By using nuanced language and coming together with a shared response, sport can aid the global recovery following the pandemic and address other sustainability issues
In a recent article for The Economist, Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of England and UN Special Envoy for Climate Change and Finance, observed that “many have compared the covid crisis to armed conflict”. He noted that “after the First World War was won, the rallying cry was to make Britain ‘a country fit for heroes to live in’.”
Carney suggested “once this war against an invisible enemy is over, our ambitions should be bolder – nothing less than to make ‘a fit planet for our grandchildren to live on’.” A laudable goal, and one to be supported, but is invoking war metaphors productive? Can sport offer some alternatives? And what does this have to do with sustainability?
Covid-19 is a real and immediate threat. While governments around the world are responding in different ways, and the end-game remains to be seen, some of the language being used may not be helpful.
Many world leaders invoked the language of war very early on. In the US, President Trump opened a White House briefing referring to “the war against the virus”, and later described himself as a wartime president in response to a question about America being on a “wartime footing”. In announcing a more stringent lockdown in France, President Macron repeated “nous sommes en guerre” six times. Meanwhile, UK prime minister Boris Johnson said that his government “must act like any wartime government” and referred to the virus as the “enemy” that “we will beat.”
This language isn’t restricted to politicians. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organisation, dramatically told a G20 Leaders’ Summit that “we are at war with a virus that threatens to tear us apart.” At the same meeting, UN secretary general Antonio Guterres said “we are at war with a virus – and not winning it… This war needs a war-time plan to fight it.” Even the Archbishop of Canterbury referred to the epidemic being “conquered”.
It’s understandable why leaders would use wartime language. For the victors wars are often remembered as times of national unity; communities standing together against a common foe with shared purpose and every effort pushing closer to victory. This may be a romanticised and retrospective view of war, as those embroiled in front-line conflict rarely see such positives. The imagery is strong but it runs the risk of misrepresenting the problem.
War is active, political and uniquely human. It takes a decision to go to war; a decision of such depth and gravity that leaders are prepared to cause death and misery to people in pursuit of their final ends.
In contrast, a virus is passive and can only be transmitted as a consequence of other actions. The Covid-19 pandemic was precipitated by man’s encroachment on the natural world, entering into and destroying natural habitats; by taking live animals into wet-meat markets for sale and consumption; and subsequently spread globally by an affluent minority with access to easy global travel. The steps in the pandemic are broadly traceable, with each development necessarily sequential to the preceding action. In this sense, the Covid‑19 virus pandemic is a natural phenomenon, though an utterly unwelcome one, and one that need not have happened.
The language of war separates us from nature and natural processes. For millennia, human beings have known themselves to be a part of nature, working within natural boundaries to improve and to develop. These boundaries have been breached. Separation from nature is at the root of climate change, ocean plastics, habitat destruction, emergent zoonotic diseases, mass extinction and other environmental issues, and environmental issues exacerbate so many social issues in ever-increasing feedback loops. Sport works with nature, exploring and pushing the limits of what is biologically and physically possible.
The language of war suggests a binary outcome. Battles may go on for some time but, ultimately, you either win or you lose. There is talk of having to win the war against Covid-19, but has anyone considered what a loss might look like? Globally, we already live with a number of communicable diseases, some of which are treatable, others are not, but all of which are understood to a greater or lesser degree with the risks managed accordingly. The Covid-19 pandemic is now global, having extended to almost every country and territory in the world. It seems likely that this is a disease that we will have to live with and manage in years to come, perhaps with second-, third- or even fourth-waves in the short-term and future occasional outbreaks in the longer term.
When these happen will we shut down for weeks or months at a time with every new case detected? If so, how do we plan our businesses, international competition, our fixture lists and our training programmes? Also, what will happen if or when malaria and dengue fever, among others, arrive on UK shores, as the ranges of these diseases, and others, extend due to climate change?
The language of war requires that we be obedient and follow instruction, rather than find solutions through the common good. Obedience may work in the short term, but it is shared values and understanding that breeds cohesive, long-term community responses and solutions.
Finally, the language of war may simply provide a wholly inadequate metaphor. Linguist Elena Semino notes that it may “help to communicate how serious the situation is” and so may “foster a spirit of solidarity in the face of an external threat”, but adds that “some features of the war metaphor may actually have adverse effects” and that “the literature on public health communication [shows] that war metaphors are ill-equipped to make people abstain from their usual behaviours.”
