For the past year there has been continuing debate about elite and largely professional sporting events being given preference during the COVID-19 pandemic. The debate included the early re-emergence of the National Rugby League and the Australian Football League in mid-2020. It also surrounded the staging of the third cricket Test between Australia and India in Sydney early this year during a COVID-19 breakout. These debates were conducted not just in the general community but in the sporting community itself. Respected cricket commentators, such as Malcolm Knox, opposed the staging of the Test during the pandemic.
Does the elite sporting lobby benefit from having special clout? Political leaders, including sports-loving Scott Morrison, and apparent sporting nerds Gladys Berejiklian and Daniel Andrews, often back sporting events. Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk reaped accolades and political rewards at the state election for saving the AFL by turning Queensland into an AFL-friendly bubble.
But political backing is not universal. Some political leaders, such as the Premier of Western Australia Mark McGowan, have stuck to their strict border closure and quarantine regimes despite the adverse impact on national sporting competitions and on his state's own elite sports men and women. Sport is not always given privileges.
Is this widespread political support for sport just short-term political interest, side by side with border closures and tight community lockdowns, or reading the community better than the critics, or wise judgement that something greater than the sporting event itself is at stake?
At the heart of the debates has been the question of whether sporting events and elite sports men and women, young, fit and privileged, deserve special treatment. That debate will continue while the new vaccines are being distributed around the world. The Tokyo Olympic Games may bring this to a head. The suggestion of privileged access to the vaccines for Australian Olympic athletes has already become controversial.
This week the Australian Open tennis event began after a short delay and heated controversy about the entry into Australia of hundreds of tennis players and support staff from countries seriously affected by COVID. There is a strong case that it should not have been held at all this year because its health dangers were too risky.
The most obvious element of the case against the Open is the danger to the Australian population from community transmission of the virus through the presence of thousands of players, coaches, physios and fitness trainers from dangerous locations around the world. Strict quarantine conditions did not eliminate the danger. Quarantine is not foolproof and athletes sometimes break it anyway.
The second element of the case is the privileged status of the visitors compared to ordinary Australians. This undeniable aspect of the case has been exacerbated when, despite the privileges accorded to them, some leading players such as the men's No.1 Novak Djokovic seemed to be ungrateful and critical of Australian authorities. The Australian community was in no mood to tolerate such selfish bleating and hit back.
While sport has been privileged, many other entertainment industries, including music and the arts, have been shamefully neglected by governments.
The third element is the argument that international visitors of any kind, including athletes, should never have been allowed entry while more than 30,000 Australians stuck overseas remain to be repatriated. If places on planes and in quarantine remain unavailable or too expensive for these expatriate Australians then why should the travel of foreign athletes be prioritised over them?
Despite these strong arguments there is an opposing case why it is right that the Australian Open has proceeded. Before making that positive case the context of any decision must be noted. Pandemic decisions must always balance competing concerns. These include physical wellbeing, economic vitality, unintended consequences like domestic violence, and positive mental health. Sporting events can contribute to economic recovery but the strength of the case for sport relates much more to community morale and mental health.
Community morale has a strong intangible element, although some scientific measurement is possible. It may just mean the reassuring sense that life can continue as normal in the worst of times. Sport is not the only contributor to this reassurance. But it can provide diversion from the boredom and hardships that pandemic life serves up for many people in the community. At its best it provides entertainment, excitement and even exhilaration for sports followers.
Elite sport is often hard to defend given the number of sporting brats who take part in it and its corporate dark side evidenced by glitz, advertising, gambling and media manipulation. But sports fans understand what I mean by its contribution to morale because they recognise the joy sporting events bring to their own lives. They should celebrate the fact that elite sport is continuing to flourish in the middle of pandemic pain and chaos.
The remainder of the community probably takes some convincing. But the argument for sport can be expanded to include the entire arts and entertainment industries. They too can contribute to wider community morale. While sport has been privileged, many other entertainment industries, including music and the arts, have been shamefully neglected by governments. That neglect should be called out.
The case for the Australian Open being staged in Melbourne right now must balance the benefits against the costs. The privileges should be recognised and it may be risky for our physical health, but it is much more than just elitism. It is a targeted preference for activities which give pleasure to a wider audience to the extent of boosting morale and, in some cases, underpinning good mental health.
- John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University and a regular columnist.