Malaysian sports industry needs workable solution fast to get moving

To play or not to play – that continues to be a major talking point across the globe.

The sports industry has been battered and badly wounded by the Covid-19 pandemic. Sporting calendars were disrupted with world sports bodies forced to cancel or reschedule competitions, leaving athletes frustrated.

The same frustration pervades amateur sports and the grassroots. Academies have been forced shut for the longest time as operators worry about overheads and staff salaries.

In Malaysia, some form of normality emerged when the Movement Control Order was relaxed. That spark of hope quickly dimmed after the Conditional Movement Control Order (CMCO) was imposed in almost all states. The uncertainty is killing sports bodies while athletes – from schools to elite – have wasted precious months not being able to compete.

The CMCO also resulted in the Malaysia Cup – the much-anticipated domestic football tournament – being given the boot as the National Security Council (NSC) decided that the meet be “postponed”.

Postponment was not an option for the Malaysia Football League. The Malaysia Cup, already in the quaterfinals stage, was eventually cancelled. The footballers’ contracts end on Nov 30 and given the current gloomy financial climate, teams are not prepared to pay extra in wages.

This leaves sponsors in limbo. Many are already shrinking their budgets ahead of 2021 for fear of more disruption as the race for the vaccine continues.

Even if vaccines are rolled out in 2021, it doesn’t mean things will be back to pre-Covid-19 days.

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach, during his recent visit to Tokyo, said: “You can organise safe sports events. We have seen in the professional leagues, particularly in baseball, games already under the restrictions now with spectators that have been very successful.”

The Major League Baseball, for example, is played behind closed doors and sees strict measures in place. Researches from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a US public health institute, said two Major League Baseball teams – Philadelphia Phillies and the Miami Marlins – “spent 11 hours on the field together over the course of five games without spreading the virus there”.

But there are concerns.

An article, ‘Impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on sports and exercise‘, published in the Asia-Pacific Journal of Sports Medicine, Arthroscopy, Rehabilitation and Technology last month, read that in a Hong Kong football league match, the average duration of close contact between the footballers was 19 minutes and each player performed an average of 52 episodes of infection-risky behaviours.

“This suggests that the infection risk was high for the players, even without spectators,” the article read.

UK and France have taken different approaches in protecting their respective sports industries.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged the government will “work to have the crowds to come back” when the nationwide lockdown ends on Dec 2.

Johnson is protecting the Premier League – a billion-ringgit industry with matches watched in every continent.

This, in return, gives the whole sports ecosystem in the UK hope.

France, meanwhile, has stressed that matches will continue to be held behind closed doors even beyond 2020.

However, France has set aside €400 million for amateur and professional sports and amateur sports clubs.

During a virtual meeting with industry players on Nov 17, France President Emmanuel Macron spoke about a “sports pass” totalling €100million which will be rolled out next year. This is to encourage youths to pay club dues or buy sports equipment.

In Malaysia, several quarters are pushing for some sense of normality. There has been financial aid, albeit on a minute scale compared to Europe, for sports bodies in Malaysia – specifically the Olympic Council of Malaysia’s Covid-19 relief fund.

The 2021 Budget has increased lifestyle tax relief limit from RM2,500 to RM3,000 but not everyone can afford an overly priced bicycle or the equipment that goes with it.

Many gyms have been forced shut while centres catering for contact sports and swimming activities have not been allowed to operate for many months throughout the year. Those leading active lifestyles have resorted to exercising at home, running or hiking – activities that require zero cost.

Deloitte in its paper ‘Understanding the impact of Covid-19 on telecommunications, media and entertainment organisations (sports subsector)‘ singled out the three dimensions of crisis management – respond, recover and thrive.

In another paper, ‘Games without fans: How sports organisations can thrive now, and in the long term,’ Deloitte singled out long-term digital initiatives, reinventing fan engagement and accelerating transformation as among ways to survive the Covid-19 disruption.

The Youth and Sports Ministry, eager to push the sports industry agenda, has been speaking up. But more voices need to be heard.

The government, especially the National Security Council, must understand the repercussions of continuously pressing the pause button on the sports industry.

If the National Security Council can get the Tourism, Culture and Arts Ministry to prepare a detailed proposal about travel bubbles between green zones in Malaysia, why not get the Youth and Sports Ministry and other stakeholders to design a similar proposal to get sports going?

After all, Malaysia’s elite athletes are already having isolated training and competitions – as seen at Akademi Badminton Malaysia and National Sports Council.

Sports isn’t just for the elite few. It isn’t just a lifestyle statement. Sports is about ensuring some form of sanity. Sports is also an outlet for people to forget about their worries temporarily.

The article in the Asia-Pacific journal sums up by saying: “Sports and exercise may be important, especially for competitive athletes, but safety is still paramount. Everyone should practise safe sports with the appropriate measures and prevent the further transmission of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

True, safety is important. Breaking the chain of infection is equally important.

Ensuring the livelihoods of many are protected and providing a de-stresser are also vital in ensuring Malaysians continue to be physically and mentally healthy during such unprecedented times.

It’s time for all parties to come together, make their voices heard, and find a workable solution instead of settling for the easy way out to get sports in Malaysia moving.

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