In sport, discipline remains best armour against Covid

Of all things in sport, invention is perhaps the most delightful and suffering the most absorbing. Marathoners enthral me, so do solitary rowers across oceans, Arctic swimmers whose frozen hands can’t grip the water and desert walkers who leave toenails in the sand. The other day I got an e-mail from a Singaporean who is training for the Ironman 70.3 World Championship which has been postponed to 2022. He is 72 wonderful years old.

“There is still some fight in me yet,” he wrote and it is inspiring. Prising commitment out of the self is an uncommonly beautiful thing. It is why we admire athletes, precisely for this discipline, and in a Covid time it is something to imitate. After all, the finest virtue right now is to persist.

Of course people fall short, even that sneakered sage Eliud Kipchoge, who came eighth in the London Marathon and said: “I’m really disappointed but this is sport. It’s not the end of the world. I have more marathons. I will come back again.”

So will we.

Kipchoge’s words are worth hanging on to for we’re all struggling, with masks, safety measures, limits. On a basketball court, three must play against two for only five are allowed on court. It’s uncomfortable but so is sport. It’s tough but, to use the Kenyan’s words, it’s not the end of the world. The virus has come with a cost but at least we can still play and we’re still alive. That’s priceless.

My colleagues did a recent piece on people flouting safe distancing measures, like too many basketballers on one court than is allowed, and it brought a small smile and a long sigh. Sport has an instinctive element of rebellion, doesn’t it, and athletes are always trying to get away with something. It’s just that in a time of Covid the consequences of rule breaking are more profound.

Safe distancing ambassadors and enforcement officers are the new referees and while we’re programmed to argue with authority in sport, just think of them for a minute. They’d rather be home and safe than trying to reason with testosterone-filled, non-vigilant folk who might see them as wandering spoilsports.

Athletes, for all their polished egos, mostly obey directives because they’re taught to think in terms of team. The group overrides the hair-gelled self. The same philosophy applies now, except that the idea of team has changed.

The team now is all of us, it’s the enforcement officer, the next-door neighbour, the lady ahead of you in the supermarket line, the grandpa in the lift, the kid at the next table. To scorn a safe distancing measure is not to just let down a team but to possibly endanger it.

All the things we wisely preach to our sporting teams – stick to a plan, be obedient to an idea, stay consistent, be grateful – is what we need from ourselves. Of course we’re allowed to grumble – think of it as a fundamental right – and yet we also need to consider our fortune.

In India, a swimmer I know who is chasing an Olympic spot, is still waiting to train. Pools where he lives aren’t open still and we’ve got to make sure our facilities don’t close. If people ignore rules which leads to the authorities shutting down courts, then they’re doing their fellow citizens a disservice. You can’t shout, “Don’t hog the ball” at your TV and then embrace acts of selfishness yourself.

Violating safety measures is sometimes inadvertent, for people go out to play not to disrupt. But pent-up exuberance blunts common sense and anyway a long fight is sapping the spirit. But I look, as I often do, to the adventurer for assistance, to Lewis Pugh, the UN Patron of the Oceans, whom I have quoted before during this pandemic.

In late September he posted a picture of himself on Twitter, swimming past an iceberg, and wrote this of his challenges:

“The temptation to quit will be strongest shortly after you’ve begun, and just before you finish. If you’re aware of it, you can avoid it…

“When you start, it can be overwhelming and much harder than you expected. Likewise, when you are near the end, you are exhausted and need the grit to finish the job.”

Who knows if we’re towards the end, but let’s pretend we are. Let’s think we’re Rafa in the fifth set and nothing is certain except that we have to stay true to our tactics and keep pushing. It doesn’t matter if the five-person limit for sport or social gatherings gets extended to eight or 10 because the challenge before us scarcely alters.

Like the man across the net, this virus will be conquered only by conviction and compliance.

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