Opinion: WHO disrupts the disruptors
© DHL Motorsport
© DHL Motorsport

Opinion: WHO disrupts the disruptors


Sport is the least of anyone’s worries about coronavirus.

Sport going ahead is the least of anyone’s worries about coronavirus. Unless you work in it, when it feels pretty existential-grade.  Here’s what’s happening, in a few small corners of it. 

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints or policies of Inside Electric.

Look, everyone knows the priority is health. The safety of everyone has to be put first, that’s not up for debate – but if we’re scrabbling around trying to make events run in the meantime it’s not because we’re massively callous or foolhardy (well, a bit) but because that’s the only thing to do. I mean, if a racing series’ function is to try to hold races then it has to carry on doing that until every possible avenue has been exhausted. We reported last week that Formula E is doing just that, shifting the calendar radically to ensure events go ahead in some form.

Or shut down and give up. But that doesn’t seem like the right response – after all, it’s not like these problems are going to go away.

Coronavirus is the current in a long list of pandemics. Forgotten, ebola rages on in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zika virus – largely a threat to the unborn in what are considered economically undeveloped countries – hasn’t been fixed. HIV affects millions of people and although some preventative drugs have proved effective, there isn’t a cure or vaccine. Multiply drug-resistant and extensively drug-resistant TB continues to be a colossal, global problem with only wildly inadequate, lengthy treatments that force months of isolation for patients and have side effects including deafness and organ failure but again, it’s mostly in poorer countries and the former Soviet Union because until about twenty years ago richer countries vaccinated against TB. 

(It is, predictably, a growing problem)

That’s not meant to be relativism, that’s to say that we have ongoing, global epidemics and they have increased in number in the 21st Century. Coronavirus, not because of its lethality but because 10-15% of people infected require hospital treatment and no country has infrastructure suitable for that, has become the latest in a long list. 

Coronavirus’ response has been huge partly because there is one. It’s much easier to deal with than Ebola – washing your hands with soap removes the virus and people suspected to be ill with it can isolate safely without that being a death sentence that leads to a building you need to chlorine-wash and contact-trace. The panic, perceived by some people as ‘over the top,’ is actually just because for once we have some pretty decent answers – stop people congregating in large numbers, isolate cases and improve overall hygiene and we can actually control this. 

That’s good! But why on earth try and hold sports events when the stakes – coronavirus certainly can kill people, after all – are so high? The short answer is: this is going to be how we work, now. COVID-19 is the current novel cause but there will be something next year, too. We live on a globally mobile planet and antibiotic resistance in human diseases is high, investment in doing anything about it remarkably low. 

And we’re probably going to still want entertainment, in our hermetically-sealed isolation pods but sport is also a huge business – the economic impact of just stopping sport, globally would be a $489 billion hole that would take down plenty of other stuff with it, according to 2019 figures.

Which is where Formula E, punk upstart and sometimes hot mess of the sporting world might – I hope, since it’s the bit of those billions I personally work in – have a weird advantage. Even as events are postponed – the contractually obligate phrase for ‘cancelled’ – and rearrangements are made that everyone complains about, at least those rearrangements are possible. 

Formula E appeared in 2014, to the backdrop of a different epidemic. Shaky-legged and stumbling like a baby deer, it announced itself as the disruptive future of motor racing or possibly the whole automotive industry. A start-up, peevishly informing its elders that it had discovered something totally new and wouldn’t be doing any of the things they did. The sort of thing that really gets people’s backs up, as well as some much-needed attention.

Either you bought into it as a plucky, if frail challenger – a sort of pre-serum Steve Rogers vs a world of tanks – or you thought “those idiots are going to get their asses kicked” and passed on getting involved in the inevitable embarrassment yourself.

I’m a sucker for an underdog and my main complaint against people who brand themselves disruptors is that they’re not disrupting the right thing. I’d be a lot more (literally) onboard with Uber if they were disrupting access to car travel, not employment rights. Taking on global petroleum consumption as a scruffy, low-budget sci-fi series seems like a much more straightforward cause.

