On Friday 13 March 2020 as the Covid-19 crisis gripped, the sporting calendar collapsed. This is the story of that day, and what happened next, in the words of leading players and officials.
Formula One teams gathered in Melbourne for the opening grand prix of the season. On Thursday 12 March, a member of the McLaren team tested positive for Covid-19.
Lando Norris, McLaren driver: I remember heading to Australia, and at that point everything was pretty normal for us, although we were starting to see things about Covid on the news, such as Tom Hanks testing positive [in Australia]. On the Thursday we knew a member of the team had suspected symptoms and was being tested. I don’t know why, but even though we were going about our activities as normal, I did have a hunch that the race would be cancelled with things around the world getting worse, and that we wouldn’t be coming back to the track the next day. Going back to the hotel that night, I got a call from Andrea [Stella, the racing director], who gave me the news that McLaren were pulling out of the weekend because our team member had tested positive. It was the start of everything. Things went very quickly from a normal Thursday at the track to flying back home the next day.
Christian Horner, Red Bull team principal: On the way to Australia we knew Covid-19 was becoming a bigger global concern but we felt having left Europe we would at least get the season under way. Then very quickly things changed. None of us had experienced anything like that when the whole world came to a halt, we just wanted to get the team home safely and then things just got worse and worse as we went into the lockdown.
On Thursday 12 March Arsenal’s head coach, Mikel Arteta, was diagnosed with coronavirus – the prelude to, and trigger for, much of the next day’s drama.
Mark Gonnella, director of communications, Arsenal: We knew the implications would be far-reaching. I was aware he [Arteta] had gone home poorly and that we were awaiting the outcome of the test result. Our match at Manchester City the previous day had already been postponed and it felt as if we were at the epicentre of everything. It was late in the evening when Mikel’s diagnosis came through but we decided to make the announcement straight away, confirming too that our next game, at Brighton, would be off.
Mark Catlin, Portsmouth chief executive: We had played Arsenal in the FA Cup fifth round the week before and I got a call out of courtesy from their CEO [Vinai Venkatesham] to say that it was going to break that Mikel Arteta had tested positive and to advise that we might want to get our players tested. And from that first round of testing we had five players return positive tests pretty soon after. It was just like a car going down a hill that you just couldn’t apply the brakes. It kicked up a momentum of its own, the picture was changing by the hour, and it was the beginning of the end in society as we knew it at the time. There was a Nottingham Forest game [against Millwall] that the Greek owner [Evangelos Marinakis] had attended in the Championship and his other club, Olympiakos, had had a few cases and then it suddenly became very real. We were due to play Accrington on the Saturday and their owner, Andy Holt, had expressed concern at how quickly the virus was spreading. We spoke to the EFL [English Football League] and said we were really nervous about the game taking place while we were waiting for results of our players being tested and over those few days it spiralled to the point where by that Saturday the whole of the EFL was suspended. It was just one of those surreal things you think is never going to happen.
Rick Parry, EFL chairman: The first thing that Friday [13 March] was an early morning call with the Premier League and FA where we agreed that we would take a common line. Then we called a board meeting, at extremely short notice, to focus on the single issue: do we play this weekend or not? The Premier League obviously had their concerns about Arteta. We had concerns about Nottingham Forest and Portsmouth in particular, and I think there was another club where positives were starting to appear. It was definitely a live issue. So although at that point the government guidance was that it was still safe, we decided it wasn’t. The decision to postpone was pretty quickly and unanimously reached.
Gareth Davies, then chairman of the Welsh Rugby Union: We were at Twickenham the previous Saturday [for England v Wales]. The prime minister was there and everything was fine. At that stage people didn’t know the effect Covid-19 was going to have on us all. The first time it really registered was on the Monday. My daughter is a paediatric consultant and she said to me: “Dad, are you comfortable with the Scotland game going ahead on Saturday?” But the official advice we were receiving was that outdoor events were permitted, that even if there were mass gatherings outside you wouldn’t get infected. As a rugby board, who were we to go against that? By the Thursday, even so, I was getting twitchy. But other sporting events were still proceeding so I informed the government we were going ahead with the game. Then, on the Friday morning, I got up early to discover the Premier League had changed their minds. Apart from Cheltenham we were suddenly the last man standing. So I called another board meeting for midday, rang the first minister, Mark Drakeford, and said my recommendation would be that we pulled the game. He understood our position totally and was very understanding. Thank God we did call it off. Cheltenham have been crucified for carrying on, haven’t they?
