RICHARD BULLICK: Pandemic has been changing the game

COVID-19: Odds stacked against North West 200 going ahead

The North West 200 is amongst the big events which have been cancelled again this year due to COVID-19.

Richard Bullick

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Richard Bullick

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For many of us, sport provides a structure to the annual calendar with particular times of the year synonymous with certain set-piece highlights to look forward to and plan around.

As a rugby man, February and March means Six Nations time to me, with November bringing the autumn internationals and visits to Dublin by big southern hemisphere sides.

Like in other codes, the Schools Cup final is a staple of St Patrick’s Day while the European Cup windows in October, December, January and April have become established.

September has long since been All Ireland finals month for fans of gaelic games, while the start of February usually ushered in the start of the National Leagues.

In the other form of football, May is the climax of the club season with the FA Cup final, though the giant-killing potential of the third round makes early January special too.

Horse-racing has Cheltenham in March and the Grand National in early April while the petrol heads here had the Circuit of Ireland rally at Easter and North West 200 in May.

You have the Grand Slam tennis events, notably Wimbledon beginning in the second half of June, and the golf ‘majors’ including the Open Championship in July.

June is for major football tournaments, the World Cup or European Championships, in even-numbered years while golf’s Ryder Cup is a September biennial treat.

World Cups in most codes operate on four-year cycles as do other highlights like rugby’s British and Irish Lions tours in early summer or the Olympic Games a little later.

More whimsically, the start of the local cricket season at the end of April generally heralds some wet weather with another wet spell occurring right on cue when the schools break up.

All these have seemed set in stone, though there has been the odd tweak with, for example, gaelic’s All Ireland finals recently brought forward from their traditional September slots.

The 2001 Six Nations had to be completed in the autumn due to the Foot and Mouth outbreak and that year’s Ryder Cup put back by 12 months after the 9/11 terror attacks.

The 1997 Grand National had to be delayed by 48 hours from its usual Saturday afternoon due to a bomb threat, while the FA Cup final no longer kicks off at 3pm.

But, by and large, we could have set our clocks and calendar by these sporting set-pieces until the past 12 months during which so much has had to change.

Along came coronavirus and, one by one, sporting citadels fell and sacred cows were slaughtered, with the Olympics postponed by a year, Wimbledon cancelled and so forth.

For a while, sport stopped completely, which pushed the soccer season deep into summer, saw big golf events rearranged and moved the metaphorical goalposts in gaelic games.

With things not happening, at all or until later, our references points in the calendar changed and the pandemic period was a little like the Christmas holidays when you never quite know what day of the week it is.

We had hoped by now that the world would be back to something near normal but, in recent days, the North West 200 and Circuit of Ireland have been cancelled again.

Doubts persist around the Lions tour, the Olympics and soccer’s Euros, while St Patrick’s Day celebrations and Glastonbury have been called off, so it isn’t just sport affected.

It’s frustrating for sure, for fans as well as the athletes affected, but as someone said, sport is only the most important of the unimportant things in these grave times.

We haven’t been entirely starved of sport, at least to watch on the telly, during the pandemic and will appreciate our fix even more when this Covid-19 nightmare eventually ends.

Sports have had to show a mix of creativity, agility and pragmatism meantime in terms of scheduling decisions, streaming more matches when fans can’t attend and so forth.

Many changes have been made by necessity, but the coronavirus crisis could ultimately inspire some sports into major re-imagining which may not have happened otherwise.

In 2020 we got a glimpse of how the thorny club-county conundrum could be better handled in gaelic games and talk of moving Irish League soccer to a summer season has intensified.

This writer is a traditionalist who wallows in nostalgia and embraces change reluctantly, but especially with sport being big business, we can’t close our minds to innovative ideas.

It would be interesting to hear what others hold dear in terms of sporting traditions and also where you see potential to change things for the better on the back of this horrible pandemic.

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