Sports are an important part of the fabric of local communities as well as a multi-billion dollar global industry, and their absence in recent months has been conspicuous.
The coronavirus pandemic shut down both professional and amateur athletes around the world, forcing viewers to watch replays of old championship matches and limiting weekend warriors to stationary bikes and living room jumping jacks.
But now, as social distancing restrictions begin to lift, the wonderful world of sports is coming back to life, though often with some major changes to limit risks of reigniting an outbreak:
SOCCER IN GERMANY: After a two-month coronavirus hiatus, Germany's top-division soccer league, the über popular Bundesliga soccer league, has once again opened its doors, albeit only to players and other team personnel. As far as professional soccer goes, Bundesliga has the highest average stadium attendance worldwide, and among the major European leagues, it's the first to resume its season. Still, it's fairly obvious that this season will be far from conventional.
• On the field: There is to be no more than 213 people per game, including the players and staff, inside the stadiums. Players will remain between barriers when off the field, will wear masks when on the benches, and all celebrations are to be non-contact. Supporters of the sports league's re-opening in Europe have also become ardent critics of the games taking place in empty stadiums. To remedy this, the network Sky Germany has been broadcasting games, like the recent match between Eintracht Frankfurt and Borussia Mönchengladbach, with the addition of live mixes of pre-recorded background noises. A quick remedy for crowdless games moving forward, but not without challenges of their own.
• In the stands: As part of a charity campaign, fans of Borussia Mönchengladbach had the rare opportunity of filling up the Borussia-Park stadium with over 12,000 cardboard cut-outs of themselves. Before the outset of the virus, the fifth largest stadium in the league had been full for most of the season to its capacity of 54,014 people. To "attend" games now, they can contribute to the "Stay at home, Be in the Stands' campaign where their donations earn them a cardboard cutout of themselves in the stands while also supporting local charities. And yes, your cardboard cutout can root for the rival team too.
Lifting restrictions? — Photo: bokrugby via Instagram
RUGBY IN SOUTH AFRICA: As South Africa begins to ease its coronavirus lockdown restrictions even further this week, many are awaiting the return of rugby. This year's season ground to a halt mid-March, with all club and national matches postponed indefinitely by World Rugby.
• Despite the popularity of the sport and the return to competition in New Zealand and Australia, the South African government announced Saturday that it would be maintaining its current ban on contact sports. According to the country's sports minister, Nathi Mtethwa, non-contact professional sports like golf, tennis and cricket, may resume competition in some regions without spectators.
• Contact sports like rugby require major changes before they can begin to train again, let alone compete. Over the next two weeks, each rugby team will be detailing its plans and protocols, such as mandatory screening of athletes, that must be approved by the state to begin holding practices.
• According to Jurie Roux, South Africa Rugby CEO, while the sport may not be considered an "essential business' by the government, fans surely feel otherwise. "We do not run hospitals or build ventilators and we are not an industry that is critical to the South African economy, but we do believe that we add huge value to national life in other ways."
TENNIS, EVERYWHERE: Tennis may seem like the perfect sport in pandemic times, with both players keeping at a respectable social distance from either side of the net. But that's only true for the two competitors — not for the thousands of people usually in attendance. This is how the tennis world reacted:
• In early March, the governing bodies of both women and men's tennis associations decided to cancel all professional tennis matches until July 13. Wimbledon? Canceled. The French Open? Postponed until September or October. The Indian Wells and Rome tournaments? Unclear.
• All hope may not be lost for tennis fans this summer though, as the U.S. Open has (so far) been rescheduled for mid-August. Organizers of the event will still have to decide whether the event can take place as usual in New York, which has been hit extremely hard by the coronavirus.
• In the meantime, to support the players financially affected by the canceled tournaments, the governing bodies of world tennis have created the "player relief program," a fund that aims at helping out hundreds of low-ranked players, depending on how much they depend on tournament earnings. The fund was not met with universal acclaim among top-ranked players, with Austria's Dominic Thiem voicing his doubts as to the fairness of the program.
• Tightly-controlled exhibition matches have restarted in Germany and the Czech Republic, with similar events expected in London and West Virginia in the summer. On the menu: No fans, no ball boys or girls, no line judges, no shaking hands … Basically two players, one chair umpire, two rackets and a ball!
With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.
CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.
Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.
It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.
Abundant sunshine, low temperatures
The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.
Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.
It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.
Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park
Chinese want to expand
The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.
The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.
The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.
The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.
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