northern Beaches outbreak.

There is also growing doubt as to whether the New Year’s Test at the SCG will proceed as planned. If it cannot go ahead, then it is likely to be played at either the MCG or the Gabba.

This is because all states and territories have blocked residents from greater Sydney entering their jurisdictions unless they are prepared to undertake a fortnight in mandatory hotel quarantine.

There are also some early doubts as to whether the Sydney Swans and GWS Giants can play home games in the early part of the 2021 AFL season, with the chance that both clubs may be forced to temporarily relocate to Queensland should the situation in Sydney worsen.

Already it has been announced that the New Zealand Warriors will spend the early part of the 2021 NRL season based on the Central Coast after undertaking their preseason training in Tamworth with a view of playing matches in New Zealand sometime after Round 4.

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On the tennis front, it has been announced that the Australian Open will be held starting on 8 February, three weeks past its original starting date of 18 January.

The world’s top tennis players will begin arriving in Melbourne on 14 January, where they will be required to enter a fortnight’s quarantine but will be permitted to train for up to five hours a day.

Some of Australia’s top tennis stars, namely Ashleigh Barty and Nick Kyrgios, will be exempt from quarantine, which means they can train freely and for as long and as much as they like in the lead-up to the first major tennis tournament of 2021.

Neither has served a ball in anger since February, citing concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite the new strain of coronavirus that has plagued the United Kingdom and a rising number of cases in the United States, it is hoped that the 2021 Australian Open will mark the start of a much better year for everyone worldwide.

Already a vaccine has been approved for use in the United Kingdom and in the United States, and it’s expected Australia will approve one in January, with the rollout expected to begin in March next year.

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While it might be the silver bullet that brings to an end the COVID-19 pandemic, it could be at least another six or 12 months before we see sporting crowds back at the levels they were before March this year.

So who knows what the 2021 sporting year will throw up. Could we see fans locked out again, or will the vaccine hold the golden key to unlocking the pre-COVID-19 world?