Formula E’s first three seasons were dogged by calendar grief. During the very first season, everyone would leave a race not knowing when – or if – there’d be the next one, a weird nostalgic feeling that re-entered the paddock in Marrakech two weeks ago as we all shrugged and said “I’ll see you… wherever… when it happens, hopefully?”

Back then, Formula E’s problems were little things like money and permission to race. All of which are negotiable. What you can’t write a clever contract or wheedle with a politician for is the World Health Organisation’s advice about endangering a population, which is how the Sanya E-Prix, the and the Jakarta E-Prix have been confirmed as not running on their schedule days (which is to say, at all but with negotiations about who pays for that ongoing) and the Seoul and Paris E-Prix looking certain to follow that pattern. 

New York and London might just about be late enough in the calendar to be safe but given we’re halfway through Season 6 (we run seasons rather than by years, reflecting our dedication to being a glossy teen drama show) at this point you have to assume the whole thing’s a mess and just look at the fascinating way the machinery gears up to try and fix it. 

Formula One is racing in Melbourne this weekend, despite concerns. F1’s bigger – Formula E’s pensioner-age sibling, whose media and fans are often a bit baffled by the obnoxious electric stuff going on elsewhere. Why, you might ask, are millennials insisting on killing the tradition of camping at former air strips to watch four days of distant track action for more than the price of a Glastonbury ticket? If F1 was Formula E, they would simply attempt to do things properly.

Which is a strong position when you’re watching your baby sibling get shouted at for staying out late with the corrupt former mayor of Montreal and having to rearrange the calendar for the billionth time. F1’s gargantuan size and scale means it has the resources to set events in stone, no ‘hmm, do you really think we’ll make it to Indonesia?’ about it, once hosting and broadcast and team entry and burger stand and merchandise and licensing and probably toilet paper fees have been rubber-stamped and paid. 

It’s all a very sensible process and how sport and gigantic, global contracts have traditionally worked – especially if you have a strong negotiating position like being the world’s premier motorsport for the past 70 years.

Formula E’s never faced an existential threat like this – whereas F1 has weathered plenty in the last seven decades – with most of its problems in the past being relatably self-induced by hooning off announcing it was doing something, half-cocked. But being a messy bitch that loves drama does have its advantages – yes, closed-door races at obscure circuits are no replacement for zooming round the Indonesian national monument or copping off with several members of BTS in Seoul but if Formula E has to, it’s prepared to do it. 

Which is how this is going to be. Because sport isn’t the priority but if we’re going to continue with any pretence of normality while the world catches fire (and we hopefully fix it, a fairly core idea to Formula E) and we call catch the next hot disease, it will be adaptability and sheer bloodymindedness that leads to survival. 

The big car brands involved in Formula E might not be relishing a proposed double race, without an audience, at a circuit outside an economically depressed Spanish town but if that’s what lets them run then, as other sporting calendars slowly descend like a collapsing Star Destroyer, by the end of the year Formula E might well end up looking like the clever one.

Like the millennial, marginal people we are, the Formula E paddock is mostly preoccupied with how much we can’t pay our rent right now, with cancelled and postponed events on the horizon and whether China Southern will ever refund us for those Sanya flights. The idea we actually might get coronavirus is mumbled as an ironic, nihilist-meme bonus because we’re doomed millennials anyway and everyone’s sense of humour is horrifically warped.

Formula One people seem to be worried about the actual threat of dying. That’s the more sensible view, from anyone who doesn’t already contemplate their own oblivion for several hours a day in between brightly committing to things they won’t make a profit on doing. But there’s the tension, globally, painted large – are you more scared of disease or your bank balance and what happens if someone forces your hand either way? Can you work round this?

There isn’t an international sporting event in the world that can run in total defiance of enforced safety but being able to, agile, run ahead of restrictions – if you’re willing to shoulder that risk – could be as effective as remembering to really work the soap into your palms.

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Written by
Hazel Southwell
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