The Masters golf was postponed minutes before Wales v Scotland was.
Ian Poulter, golfer: I had gotten off to a decent start at the Players Championship [in Florida]. I shot 70 on the Thursday and was looking forward to a good weekend. Whispers started on that Thursday evening about cancellation then we got given the news later that night. You were confused, didn’t know how serious it was and what it meant for any of us. How much time was this really going to take out? The rest of that weekend is pretty blurred.
Joe Denly, England and Kent batsman: England were playing a four-day warm-up match in Sri Lanka and I remember fielding on the boundary, thinking to myself: “What am I doing here? I need to get home.” We didn’t really understand the virus at the time. As soon as you hear that people have died – and each passing hour the severity of it seemed to increase – all you can think about is getting back to your loved ones in case the worst happened. Being part of a Test tour for your country, you are living your dream. And so the fact I didn’t want to be there told me something wasn’t right. Joe Root went off the field for talks with senior officials and, when he returned to say a decision had been made, it was a relief. The way the team doctor, Gurjit Bhogal, and the entire England support staff dealt with it during the days leading up to the call was first-class.
Hugh Brasher, London Marathon event director: 29 February was when it really hit me that the marathon was in trouble. I was sitting in the Tower hotel on the eve of the London Big Half when suddenly the Paris half marathon was called off at 12 hours’ notice. I remember thinking: “Woah, this is major.” It snowballed quickly after that. Within days it was clear that the London Marathon was increasingly unlikely to be held on its traditional April date because of Covid-19, and so behind the scenes we rushed to get approval from the mayor, Transport for London and the boroughs to move the race to October. Thankfully they were all incredibly understanding. On 13 March we broke the news to the world.
While other sports postponed, the Cheltenham festival completed its final day, including its standout race, the Gold Cup. On Tuesday 17 March racing was suspended.
Dr Jerry Hill, chief medical adviser, British Horseracing Authority: I was at the festival for a couple of days and at that time I was still working for the Football Association. On the last day of the festival, I had to go up to St George’s Park to look after an England squad there, and I remember being on the training pitch when we got the call from Uefa to say that competitions had been cancelled. I had a conversation shortly afterwards with Dr Iain McNeil, the Racecourse Association’s medical adviser, and we almost said simultaneously: “We’re going to have to advise to suspend racing.” Then there were very difficult conversations with stakeholders to get them to understand the importance of this, and what was coming over the horizon. After that, it’s been absolutely relentless for a year.
Gareth Davies: While we were conscious it would be a big hit financially – around £10m – our discussions weren’t based on finance. It was simply about reaching the correct decision. Everyone criticises politicians but they have to deal with things like this 365 days a year.
On 9 March, the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament in Indian Wells became the first major professional sports event in the US to be cancelled. With the Miami Open scheduled two weeks later, some European players remained in the US before rushing to get out of the country when Donald Trump suspended travel from Europe on 12 March.
Garbiñe Muguruza, tennis player: I was in shock. My whole team was in shock. We were kind of laughing because we said: “Oh man, we’re here in Indian Wells, it’s a tournament that we all love. OK, let’s take a break and let’s see each other in a couple of weeks.” And six months later, everybody was in their own country and couldn’t get to each other. “See you in a few weeks” became six months.
Coco Gauff, tennis player: Actually, I liked it at first just to have time home. And then I remember the last month or so I was anxious to play – practising and staying motivated was just a little bit tough because you set goals for yourself and that’s how you stay motivated. But there were no goals to look forward to so it was hard to stay motivated.
Dominic Thiem, tennis player: In the beginning, well, I thought that the tour is going to be back in two or three weeks and everything is going to be normal again. But slowly, of course, me and also everybody else realised that it’s a serious, dangerous thing going on and that there is going to be a longer break.
Lucy Bronze, England and Lyon footballer: It was fortunate that I managed to get out of France quick enough. I think my experience of the pandemic would have been very different if I’d stayed in my sweaty hot apartment in France for the entirety of lockdown. I was injured at the time and wondering which team I was going to be at next season [Bronze moved to Manchester City in September], so there were a lot of things going through my head. My focus was all over the place at that point to be honest. I felt the stress of the situation really highly.
Christian Horner: I am proud of how we responded. Very quickly the team and F1 applied itself to the challenge of building ventilators to battle Covid. We had a group of engineers that turned around in three weeks what would usually take three years to get an up-and-running prototype ventilator in collaboration with other UK-based F1 teams.
