Updated: Oct 20, 2020
A small number of sports do have a way-out of the vicious circle that they are caught in because of SARS-CoV-2. Gathering in one place and at one time for the purpose of determining who is best among two or more athletes, or teams, can easily be substituted by a virtual match-up. And we are not talking about e-sports!
All sports struggle at a time like this. The novel coronavirus impacts them as it does every other area of life. In March 2020, when the first restrictions were imposed to avoid the spread of COVID-19, leagues, series, championships of all kinds and in all sports were brought to a sudden halt. Even the training of the athletes was suspended for months.
It took much ingenuity and big budgets for the highest-profile sports to relaunch after the shutdown: NBA staging the extended play-offs to the 2020 season in a bubble at a Disney resort is but one example. The big-league football matches, major tennis tournaments and cycling tours, etc., even if they are back and being contested since the summer, their current formats are hardly sustainable forever.
One needs to bear in mind that these are the premium sporting properties, owned and operated by powerful organizations. Now think of the many other sports, those lacking huge resources – or the stamina to fight the odds every step of the way for months. I know some of these quite well. I was working as communications director for one: DanceSport. The governing body sanctions some 1500 international competitions, including 30 world championships, for different disciplines and age groups every year. Virtually all of them had to be canceled in 2020.
There would have been an option to salvage some of these competitions by resorting to a proven concept. The World DanceSport Federation (WDSF) pioneered, as Breaking for Gold, a digital competition format when it held the first-round qualifying for the 2018 Buenos Aires Youth Olympics by having the entries by 1,000 b-boys or b-girls from 81 nations submitted as video recordings of their performances. It was an ambitious undertaking, but the results were extremely positive, applauded even by the International Olympic Committee.
There is a select group of sports that make extensive use of recorded video in the assessment of the performances already. Skydiving is one of them. Certain events have been judged on the basis of air-to-air video since the 1980s, with the very first recorded ground-to-air even prior to that. While the World Air Sports Federation (FAI) does not currently make use of the concept to have "virtual" contests substituting for in-person championships during the pandemic, some private organizers have embraced it: Sky League is organizing the Cloud Mondial in formation skydiving and Sky on Stage is about to launch multidisciplinary competitions in the artistic events.