“Summer 2020 should have been the summer of all sports; finally, it’s the summer of emptiness,” says Vincent Rodriguez of Radio France, lamenting the postponement of this summer’s editions of the Tour de France, tennis’ French Open at Roland Garros, football’s UEFA Euro 2020, the Olympic and Paralympic Games and the European Athletics Indoor Championships, among other top sports events.
Rodriguez is among a group of radio broadcasters from across Europe and beyond who gathered to take part in the Eurovision Sport Radio Podcast – COVID-19 Special, hosted by David Naert of Belgium’s VRT.
It’s not all bad news. What’s clear is that, in sports radio, as elsewhere, one of the effects of the coronavirus has been to uncover the hidden resourcefulness and versatility of journalists and others working in radio. “All sports journalists were transferred to COVID-19 news coverage,” says Lars Brøndum Nielsens, of Denmark’s DR. “It’s exciting times, because you really see that we are one big company and we are really good at co-operating.”
For Christophe Mallet, of SBS in Australia, the crisis has ignited the imagination and creativity of those working in sports radio. “If you had told me months ago that every one of us could produce daily sports content with interviews, live broadcasts etc, I would have said it’s impossible,” he says. “Today it’s possible because we don’t have a choice!”
“Over the last years we learnt to be not only experts in sports but experts in medicine and doping and fighting corruption,” adds Marcus Tepper of Germany’s ARD. “And now we are learning to be a little bit experts in anti-virus measures, and also financial experts when it comes to the sports business.”
So, will the experience of the coronavirus crisis change ways of working in radio, permanently? In the wake of some tentative early experiments with holding sports events behind closed doors, one thing that all of the panel agree upon is that, as Lars Brøndum Nielsens puts it, “live sports without audiences is really a tame experience.”
“We’ve all now seen [cycling’s] Paris-Nice with no crowds,” adds Mallet. “Think what you want, but I think that was really sad, and quite often in our commentary, in our coverage, we might overlook the crowd. That’s one thing I hope I will be carrying across: we have to thank the public all the time for being there.”
The panellists all detect a new spirit of co-operation between athletes and the media and also, perhaps, a greater awareness among athletes of their relationship with the public.
“The actual sportspeople, the actual athletes, have opened up probably a bit more to the media,” says Mallet. “I’m not saying we were not welcomed before, but it feels a lot warmer how some of the athletes have welcomed the journalists from our team – just a bit more homely.”
Boštjan Reberšak, of Radio Slovenia Val202, recounts how a team of ski jumpers, coaches and staff have been delivering food to people across the country, while Aleksander Ceferin, the Slovenian president of UEFA, has helped to deliver protective masks. Meanwhile, Federica Brignone, Italy’s World Cup ski champion, was happy to talk to Manuel Codignoni from Rai, the Italian broadcaster, about her World Cup victory even as she was nursing her mother, herself a champion skier in the 1970s, who was suffering from coronavirus.
Bringing balance to the exchange, ARD’s Tepper concludes: “My hope is that we will start a discussion about what is the role of professional sports in society – even in times of crisis. Sport is not essential to run a society, especially professional sports. The people who run society are doctors, medics, the people in the supermarkets, the people who run public transport - and not the sports stars and not the footballers. It’s good to be a journalist right now.”
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