Michael Pavitt

Sport, like the rest of the world, has been forced to get creative in recent weeks as the coronavirus pandemic has taken hold.

With the Olympic Games, the European Football Championships and Wimbledon among the immovable events to have become moveable or cancelled outright, there has been little to look forward to.

Several media gurus have come to the fore to fill their time in our schedules by either looking back to the past or ensuring events can take place in a virtual way.

A televised Virtual Grand National took place yesterday in Britain on the same date the marquee horse racing event on the calendar would have taken place.

Backed by a production company, the race was shown live on television and featured horses competing over a virtual Aintree course. Algorithms were used to create the race and ultimately determine the winner, with CGI effects used to show spectators.

While the virtual race, which has been going annually since 2017, was essentially a fun substitute for the real thing, there is no doubt the move kept the Grand National in the news despite its cancellation. Particularly given that profits on bets placed with bookmakers on the virtual race were given to the National Health Service’s charities.

Numerous athletes have also gone virtual in their attempts to maintain their fitness during the disruption to the sporting calendar.

Footballers have admitted to asking club officials to take home exercise bikes from their training ground with the European season at a standstill, while Britain’s Olympic swimming champion Adam Peaty said he had been using Zwift.

Zwift, which allows players to ride their bicycles on stationary trainers in a virtual world, will have undoubtedly come out of the coronavirus crisis with its brand enhanced even further.

It did not come as a surprise to see that shares in another exercise bike company, Peloton, had reportedly enjoyed a surge in the past couple of days as people turn to indoor equipment to keep them in shape and occupied.

A witty post on Twitter claimed the “Peloton husband is looking like a damn genius right about now”, referencing the backlash the company received for a perceived sexist advert over Christmas when a husband had bought their wife an exercise bike, with critics suggesting he had wanted her to lose weight.

Governing bodies and teams have also taken to the virtual software intelligently during the lockdown, with British Cycling arranging a series of endurance rides led by members of the Olympic and Paralympic teams that members of the public can join.

The effort is smart in helping to fulfil the role of a national body to encourage people to become active, while establishing a greater link between the elite levels and the general public. Wise when you consider British Cycling will seek a new partner when a lucrative existing agreement with HSBC is due to conclude at the end of this year.

Top cycling teams have been actively promoting their use of Zwift, with Mitchelton-Scott launching a series of virtual events on the programme allowing people to join their elite riders. A Virtual Tour of Flanders was also held today, live on Eurosport, featuring numerous top riders.

It was notable that the event, won by Olympic road race champion Greg Van Avermaet, saw riders participating in their team kit with branding clearly visible on their respective streams.

With a lack of races leading to top teams being forced into pay cuts, due to the coronavirus increasing the pressure on their respective sponsors, the efforts of riders to continue to promote the team and brand could definitely be seen as a goodwill gesture at a difficult time.

The move of the professional peloton from the road to the virtual world has created some issues. Belgian rider Thomas De Gendt, a two-time Tour de France stage winner, found himself booted from Zwift after its software detected foul play when he hit 550 watts on a climb.

According to reports, a message displayed informing De Gendt that “Either you missed your calling as a pro, or there is something wrong with one of your devices.”

It prompted a tweet from the Belgian asking for Zwift to fix the issue after being booted due to his “superhuman power”, with the company responding that they would “look into this”.

Away from the virtual world, the likes of FIFA and the International Table Tennis Federation have opted to delve into their vast archive to entertain.

The latter had been forced to revise its plans for World Table Tennis Day tomorrow due to the pandemic, with their usual programme of events unable to take place in our newly locked down lifestyles. Instead, the ITTF will stream 24 hours of coverage on Facebook and YouTube, including classic matches and features with players.

FIFA were among the first to announce they would show classic matches from previous World Cup tournaments, with the full ties uploaded to YouTube. 

Their World Cup at Home series has allowed people to vote online to choose which matches are shown, enabling us to look back on some of the great performances and players of previous tournaments. Diego Maradona has already featured, along with the memorable performance from France legend Zinedine Zidane against Brazil at the 2006 FIFA World Cup.

Several football clubs have followed suit, with official club Twitter accounts producing “live updates” on matches that took place in the past, inviting fans to follow along with the game.

While it comes in less than ideal circumstances, the unexpected halting of live sport has given us a rare chance to look back. There is an opportunity to enjoy previous sporting occasions and the memories associated with them, as well as discovering contests and athletes that you were not previously familiar with.

The creative use of both virtual and archive footage shows how clubs and major sporting events can still find a way to access their fans despite the current lack of live action.