So is there an alternative?
Virologist Roberto Burioni used football [soccer] to appeal to Italians to maintain the social distancing guidelines. He said that “just one person can let the whole 11-strong team down” and that “if you manage to go from losing 3-0 to 3-3, that’s not the moment to relax”. Meanwhile, US epidemiologist and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci, used ice hockey to explain the need for serious measures early on to avoid a more serious situation in the future: “You skate not to where the puck is but to where the puck is going to be.”
Some commentators, coaches, parents and fans use war language when talking about sport, but how do you get past the win-or-lose dichotomy?
Sport can provide a different narrative which may be caricatured as “it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part.” This might sound like a parent consoling a desolate child after a loss, but there is real-world wisdom in these words if suffixed by “if you now take the opportunity to understand, to learn and to improve”. Fundamentally sport must be about learning and improvement, and that is also a lesson for life, one that is needed now.
Each sport provides a foundational framework of rules or laws which are interpreted to generate techniques and tactics, taught by coaches and executed by players. Every match, every practice and every analysis session is an opportunity to understand more and to improve. In a sports context, a strong vision of where you want to be is necessary, as is an understanding of the current position. You then plan how you get from one to the other. Improving sport performance has to be couched in what is real; an understanding of the rules of the game, analysis of strengths and weaknesses and an acceptance of circumstances and results, but with a desire to push the boundaries. We need a similar approach, understanding the underlying natural processes, to move us on from the current situation and to address sustainability issues.
Covid-19 provides challenges to all elements of society, including sport. While Covid-19 has changed priorities in the short- and, possibly, medium-term, none of the sustainability issues that were looming before the pandemic have gone and all must still be addressed by governments and responsible businesses. Now is not the time to lose sight of these issues and we must continue our efforts to reduce our impacts.
Sport has, for a long time, been recognised for the important social good that it does. The post-Covid-19 ‘reset’ provides sport with an opportunity to generate a new, cohesive narrative including environmental responsibility as a core priority of the sector, taking a genuine leadership position for the good of society.
Acting in solidarity
Mark Carney concluded his consideration of the impact of Covid-19 on the economy, society and human values, by stating that the test of the nascent social values emerging from this crisis will be our response to climate change. He notes that “climate change is an issue that (i) involves the entire world, from which no-one will be able to self-isolate; (ii) is predicted by science to be the central risk tomorrow [though the effects are already being felt worldwide, even during the current pandemic, and have been for some time]; and (iii) we can only address if we act in advance and in solidarity.”
So society, and the sport sector, can learn from the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and move on from it, addressing sustainability issues as we go, in at least three ways:
1. Understand that we are part of the bigger natural system; tactics change depending on your goals and your current situation. Amongst the undeniable tragedy, Covid-19 has caused society to ‘reset’ and has changed many of our preconceptions, goals, and beliefs of what is possible. The skies are bluer, the waters are clearer and the air is cleaner. Human society is part of nature and sport is a valued part of society. We need to understand our place in the bigger system (individually and as a sector) to be able to manage risk and our response moving forward.
2. Review our use of language and take a more conciliatory approach. Sport can be seen as a war – only win-loss – but, in the long term, this is counter-productive. Alternatively, it can be looked at as personal and collective improvement; always striving to win, but still learning, planning and improving after a loss.
Sport has so many metaphors that can translate to sustainability; though the clock is running out, determination and the refusal to give up keeps hopes of a comeback alive; individual responsibility contributes to the team result; and the strength, support and passion of our players and fans leads to success.
3. Come together in a shared response. The Covid-19 crisis has shown that governments can, and will, take necessary action when needed, and that people will respond, accepting that action and playing their part given leadership, direction and clear information. Stronger more powerful responses will come from a common approach developed with community support and understanding. Sport is in a uniquely powerful position in society as a trusted, non-political ambassador. Our sector will be impacted by climate disruption, so we have the opportunity and, perhaps, the responsibility to take action for the good of the sports we love and for the communities that support us.
In closing his Easter address, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury said that “we cannot be content to go back to what was before [Covid-19] as if all was normal. There needs to be a resurrection of our common life, a new normal, something that links to the old, but is different and more beautiful.”
We have that opportunity within our grasp.
Russell Seymour PhD is the chief executive of BASIS, the British Association for Sustainable Sport