The return of spectator sport: The new Austerity Games?

By Tim Le Couilliard, Senior Executive

Not since the Second World War has British life been so dramatically constrained as it has been during the lock-down. Yesterday marked the 72nd anniversary of one of the beacons of hope for post-war London; the opening of the 1948 London Olympic Games.

The Games, the first held following the War’s 12-year hiatus, were dubbed the Austerity Games due to the low-key and low-preparation setup. Despite this, the Games were monumental – showcasing a return to some sort of normality. I wonder if we are now seeing the 21st Century’s version of the Austerity Games, with the re-opening of some UK sports events.

During these past few weeks we have seen the return of international cricket, as well as domestic cricket and football – no one needs reminding of the outcome of the Premier League. Just like the Austerity Games, these sporting events are not quite like they were pre-war or pre-pandemic. 

During the 1948 Olympics, some countries were uninvited, some didn’t send athletes and a Czechoslovakian gymnastics coach refused to return home and defected due to a coup in her homeland. But it was, nonetheless, a return to sport. 

Now it is social distancing, rather than international diplomacy, that is the dominating feature of sporting fixtures. Taking the Surrey – Middlesex two-day friendly held earlier this week; whilst the cricket was by and large similar, off the pitch it was a rather different game. As one of the Government’s pilot games, it was the first UK sporting event held with spectators since the coronavirus shutdown. Tickets were limited, with roughly 1,000 available free to members. It proved popular with over 10,000 requests made for the tickets within an hour of them being made available.

Limiting attendees to a cricket game does not impact the feel of the game too much. Whilst the Kia Oval is a stadium with a capacity of 25,500, it’s not unusual for cricket grounds to have quieter turnouts. Compare that, however, to the grounds of a topflight football and rugby team. If and when spectators return, perhaps later this year, it could be a wholly different atmosphere to pre-coronavirus, with a few thousand socially distanced fans in a stadium used to welcoming 60,000 people. 

Still, it is a return. Of course, masks, washing of hands, safety surveys and social distancing measures are the norm and were observed at the cricket this weekend. Grounds, such as the Kia Oval, are mandating to have at least two seats and alternate rows between spectators, but it was not uncommon to see groups sitting together, enjoying the return of sunny cricket. The bars and food outlets too were open.  

Boris Johnson has previously stated his keenness to reopen sporting grounds in England “in the autumn”, with pilot games such as Surrey – Middlesex already played. There are warnings that this may be too soon, with concerns that a second wave is imminent. But it is a start. 

The question is, who could be the stand-out athlete to take the mantle of Fanny Blankers-Koen (the “Flying Housewife” star of the 1948 Olympics) for the new, 21st Century Austerity Games? My money is on Jofra Archer.

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