Sports

Which major sporting events will take place… and will fans be present?

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ast year’s sporting calendar ended up with more red pen through it than Boris Johnson’s “plans” for handling the pandemic. The Olympics were called off for the first time since the Second World War, so too Wimbledon and The Open.

Twelve months on, we are tentatively anticipating a golden summer of sport but uncertainty still nags away.

Here we take a look at the showpiece events we are desperately looking forward to — fingers crossed — and the shape in which they may go ahead. You never know, vaccinations allowing, you may even witness some of it live.

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An early casualty of the first national lockdown, last year’s National was instead a virtual affair with 4.8 million tuning in to watch Potters Corner triumph on ITV Racing. A year on, the iconic race looks likely to become a reality with Tiger Roll attempting to become only the second horse in history after Red Rum in the Seventies to win it three times.

The race will inevitably be spectator-free or with very limited crowd numbers. In January, Aintree officials announced that plans to invite 10,000 Merseyside healthcare workers to the event had been delayed until 2022.

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The pinnacle of the Flat racing season was one of the early big sporting events to take place after the first national lockdown, with perimeter fencing surrounding Epsom to stop any potential spectators getting in.

The early favourite for this year’s race, Mac Swiney, is named after Terence MacSwiney, the former Lord Mayor of Cork who died after a 74-day hunger strike in 1920 to raise global attention for the Irish fight for independence.

Whether the Jim Bolger-trained three-year-old, who won the Vertem Futurity Trophy the day after the centenary of MacSwiney’s death, runs it behind closed doors remains to be seen but at least some spectators for an outdoor event look quite possible.

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With about £200 million swirling around this heavyweight unification fight, making it possibly the most lucrative bout of all time, the dust-up between Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury is likely to take place whatever the obstacles.

Covid is arguably less a concern than the possible involvement of Fury’s adviser Daniel Kinahan, named in the Irish courts as a Dublin gang boss. In an ideal world, Joshua’s promoter Eddie Hearn said the goal was for the first of a potential double-header to take place at Wembley.

That is out of the question with limited crowd numbers hitting gate revenue. Saudi Arabia is the frontrunner to pay the big sums to host the fight in the first week in June and the second at Wembley come Christmas time in front of hopefully packed stands.

The Euros, June 11-July 11

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The need to relocate many of this month’s Champions League and Europa League knockout matches has highlighted the pitfalls of staging an international tournament across 12 European cities. But the speed with which Uefa found alternative venues shows there’s reason to have confidence in this summer’s tournament.

Since announcing a one-year delay to the Championship, still titled Euro 2020, Uefa has considered relocating all games to just one host city — with London and St Petersburg mooted — but at the end of January, the governing body reiterated its commitment to a dozen venues.

Uefa is working with host cities on four scenarios for the return of supporters: full stadiums, 50-100 per cent capacity with social distancing, 20-30 per cent capacity with social distancing, and matches behind closed doors.

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Last year’s Tour was on the brink of being cancelled with Covid numbers rising and even Tour boss Christian Prudhomme falling victim to the virus mid-race. Having experienced one Covid version of the race, though, there is confidence of it going ahead again whatever the necessary contingencies.

Britain’s Geraint Thomas, the 2018 winner, has been named as the leader-elect for a star-studded Ineos-Grenadiers looking to win back the yellow jersey. Plans are already afoot for Paris-Nice, a traditional Tour warm-up race, next month, with the Tour itself set to go ahead even if a strict testing bubble needs to be adhered to, like last year.

Wimbledon, June 28-July 11

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One of the few major sporting events to have pandemic insurance, Wimbledon was in a position to make an early call for it to be cancelled last year. That insurance policy is not in place in 2021 and bosses at the All England Lawn Tennis Club have made clear their intention to go ahead with this year’s event in whatever format necessary.

Planning began in earnest in October and scenarios are in place for it to take place behind closed doors or else with reduced numbers, as at the Australian Open in Melbourne.

Lions tour of South Africa, July 3-August 7

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Rugby Union has had a truly dismal pandemic, with the action poor on the field and plenty of bickering off it. The Lions tour, which sees the four home nations unite once every four years to take on the three southern hemisphere superpowers in a three-Test series on a rotating basis, stood in the 2021 summer like a beacon of hope for the game.

