We lost our great sporting events one by one during the pandemic. We watched them disappear as we might have watched streetlights going out in sequence along a grand avenue until only the darkness remained. Amid all the loss and the pain wrought by Covid-19, the great escape of sport – of watching it and playing it – was taken away, too.
Gradually, the lights are coming back on. I went to a Test match for the first time in 18 months last weekend to see England and India at The Oval and, even though the teams put on a fine spectacle, the best thing was the hum of the crowd you get at the great grounds on the big occasions and the sight of both sets of fans mingling happily as they streamed through the Alec Stewart Gates at stumps.
I sat in a football crowd, as a fan, for the first time in 18 months, too, when Stockport County played Grimsby Town at Edgeley Park 10 days ago. Walking through a turnstile and hearing it click and turn sounded like the sweetest melody. There were more than 6,000 fans, for a game in our fifth tier. The away end was packed and exuberant. It was raucous and beautiful.
Walking through the turnstiles at Stockport County and hearing the click was a sweet melody
As summer turns to autumn, it feels like spring in British sport. It feels like a rebirth.
Emma Raducanu is a story for the ages in New York, Cristiano Ronaldo made an emotional return to Manchester United, Anthony Joshua will defend his world heavyweight title in a fortnight and the Test series had built to a climax before Friday’s shenanigans.
There is a rush to re-embrace the sense of belonging sport brings us. That sense of community – among spectators and competitors – climbs to its zenith in the mass-participation running events that have been among the last things to have been restored to the calendar. On Sunday, one of the brightest lights will be switched back on when the 40th edition of the Great North Run takes place in Newcastle.
For some of us, this will feel like the greatest sporting restoration of all, the most uplifting symbol yet of hope that a return to something we once knew as normality is possible.
Emma Raducanu’s sensational journey to the final of the US Open has been a story for the ages
More than 57,000 people will run in the world’s biggest half-marathon in common cause through the streets of the North-east and the joy, for more than 56,000 of us, will not be in winning but in being part of a community again.
Running is special like that, however fast or slow you do it. You are always running towards somewhere, always striving to get there, always challenging yourself, always finding solidarity with people who are running towards a shared destination. And all the time being cheered on and encouraged by thousands of people who don’t know you.
It does wonders for your view of humanity and, at a time when so many people have struggled with their mental health because of the restrictions, it feels as if events like the Great North Run and next month’s London Marathon are more important than they ever have been before.
Cristiano Ronaldo made a fine return to Manchester United, scoring twice against Newcastle
This weekend, in line with its Great North Thank You campaign, the Great North Run will be started by four NHS workers, including Dr Mickey Jachuck, a consultant cardiologist and clinical director of South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust, who has become an evangelist for exercise.
‘I’ve always been quite sporty,’ he says, ‘but I didn’t really see the point of running. It didn’t excite me. Then, during lockdown, I did the “Couch to 5k” and really enjoyed it. I lost weight and felt a bit fitter. I started running more and using those blocks of time we were allowed for exercise. And it helped me to cope with the things I was seeing and experiencing at work.
‘I realised that people are quite happy to take pills or have surgical procedures done in order to improve their health but the perfect treatment is something that would work, that would be effective, that would have relatively few side-effects and would not cost anything for anyone, that would cut down heart disease and strokes and improve mood and concentration and a sense of well-being.
‘And that is exercise. Mass participation events like the Great North Run are a way of us all trying to get back to normal.’
Events like the Great North Run and the London Marathon are more important than ever before
Thirteen people from all walks of life, people who dedicated themselves to supporting their community during the pandemic – a council worker, a teacher, a fundraiser, a sports coach, a supermarket worker – will be featured on billboards at every mile along the course to emphasise that they are the people the run is celebrating this year.
The return of the event and its 40th anniversary is also a triumph for Sir Brendan Foster, the founder of the Great North Run and one of the most enduringly popular and influential figures in British athletics.
He got the idea for the event when he and David Moorcroft ran in the Round the Bays race in Auckland and adopted the template of a run that travels from the city to the sea.
It has been an outstanding success, a race that has become one of the staples of the national sporting calendar and a source of great regional pride for the North-east.
The Great North Run hints at a return to something we once knew as normality is possible
‘Since its beginning,’ says Sir Brendan, ‘the last pit in the region has closed and the last ship was built on the Tyne. The Great North Run has been a constant as the region has changed around it.’
One of the best moments in these mass participation events, anywhere in the world, is the point on the Great North Run where you crest the hill after 11 miles and see the shimmering North Sea stretching out in front of you, knowing that the Coast Road and the finish line in South Shields lie not far ahead.
A temporary change in the route, to prevent overcrowding, means the run will turn back towards Newcastle before it reaches South Shields but the compensation is that runners will cross the Tyne Bridge twice, instead of once.
The new finish, much like the Herculean effort to organise the race this year, will be an uphill struggle but taking part has never felt more important or more worthwhile.
GREED IS DESTROYING CRICKET
The abandonment or postponement – whichever it turns out to be – of the eagerly awaited fifth Test between England and India at Old Trafford on Friday was less a product of the harm wrought upon the game by Covid-19 and more a sign of a sport that is causing itself untold damage with the greed that comes with trying to cram too much into its calendar.
It has got to the point where England can no longer field their first-choice Test team because of the competing demands of white-ball cricket, where fans no longer know whether a match they have anticipated for years is actually going to take place and where some of cricket’s best players, such as Ben Stokes, feel the need to step back from the sport because of the pressures on their mental health.
Like football, which is currently attempting to force through the staging of a World Cup every two years, its lust for money is destroying it.
England’s fifth Test farce was a sign of the untold greed that comes with a hectic calendar
BEWITCHING RADIO MAKES SPORT A PLEASURE
Despite the relentless efforts by elements of BBC radio to alienate older listeners – ie. anyone who is out of nappies – it has had the foresight to retain the services of a number of quite brilliant radio commentators.
This was particularly evident last week for those switching between the evocative descriptions drawn by Isa Guha on Test Match Special during the Oval Test and the masterful picture-painting of Gigi Salmon, as she illuminated the latest adventure of Emma Raducanu at Flushing Meadows.
Both of them make sport a pleasure to listen to.
A number of brilliant radio commentaries recently have made sport a pleasure to listen to