Sport is a major contributor to economic and social development. Its role is well recognized by
Governments, including in the Political Declaration of the 2030 Agenda, which reflects on “the
contribution sports make to the empowerment of women and of young people, individuals and
communities, as well as to health, education and social inclusion objectives.”
Since its onset, the COVID-19 pandemic has spread to almost all countries of the world. Social
and physical distancing measures, lockdowns of businesses, schools and overall social life,
which have become commonplace to curtail the spread of the disease, have also disrupted many
regular aspects of life, including sport and physical activity. This policy brief highlights the
challenges COVID-19 has posed to both the sporting world and to physical activity and well-
being, including for marginalized or vulnerable groups. It further provides recommendations for
Governments and other stakeholders, as well as for the UN system, to support the safe reopening
of sporting events, as well as to support physical activity during the pandemic and beyond.
The impact of COVID-19 on sporting events and the implications for social
To safeguard the health of athletes and others involved, most major sporting events at
international, regional and national levels have been cancelled or postponed – from marathons to
football tournaments, athletics championships to basketball games, handball to ice hockey,
rugby, cricket, sailing, skiing, weightlifting to wrestling and more. The Olympics and
Paralympics, for the first time in the history of the modern games, have been postponed, and will
be held in 2021.
The global value of the sports industry is estimated at US$756 billion annually. In the face of
COVID-19, many millions of jobs are therefore at risk globally, not only for sports professionals
but also for those in related retail and sporting services industries connected with leagues and
events, which include travel, tourism, infrastructure, transportation, catering and media
broadcasting, among others. Professional athletes are also under pressure to reschedule their
training, while trying to stay fit at home, and they risk losing professional sponsors who may not
support them as initially agreed.
In addition to economic repercussions,
the cancellation of games also impacts many social benefits of global and regional sport events,
which can cement social cohesion, contribute to the social and emotional excitement of fans, as
well as their identification with athletes leading to greater physical activity of individuals. Sport
has long been considered a valuable tool for fostering communication and building bridges
between communities and generations. Through sport, various social groups are able to play a
more central role towards social transformation and development, particularly in divided
societies. Within this context, sport is used as a tool for creating learning opportunities and
accessing often marginal or at-risk populations.
Major sporting organisations have shown their solidarity with efforts to reduce the spread of the
virus. For example, FIFA has teamed up with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and
launched a ‘Pass the message to kick out coronavirus’ campaign led by well-known football
players in 13 languages, calling on people to follow five key steps to stop the spread of the
disease focused on hand washing, coughing etiquette, not touching one’s face, physical distance
and staying home if feeling unwell. Other international sport for development and peace
organizations have come together to support one another in solidarity during this time, for
example, through periodic online community discussions to share challenges and issues.
Participants in such online dialogues have also sought to devise innovative solutions to larger
social issues, for example, by identifying ways that sporting organisations can respond to
problems faced by vulnerable people who normally participate in sporting programmes in low
income communities but who are now unable to, given restriction to movement.
The closure of education institutions around the world due to COVID-19 has also impacted the
sports education sector, which is comprised of a broad range of stakeholders, including national
ministries and local authorities, public and private education institutions, sports organizations
and athletes, NGOs and the business community, teachers, scholars and coaches, parents and,
first and foremost, the – mostly young – learners. While this community has been severely
impacted by the current crisis, it can also be a key contributor to solutions to contain and
overcome it, as well as in promoting rights and values in times of social distancing.
As the world begins to recover from COVID-19, there will be significant issues to be addressed
to ensure the safety of sporting events at all levels and the well-being of sporting organizations.
In the short term, these will include the adaptation of events to ensure the safety of athletes, fans
and vendors, among others. In the medium term, in the face of an anticipated global recession,
there may also be a need to take measures to support participation in sporting organizations,
particularly for youth sports.
The impact of COVID-19 on physical activity and well-being
The global outbreak of COVID-19 has resulted in closure of gyms, stadiums, pools, dance and
fitness studios, physiotherapy centres, parks and playgrounds. Many individuals are therefore not
able to actively participate in their regular individual or group sporting or physical activities
outside of their homes. Under such conditions, many tend to be less physically active, have
longer screen time, irregular sleep patterns as well as worse diets, resulting in weight gain and
loss of physical fitness. Low-income families are especially vulnerable to the negative effects of stay
at home rules as they tend to have sub-standard accommodations and more confined spaces,
making it difficult to engage in physical exercise.
The WHO recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity
physical activity per week. The benefits of such periodic exercise are proven very helpful, especially in
times of anxiety, crisis and fear. There are concerns therefore that, in the context of the
pandemic, lack of access to regular sporting or exercise routines may result in challenges to the
immune system, physical health, including by leading to the commencement of or exacerbating
existing diseases that have their roots in a sedentary lifestyle.
Lack of access to exercise and physical activity can also have mental health impacts, which can
compound stress or anxiety that many will experience in the face of isolation from normal social
life. Possible loss of family or friends from the virus and impact of the virus on one’s economic
wellbeing and access to nutrition will exacerbate these effects.
For many, exercising at home without any equipment and limited space can still be possible. For
those whose home life can involve long periods of sitting, there may be options to be more active
during the day, for example by stretching, doing housework, climbing stairs or dancing to music.
In addition, particularly for those who have internet access, there are many free resources on how
to stay active during the pandemic. Physical fitness games, for example, can be appealing to
people of all ages and be used in small spaces. Another important aspect of maintaining physical
fitness is strength training which does not require large spaces but helps maintain muscle
strength, which is especially important for older persons or persons with physical disabilities.
The global community has adapted rapidly by creating online content tailored to different
people; from free tutorials on social media, to stretching, meditation, yoga and dance classes in
which the whole family can participate. Educational institutions are providing online learning
resources for students to follow at home.