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Sport in the Age of Coronavirus

Sport in the Age of Coronavirus

Wednesday, 25 March, 2020 - 06:00
‘Having myself witnessed a tightly fought battle over a 16-pack of Andrex Classic Clean in a supermarket last weekend, I can attest to the vicarious thrill of this sort of live contest.’ Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA
London - Marina Hyde

What will British sport look like in the peak of coronavirus? Not as we know it, is the general consensus, with closed doors, postponements and cancellations an inevitability. Though I’ve yet to see the computer modelling, my sense is that the search for sport-effect content will then become one of the great goals of our nation’s humankind. Indeed, as footage of panic buying continues to go viral, my preference is for Premier League referees to be redeployed to supermarket aisles. Mike Dean imposing himself on a lively pasta aisle derby feels like the coronavirus event we deserve.

Though of course, Dean might regard himself as the natural choice for the rather bigger game. And as has been made abundantly clear of late, that is the loo paper aisle. Over the past week or so, footage of toilet roll fights has emerged that could easily replace football if we were stuck with making do. I assume you’ve seen some of these? They’re arguably the perfect replacement. Right off the bat, viewers find it easy to immediately hate the players as well as sneer at them. They remain convinced they would never behave like them, and they wouldn’t want their three-mansions-worth of Cushelle packs even if they had the chance.

Plus, it’s a proper spectacle. Having myself witnessed a tightly fought battle over a 16-pack of Andrex Classic Clean in a London supermarket last weekend, I can attest to the vicarious thrill of this sort of live contest. Hate to say “I was there” – but this is another part of the true experience simply not grasped by plastic overseas fans. Or, I’m afraid, by so-called fans watching in other areas of the country. You just don’t get the atmosphere if you’re watching one of these ties on social media, and while I imagine the employee CCTV in the supermarket back office gets the best angles of all, there mercifully simply isn’t time to hear from them while the fixture is under way. So instead of a thrilling toilet roll fight being ruined by VAR, you are returned to a sort of prelapsarian state where play is entirely uninterrupted by technology – or, indeed, by anyone approaching a responsible adult.

Of course, it is quite easy to get sucked in to having A Strong View about the players, and I did find myself having to bite my tongue as one of the participants said something particularly extreme in front of the other one’s child. Then again, it’s a man’s game, when all’s said and done. If you don’t like it – and it’s not for everyone – you can always do one to fruit and veg, or olives and hummus.

But you should understand that THIS sport – this aisle – has a heritage. It was built on something real and elemental and raw, back when we started playing it (two Mondays ago). Like many people who’ve been there right from the start and who treasure what we had, I already lament the sanitisation of the fight for hand sanitisers. Next thing you won’t even be allowed to tackle for them. In fact, news that some supermarkets are stepping up their security provision to stifle this sort of thing brings a single phrase to my lips. Game’s gone.

Alas, that’s why you are already seeing people calling for controls on it – supposedly for the protection of those who play the game, but surely really for the benefit of the vested interests that seek to steal it from us. Draconian measures are not the answer. I’m very clear: the way people behave in the bog roll aisle reflects society, not the other way round. It is simply too easy to blame retailers for behaviour that is really a problem we all own. And ultimately, if you ban it in supermarkets, the sport will end up driven underground. No one wants to see that.

That said, there is a part of me that does want to see that. The thrill of an illegal toilet paper fight must be quite intoxicating – a makeshift arena picked out by a chalk circle and a single high-watt bulb, the rest of the venue dark and heavy with berry-flavour vape smoke. We’re under way – huge quantities of money or Nectar points changing hands with lightning speed, as the opponents do battle royale. At stake? Area bragging rights and 32 rolls of Andrex Touch of Care.

Speaking of rights, part of the beauty of this new sport is that we own the TV sort. Where’s Murdoch on it? Nowhere, is where. Indeed, the question of what sports broadcasters will do if there is soon no sport is presumably the subject of daily high-level meetings. My advice to them is to fall back on the key broadcasting value: random machismo.

After all, there has long been a certain type of sports broadcasting outfit that likes to think it runs toward danger. During the US occupation of Iraq in 2004, ESPN’s flagship SportsCenter show broadcast for a whole week from a US military base in Kuwait, on a set decked out to look like a bunker, with camouflage nets, sandbags and an anchors’ desk that made use of a Bradley tank. As one Baseball Tonight commentator genuinely put it: “I know we are risking our lives, but it was the least we could do.”

Well quite. Like many future self-isolaters, I’d certainly like to see Sky Sports taking this kind of approach during coronavirus. We must all, in the end, adapt. So pending a fast-tracked rights agreement, they must be prepared to pivot to bringing us Monday Night Toilet Roll Fights. I know they’d be risking their lives, but it’s the least they can do.

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