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Sport will rebound in China but coronavirus exposes flaws

Lewis Hamilton won the Chinese Grand Prix in 2019 but the race has been postponed this year because of the coronavirus © AFP / STR

HONG KONG, China, Feb 18 – The coronavirus exposes an ignorance of China’s lucrative sports market and poor contingency planning, experts say, after Formula One became the most high-profile casualty of a mass pullout from the country.

Formula One chiefs are scrambling to fit the Shanghai race into this season’s schedule after the April 19 grand prix last week joined the World Athletics Indoor Championships and European Tour and LPGA golf tournaments in being shelved because of the deadly outbreak.

The Formula E Grand Prix, badminton, skiing and Olympic qualifying events have all been cancelled, postponed or moved elsewhere in recent weeks.

All activity in the country’s two most popular sports — football and basketball — has been suspended, but the obliteration of the sporting calendar is regarded as unavoidable given the circumstances.

The virus, which emerged in December in the central city of Wuhan, has killed more than 1,800 people, almost all in China, and sparked global alarm.

The world’s most populous country has become a major sporting destination in the last decade and top clubs and organisations, among them the Premier League, FIFA and NBA, have courted fans — and their money — in the world’s second-largest economy.

Marcus Luer, founder and chief executive of sports marketing agency TSA (Total Sports Asia), said that it will be business as usual once the virus clears but a lesson has been learnt that extends beyond China.

“This could happen anywhere in the world and federations and organisers need good contingency plans, especially in an Olympic year, where athletes are still qualifying for the Games (Tokyo 2020),” said Luer.

“I think that’s a global learning for major sports organisations to be ready and have a good Plan B in case something like this happens again in the future anywhere in the world.

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“Honestly, I don’t think any sport or event had a Plan B in place.”

The Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai became the most high-profile sporting event in China to fall to the coronavirus © AFP/File / GREG BAKER

Professor Simon Chadwick echoes that sentiment.

Chadwick, director of the Centre for the Eurasian Sport Industry based in Shanghai, also said that European football clubs in particular had failed to grasp the opportunity to show support for China and its people.

“The current health issues have exposed how distant many international sport stakeholders are from China, in terms of both geographic distance and cultural understanding,” Chadwick said.

“Furthermore, it appears that many are rather too dependent upon second-hand information, suggesting that most don’t have people on the ground to provide accurate insight and first-hand experience.”

He added: “If they are going to successfully engage in business in China, then they need to better understand the nuances and complexities of working there.”

– Another Galacticos moment? –

China says that preparations for the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing remain on track, despite a test skiing event being cancelled over coronavirus fears.

Real Madrid players training at Beijing Workers’ stadium in August 2003 © AFP

China has been here before, with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2002-2003, but at that time the country hosted nothing like the number of international sporting events it now holds.

In the summer of 2003, a Real Madrid squad boasting “Galacticos” David Beckham, Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo visited China, the first time the Spanish giants had come to the country.

China is now a regular summer destination for top European football teams, but this year’s tours will fall by the wayside if the coronavirus continues to spread in the coming months.

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“When they appeared at Beijing Workers’ Stadium, the panic effect caused by SARS disappeared instantly… the stadium was full and the city’s confidence returned,” said a recent column in the Oriental Sports Daily, reflecting on Real’s morale-boosting landmark trip.

“This is the power of sports!” said the column, declaring that China’s sporting life will similarly bounce back with renewed vigour after the coronavirus subsides.

“The confidence of life, the confidence of the city, the confidence of the government and the good use of the spirit of sports culture will surely return quickly.”

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