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Coronavirus crisis increases inequality in the sports world


by Leo Aquina | 23 April 2020

Just under a month ago, many were calling the coronavirus 'the great equalizer'. Now that a large part of the world has been in more or less 'intelligent' lockdowns for several weeks, it is difficult to stick to that view. "It is too easy to say: corona does not discriminate”, says sports sociologist Ramón Spaaij. "It actually reinforces inequality in many sections of society, and also in sports. The vulnerable are hit harder." Spaaij is a sports sociologist at Victoria University in Melbourne and the University of Amsterdam. From Australia, he talks via Skype to Sport Knowhow XL about the impact of the coronavirus crisis on the sports world.

RamonSpaaij-1"That impact is multiple”, Ramón Spaaij explains. "There is the economic impact, social impact, but you also have to look at the health aspect." Spaaij emphasizes that in terms of an economic impact, we must look beyond elite sport as a billion-dollar industry: "Many sports clubs hang by a thread, financially. Here in Australia, probably 70 to 80 percent of all jobs at sports associations will disappear. Sports associations fall back on their core business, organizing competitions. Other activities, for example in the field of diversity and inclusion, will be the first to suffer cuts."

Women's sports victim
Spaaij fears that especially women's sports will be affected. "That certainly holds true in Australia, but I expect internationally as well. In Australia, women's competitions have grown enormously in recent years. In 2017, an Aussie Rules women's league was started (Aussie Rules Football, a rugby variant played on large oval cricket pitches, is one of the most popular sports in Australia, ed.) It now hangs in the balance."

In international sports, such as cycling, women are again at risk of being the first to lose out. Dutch top cyclists, including Olympic champion Anna van de Breggen and multiple Dutch, European and world champion Ellen van Dijk, were furious that last week the world cycling association UCI presented the new international cycling calendar for men, but did not make any mention of women's cycling.

"The possibilities to exercise have been drastically reduced, especially for the socioeconomically vulnerable"

Winners and losers
Also, the disappearance of the function that sport has for many in terms of health does not affect everyone the same. "I ordered a bicycle trainer for at home”, says Spaaij. "Others build a complete gym at home, but not everyone can afford that. In Australia, fitness equipment has been put up in many public parks in recent years to democratize the exercise culture. But with all public equipment being taped off, and gyms being closed, the possibilities to work out have been drastically reduced. It shows that every crisis has winners and losers. The suppliers of fitness equipment benefit, the demand is great and the waiting lists for orders are huge." When it comes to the social function of sport, the pain of the coronavirus crisis is perhaps distributed most fairly. Spaaij:

RamonSpaaij-2"The corona crisis strongly affects the microsociology of everyday life, as described, for example, by Randall Collins. Sport is important when it comes to direct interpersonal contact, the physical proximity and the collective emotion that makes us feel human and part of a group or community. It is very interesting to see all the initiatives taken to maintain those connections as best we can. For instance, at my boys' football club, they organize all kinds of online challenges. My gym also offers a variety of online classes, but that virtual interaction cannot completely replace physical co-presence."

You can't have it both ways
As in Europe, more and more people in the Australian sports world are in favour of resuming professional leagues in some form or other. The sports organizations point out their social function. "The unions say that precisely now people need distraction and entertainment. Sports like rugby (one of the biggest sports in Australia, ed.) and Aussie Rules also try to claim legitimacy in this way, by emphasising their relevance to society."

"The coronavirus crisis exposes the opportunism of the sports world”

"On Sport Knowhow XL Bart Vanreusel recently pleaded for modesty in sports. Here in Australia sports may be getting a little too big-headed. Financial arguments also play a role of course. The coronavirus crisis exposes the opportunism of the sports world. Huge profits are made, yet as soon as things go wrong, everyone starts claiming benefits. It is like the big companies – if they make a profit, that goes to the shareholders, but when things go wrong, they come to the government for support. I say: you can't have it both ways."

Does Spaaij think that the coronavirus crisis will bring lasting changes to the sports world? "As a sociologist, I have to be careful because we are notoriously bad predictors. There are roughly three effects about which I am curious whether they will recur. Perhaps lifting the lockdown will lead to a greater hunger for unification, from which sports clubs could benefit. On the other hand, the lockdown could actually reinforce a trend that had already set in, and people will start exercising more individually or without being tied to specific times or places, as is the case with traditional associations. And thirdly, I am curious to see how sports associations will be responding, as they are often accused of responding slowly to new trends and developments, and perhaps this crisis demands innovations that will make the associations more successful in reaching the public. It could be a wake-up call."

No matter how the future of the sport will look like after the coronavirus crisis, Spaaij believes in the sector's resilience. "You already see all kinds of creative ideas to keep people engaged in sports despite the lockdown, from online sports classes to airing nostalgic footage to fill the void. If you have to put a positive spin on the crisis, it is that there is now room for people who question the sustainability of all kinds of models in sports. This is an opportunity to recalibrate how we actually want to deal with sports."

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Promo Victoria University (Melbourne, Australia)

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