Song, sung red white and blue

Published on 13th May 2020
Author George Dodds

Neil Diamond’s career got a surprise boost from the Covid-19 virus.
One of the bright spots in the grim world of lockdown is a video of a hirsute Diamond, snuggled safely away in his mansion in front of a roaring fire, performing one of his iconic ditties, subtly tweaked for 2020.
You’ve probably seen it: “Hands washing hands, reaching out … don’t touch me and I won’t touch you.”
Legendary stuff, legendary guy. Cute Labrador.
Fortunately he didn’t have to rewrite all his back catalogue as the world rocketed towards its day of judgement. In case you are in any doubt … Money still talks – especially in speedway.
While supermarkets have been ruled suitable places to mix with strangers unfettered, garden centres will soon re-open, the K League began the South Korean football season on time, UFC’s cages are back in business and it turns out that horse racing, baseball and football never actually stopped – albeit in the likes of Hong Kong, China, Nigeria and Tajikistan.
Germany’s Bundesliga is set to restart on Sunday – but the fact that two Dynamo Dresden players have tested positive for coronavirus means the whole club is quarantined for 14 days has brought some uncertainty to the table.
La Liga and the Premiership desperately desire to follow suit. Australia’s National Rugby League has flown the New Zealand Warriors in en masse and put them into quarantine. Rugby Union, cricket, Formula 1, ice hockey, curling, tiddlywinks are keen to get involved in Operation Restart.
They want the same freedom currently enjoyed by shopaholics, philandering friends of government advisors and Prime Ministerial grandfathers to do what they want … as long as the paying public is not admitted.
You would have expected Sweden or Denmark to be in pole position to launch the 2020 speedway season. Germany even. All have had relatively few Coved-related deaths and are well on the road out of lockdown. Practice laps have been Go-pro-ed in all three countries already.
But of course while it may not sing and dance or even walk speedway’s money has not been struck dumb so it is the Polish Ekstraliga which plans to don its blue jeans – or multi-coloured kevlars – first.
Long gone are the days when elite sport relied on the click or turnstiles for profit and loss. Punters’ cash is now small beer compared to mega TV deals and the accompanying corporate sponsors and human-rights denying owners desperate to squander some of their unfathomable wealth.
As with Emperors of the past they then stage entertainment for the watching masses who, in thanks, turn a blind eye to the dubious morality of its bankrollers – or indeed the source of its wealth.
Worldwide football, rugby and cricket suck up the majority of the TV largesse –BT pays £6 million PER Premier League game – with those not on their radar left to pick up the scraps from a sporting audience which rarely – or indeed needs to – leave the comfort of its front room to watch wall-to-wall live sport.
Except over the past eight weeks or so but now the piper is tuning up again and schedules must be filled at all cost.
So last week we saw Tai Woffinden, Max Fricke and Dan Bewley boarding a private jet and flying to Poland where they will join the rest who have accepted a reported 50 per cent contract cut and will spend a fortnight in quarantine preparing to race later this month.
Not all have bought into the Polish slash and turn approach to coming out of lockdown. Nikki Pedersen is one of the high profile refuseniks.
Cynics might say that 43-year-old Nikki might be more prepared to turn his back on Poland than a 33-year-old NP.
They might also suggest that his decision to join Sheffield during the winter suggested a last hurrah in the lower paying leagues as his star began to wane in the land of the Mega-Zlotys.
They may even suggest that the rest of the riders refused to spend 14 days in quarantine with the Nikki Monster.
Non-cynics say it shows he gets the bigger picture for European speedway – the world does not begin and end at the Oder-Neisse line.
He could be left kicking his heels if the rest of the speedway world fails to find the means – financial, socially, practical and otherwise – to get back on track.
Theoretically those in Poland have given up the right to ride in the rest of Europe. How that works in practice will – hopefully – be seen but have these riders inadvertently shown the way ahead?
One of speedway’s weaknesses is its lack of exclusivity. Unlike any other sport being a rider for a team in one country does not preclude you from racing for another in that or any other country around Europe.
As a result the same small pool of riders race at the top level in each and every league willing to pay their price.
There is a closed shop at the top of speedway which draws a line through from the Swedish League, via Poland to the Grand Prix. Once there the drawbridge is pulled up it becomes almost impossible to break into the cartel.
The argument goes that only the top riders will attract TV and sponsorship megabucks therefore only the top riders can be signed – for top dollar.
But it is a rubbish argument. The decline in British attendances began while Sky was bankrolling the world’s best in the Elite League.
Forcing British speedway at the top level to race on nights unpopular with supporters led to a drop in attendances and when Murdoch’s money men pulled the plug to pay more for its football and motor-racing the big names scarpered.
When it relaunches British speedway will be competing in a world where the normal remains abnormal.
Air travel – especially at the budget end of the market – is likely to be in short supply and those popping in and out of Britain may face up to 14 days in isolation each time.
Which means that those who don’t commute to ride must form the basis of the post-Covid British speedway.
Coincidentally there is a fine crop of young Brits ready to step into the breach – and quite a number of Aussies who call Britain their home – at least during the warm months.
Many of British speedway’s detractors on social media constantly harp on about the glory days of the mid-70s when crowds were, relatively, vast.
What they fail to mention is that teams, even in the top league, were made up almost exclusively of British and Commonwealth riders with a sprinkling from the continent.
Riders were forced to choose between one league and another – few rode in more than one country.
It worked, the public loved it. Perhaps it is time to go back to the future.
As the Diamond boy might say let’s relive the time of our lives.
Who knows it might even revive the beautiful noise of packed terraces – although with social distancing we may remain a solitary man for a while longer.

George Dodds
George Dodds

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