Nancy Gillen

Having been at a standstill for so many weeks, sport is starting to make a slow return.

In South Korea, a country which has largely minimised the impact of the pandemic, baseball and football are back underway. Strict measures are in place to prevent the spread of coronavirus, with matches played in eerily empty stadiums and onlookers donning protective masks.

Despite the unusual setting, sport-deprived fans have been lapping up the action in South Korea. The same can be said for the return of the Bundesliga earlier this month, which sparked an unprecedented interest in the ins and outs of German football.

The continuation of baseball and football matches in South Korea and Germany are completely dependent on athletes staying healthy, however. As an example, The Korean Baseball Organisation League’s 144-game schedule will be paused for at least three weeks if any member of a team tests positive.

So far, the resumption of sport has gone smoothly, and despite the precariousness of the situation, many other sporting organisations, clubs and leagues are aiming to get matches and events happening in the near future.

The motivation will mainly be financial, with the suspension of sport causing economic woe for many. Qualifying for the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics is also a priority, with a number of places still to be distributed before the Games next year.

There is the assumption that athletes themselves are raring to get back in action, but this is not necessarily the case. Instead, there are concerns that sport may be returning for all the wrong reasons, and athletes’ health and safety will not be made a priority.

Athletes must be on board for sport to make a successful comeback, but this is currently not guaranteed.

Such a situation has been playing out in England and Wales over the last few weeks as Project Restart looks to get off the ground. The English Premier League is desperate to resume the season and has been working on a plan which will see top-flight football start again next month.

Football has resumed in Germany, but with strict measures in place ©Getty Images
Football has resumed in Germany, but with strict measures in place ©Getty Images

This is undeniably being driven by financial reasons, with the Premier League predicting a £762 million ($927 million/€850 million) rebate on its broadcast income if the season is called off. Indeed, it is hard to know why else a country with more than 257,000 coronavirus cases and 36,000 deaths would be so desperate to have football played again.

Subsequently, some football players have refused to return to training this week. Watford’s Troy Deeney was one, with the 31-year-old citing concerns about his son's health conditions and the disproportionate effect coronavirus is thought to have on people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds.

His stance seemed justified after Watford teammate Adrian Mariappa and two members of staff tested positive for coronavirus in the Premier League’s first round of testing. Two more Watford players have since gone into self-isolation after family members were found to have the illness.

The majority of footballers have returned to training, and seem happy to be back, but this may change if coronavirus cases among teams start to rise.

Badminton is another sport to set out plans for a resumption of play, with the Badminton World Federation (BWF) recently publishing a revamped schedule for the rest of 2020.

In total, 22 tournaments are set to take place over five months, starting with the Hyderabad Open from August 11 to 16.

The BWF World Tour is scheduled to return with the Taipei Open 2020, a Super 300 event from September 1 to 6, while the World Tour Finals in the Chinese city of Guangzhou have been pushed back to December 20.

The update has provided clarity but has also provoked a backlash from players.

India's B Sai Praneeth criticised the new badminton calendar for the remainder of 2020 ©Getty Images
India's B Sai Praneeth criticised the new badminton calendar for the remainder of 2020 ©Getty Images

"This is a stupid schedule," said India’s men's world number 13 B Sai Praneeth, as reported by Hindustan Times.

"People are saying 'reduce travel' and we’ll be doing the opposite. How can someone schedule tournaments from August?

"Nobody has started fully-fledged training. Some countries haven’t even started practice and 22 continuous tournaments in five months!"

Compatriot and Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games champion Parupalli Kashyap was another to voice his concerns regarding the schedule.

"What about regulations relating to quarantine, immigration and international flights," he said.

"Will we be quarantined in the country holding the tournament and at home on return?

"Right now there’s no assurance whether we will start training tomorrow or a week later as cases are still increasing here."

Again, athletes are appearing reluctant to partake in what they perceive to be a premature return to sport.

There have also been concerns surrounding the need of a vaccination for sport to resume.

Although a vaccination for coronavirus is yet to be developed, it is thought that it may be essential for free travel to resume. Free travel is also a necessity for international sporting events and tours, with athletes set to be stuck in quarantine for weeks at a time otherwise.

Some athletes have suggested they are not willing to compete until a vaccine is available, while Serbian tennis legend Novak Djokovic conversely suggested he would not be willing to have such a vaccination.

Novak Djokovic raised eyebrows over his opinion on not having a vaccination against coronavirus ©Getty Images
Novak Djokovic raised eyebrows over his opinion on not having a vaccination against coronavirus ©Getty Images

"Personally I am opposed to the vaccination against COVID-19 in order to be able to travel," the 17-time Grand Slam winner said.

"But if it becomes compulsory, I will have to make a decision whether to do it, or not."

Djokovic’s comments caused significant backlash, with the player branded an "anti-vaxxer". Regardless, Djokovic’s perception of the safety of a vaccination could see him miss out on tennis for some time when it returns.

He is also not alone in his opinion, with Swiss player Belinda Bencic recently echoing Djokovic’s thoughts, although she did concede she would have a vaccination in order to play tennis.

"I have also thought about this, but I cannot yet answer the question conclusively," she said.

"We do not yet know the vaccination, we do not know anything about side effects and other facts. But if it is okay, I would probably do it if the tennis tour requires it."

The overriding opinion from athletes is that they do not want to be guinea pigs in the hazardous experiment to starting sport during a pandemic. If they do not deem it to be safe to participate, they will not. 

In order for sport to be a real success as it gets back underway, athletes need to feel like their health is being taken seriously. This could be key in the reorganisation of Tokyo 2020, especially with speculation swirling that the Games could be cancelled due to safety reasons.

As the past few weeks have shown, athletes have the final choice when it comes to taking part in sport, and play an integral role in its resumption.