Earthquake in New Zealand: how sport responds to tragedy

When tragedy strikes, as it did in Christchurch, New Zealand on 22 February, sports event organisers and athletes have to decide the best way to respond. The response is often dignified and well-judged.

The New Zealand cricket team, which includes several players from Christchurch, faced Australia in the Cricket World Cup just three days after the earthquake. There was a minute of silence before the match and the teams stood shoulder to shoulder in a circle during the break between the innings.

Looking further ahead, the Rugby World Cup will take place in New Zealand in September and October. The Lancaster Park rugby stadium in Christchurch has been closed for two weeks while the damage is assessed. Although forthcoming club matches have been moved to other venues, the early signs are that the stadium will be repaired in time for the Rugby World Cup.

It remains to be seen how the organisers will respond in September – everybody from the government to relatives of the deceased, the players and the International Rugby Board will have a view on what is appropriate. After the earthquake the organising committee quickly published a holding statement reassuring people that the tournament will still take place in New Zealand.

It is now a year since the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games where Georgian athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili tragically died in a training accident on the day of the opening ceremony. It was a huge shock for everybody at the Games (I was working there) and left very little time for changes to be made to the ceremony. There was a minute of silence in Kumaritashvili’s honour, the Olympic flag was lowered to half-mast, he was remembered in speeches and the Georgian delegation wore black armbands when they marched into the stadium. In what was a nightmare scenario, the organisers managed to respond in a respectful way.

The Vancouver case was particularly difficult because the accident took place at the Games. More often tributes at sports events relate to loss of life elsewhere. Football fans are familiar with the minute of silence before kick-off (sometimes now replaced with a minute of applause) and black arm-bands which may commemorate anything from the loss of a famous former player to a major natural disaster.

Spectator sports events are full of rituals, ranging from national anthems to the toss of a coin to handshakes between players. The audience knows these rituals intimately and so immediately understands the significance when the rituals are changed for some reason. Provided that the individual or people who are being remembered are in some way relevant to the audience, the response is usually heart-felt and genuine.

I am confident that the organisers of the Rugby World Cup will find the right way to remember the terrible loss of the people of Christchurch.

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