Lando Norris: The months after were spent at home. It was weird, it was the longest period of time that I’d not been in a race car or doing any kind of driving on track since I was seven years old. Mentally I felt OK, as I don’t mind spending time on my own and could still do things I liked. It was more the periods of time when you were able to go outside and see your mates as things opened up a little that were more challenging for me, since I couldn’t risk anything so didn’t go out to see anyone. I felt like I was missing out on feeling “normal”, which was tough. I couldn’t see my parents or friends in person for quite a while, but it never got to a really bad point.
Ian Poulter: I had the opportunity to have pure family time. That sounds extremely selfish but I enjoyed that break. I’ve been a pro for 22 years and never had that time at home simply because of my job. In some respects, it was the most wonderful five months I’ll ever have with my family.
Horse racing returned in the UK on 1 June. F1 hosted its first race in Austria on 5 July.
Jerry Hill: The thing that’s really got us through this is working together as a sport. I think if we’re going to take something positive out of this very, very difficult year, it’s that.
Christian Horner: Once we were racing everyone dealt with the new reality incredibly well. You had to roll with the punches and take on the challenge. There was the constant testing, the occasional positive case, team members were away from home, they were locked in hotel rooms in the evenings, it was tough conditions, we did three triple headers in a row. It was a brutal schedule, but there were no complaints, everybody just got on with it for the good of the sport. The fact that we did manage to fit in 17 races effectively between lockdowns was a great achievement by the whole sport.
Golf restarted in June, cricket in July, rugby and tennis in August.
Joe Denly: When cricket eventually resumed in the bubble I found it tough at first. I missed the buzz from the crowds and not being a golfer, or into computer games, it wasn’t easy to switch off on days off. Not being allowed to shower in the dressing room after a long day in the field wasn’t great, either. With England we were staying on site, at least, but back at Kent it was a case of jumping in the car for a disgusting drive home!
Ian Poulter: What a year it’s been. A year of understanding so many new things; face masks, having sand sanitiser in your car, different states with different rules. Then when it means from a global golfer’s perspective. I feel like I’m still in a bit of a whirlwind because I’ve played so few events.
Gareth Davies: For rugby the next few years are going to be tough. It’s going to be an ongoing challenge for every union worldwide. The only slightly disappointing thing for me is that it’s presented an opportunity to get a lot of other things together, such as a global season, and I’m not sure we’ve taken full advantage of that.
Hugh Brasher: I’m proud of what we did next. Within 22 days we went from conception to delivery of the 2.6 mile challenge – on the date where the London marathon would have been held – which raised £11.5m for charity. We then had another setback when October’s mass participation race was called off, but we were able to announce an elite race behind closed doors and a “virtual” London marathon across the globe that attracted nearly 38,000 runners worldwide.
The 2019-20 WSL season was abandoned and Chelsea were awarded the title. The 2020-21 season began in September. The Premier League and EFL restarted in June.
Lucy Bronze: There’s that old saying, we say it a lot in football, we always say it at England camps, that you can only control the controllables. A game might get cancelled, or my house might have been delayed or something else, but I can just control what I can control. I can imagine there are people in the world that are a lot worse off, too, and so I’ve just tried to stay as positive as possible about the situation that I’m in. I’m very fortunate to be a professional football player and to still go to work, even in these times, to do the thing that I love. Not many people can say that at the minute.
Mark Gonnella: It has been the most brutal 12 months of my working life, but also the most complex and stimulating. We have played 41 competitive games since mid-September and it puts an additional strain on people. Winning the FA Cup was a real boost for everyone, even if we all felt the absence of fans at Wembley and the traditional parade through Islington. It was also a special moment to welcome 2,000 of our home supporters back for two games in December. If it needed reinforcing, those nights emphasised that the fans are fundamental to everything we do.
Rick Parry: Health always came first. We never cut corners, but we also had to be mindful of practicalities. Despite discussions with government and authorities about neutral grounds we always thought the best approach was to play on home territory. Who would know better how to keep the ground secure and sterile than the club that owned it? Others were taking different views but we stuck to our principles on that. When you live through the ultimate challenges it’s day by day. The credit has to go to the clubs. They’re the ones that made it happen, they’re the ones who rallied round.
Interviews by Nick Ames, Tumaini Carayol, Ben Fisher, Robert Kitson, Sean Ingle, Ali Martin, Paul MacInnes, Ewan Murray, Giles Richards, Greg Wood and Suzanne Wrack