This remains the pinnacle for players and fans; 30,000 of them were expected to flood south. Alas the prospect of a “normal” tour are dead in the water. The Covid situation in South Africa — with variants, and vaccination not happening fast — make it impossible.

There are options to delay until 2022, play behind closed doors, play it in the UK for the first time, or even take it to Australia. None of them come close to the real thing.

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It is a big summer for English cricket with the new Hundred tournament to launch. Having been delayed last summer, this will begin as planned in July, when the expectation is that crowds will be capped. That is likely to water down the impact of a tournament designed to bring in legions of new fans to the game.

The county season begins in April, when fans will still not be allowed in, but doesn’t end until the end of September, so the scene is likely to look very different. Cricket has shown that it is able to get the game on come what may, and will be ready for fans as soon as the Government allows.

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In December, Stuart Pringle, the managing director of Silverstone, said he was hopeful that a combination of both testing and vaccinations w o u l d equate to near-capacity crowds for this year’s race. Usually 330,000 attend over the course of three days of practice, qualifying and the race itself, which would appear unrealistic only four months out from the 2021 event.

The race will surely happen, as it did last year. when Silverstone hosted two grands prix on the heavily revised calendar. The Formula 1 circus has very much continued unabated even with half of the grid testing positive for Covid either during the season or else post-season.

Olympics/Paralympics, July 23-August 8 and August 24-September 5

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Despite all the positivity from Tokyo and the IOC, the Olympics and the subsequent Paralympics still carry perhaps the biggest question mark of the sporting summer. With 11,000 athletes set to converge on the Japanese capital from more than 200 countries for the Olympics, along with 10,000 officials and 20,000 media, the Japanese public are understandably nervous.

In a recent poll, 80 per cent voted against the delayed Games taking place in 2021. “Playbooks” have been sent out to those planning to travel to Tokyo for the Olympics and there is no requirement for a vaccine to ensure attendance. But money talks, and the huge numbers on offer mean the IOC and Tokyo officials will do everything in their power, even if the Games seem like they’re on the brink .

England v India, August 4-September 10

Joe Root and Ben Stokes during the morning session / Sportzpics for BCCI

In 2020, England men and women hosted a summer of cricket like no other, behind closed doors in the original “biosecure bubbles”, where the teams did not leave the grounds in Southampton, Manchester and Derby. To stage the games was a logistical triumph, but they also happened to provide brilliant cricket and save the game millions.

This year, the ECB has announced grand plans to take the game back round the country as New Zealand, Pakistan and Sri Lanka visit before the men’s team’s showpiece five Test-match series against India. Tickets are selling fast and authorities are still planning to have full capacity crowds by September, in the knowledge that things can be rowed back easily enough.

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Another event with full pandemic insurance, it was the only one of the four Majors not to go ahead in 2020. Martin Slumbers, chief executive of the R&A, has said preparations are in place for a “full-scale championship” with full capacity come mid-July. However, he added: “But we also have robust plans in place for a reduced capacity or behind-closed -doors model.”

The message is that the Open will go ahead in some capacity and the models of the European Tour golf has already worked well, without a positive Covid case within its touring bubble of players to date. Fan numbers remain the great unknown.

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The central debate is not so much on the ability of the event to go ahead at Whistling Straits in the United States a year on from its originally planned date, but whether it will happen if doors remained closed to spectators. A Ryder Cup without spectators is the antithesis of the event which pitches the best golfers from Europe against their counterparts from the United States.

American captain Steve Stricker sounded a confident note at the turn of the year: “There has been no talk of contingency plans. I would imagine we’re at the point where we would play no matter what.” However players have voiced their reluctance to play without the raucous crowds.

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While others have gone for muted events in 2021, the London Marathon opted for the other extreme, with the target of a record 50,000 starters on the streets of London for the mass-participation race. In addition, the aim is to give 50,000 places to others around the world competing virtually.

But organisers have made it clear that the 50,000 runners on London’s streets is reliant on the Government aim to have the public vaccinated by the end of September. Immaterial of that situation, the elite element of the race will go ahead as it did last year.


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