Laura Woods

Laura Woods: On Cheltenham, life without sport and the impact of coronavirus outbreak

Sporting Life columnist Laura Woods shares her experiences at Cheltenham, coping without sport in the coronavirus outbreak and picturing Stuart Pearce taking a date for soup and ribs...

Cheltenham was like the last hurrah. Thousands upon thousands of trilby, tweed and fur-clad men and women marching in and out of enclosures, passing money for bets, drinking copious amounts of champagne and squeezing into beer tents shoulder to shoulder.

We’ll look back at this as a moment of madness given the current climate and, to be honest, we already do.

We broadcast our talkSPORT breakfast show from the Coral box each morning, coming on air at 6am in pitch darkness and watching, transfixed as the sun made its way up and over Cleeve Hill, spreading across the empty racecourse and illuminating our faces. A much-welcomed warmth on our otherwise confused bodies which, by day four, were weathered in a slightly different fashion.

Cheltenham is always raucous, but getting up at 4am and attempting to broadcast for four hours before the day even begins adds a hint of delirium to proceedings.

As the week continued, the questions got louder. We reported what we knew as event after event got scratched from the sporting calendar. Formula One, golf, rugby union.

We exchanged a few nervous glances when we heard the Euros might be scrapped. But, when the news broke that Mikel Arteta and Callum Hudson-Odoi had tested positive for COVID-19 and that all Premier League fixtures were under threat of being cancelled or postponed, the spotlight shone even brighter on the elephant in the room, Cheltenham.

Rupert Bell, talkSPORT's resident racing guru explained that unless the government made the decision to shut it down, then its doors would remain firmly open. And so they did.

It was an odd feeling, regurgitating the reality around us and then watching the punters flood in for the biggest event in racing, the Gold Cup.

The attendance over the four days was reported at 251,684, down on the 2019 numbers, but only by 5.5%.

Aside from the anti-bacteria stations with signs stating, “Don't pass it on!” (pictured, below), you really would not have known we were entering a pandemic.

‘Meanwhile in Cheltenham’ hashtags and clips were all over Twitter. Photos of the 70,000 strong crowd filling every inch around the course, delighting in the festivities. One video of a small, bald, middle-aged man techno dancing in the middle of a circle of enthusiastic spectators went viral. Another showed a topless man celebrating a win outside the Guinness tent to the tune of a fast Irish gig that the band duly played for him as he danced in circles clapping his hands under his legs.

Cheltenham was in a bubble.

Don't pass it on is the message at Cheltenham

Many had suggested if the event was scheduled just a week later it could not have gone ahead. But it stood as one of the last pieces of sport we will cover for, what now, feels like a very long time.

It is only since I have got home and settled back into reality that the enormity of the situation has hit. Because whether you think the shut down we are experiencing now is right or you think the media are dramatising the situation, the effect on the public is very real.

In sports media, for example, freelance colleagues of mine have had all work for the foreseeable future cancelled, a pattern repeated in all sorts of industries. Events, travel, hospitality and more. Weddings, hen dos, holidays, all cancelled.

The fact no professional fixtures will be played until April 3 at the earliest has thrown us all into some sort of purgatory.

Players that are self-isolating are being encouraged not to go outside even for a run. Exercise bikes have been wiped down and sent out to those that don’t have one to keep fit at home. They have had revised nutritional guides to keep their calorie intake down.

Grassroots football in the UK has also been suspended

And at talkSPORT, we are just figuring out what to talk about when there’s no sport …it’s unprecedented.

I did a show with Stuart Pearce on Saturday. We flitted between his best XI from this season’s Premier League to a First Dates segment where I asked him questions on his dating etiquette.

Finding out Stuart Pearce makes his dates eat soup and ribs to suss out if they have got the right minerals was a highlight for me.

What is interesting is that listener figures are actually up. Perhaps because so many of us are self-isolating, missing sport or maybe it is a reassuring slice of normality. Knowing that not quite everything has ground to a halt.

We will live this weird, alternative reality for a while, pouring over sport's most golden and historic moments and arguing how exactly the professional leagues will be completed. But we’ll do it all with a very dark backdrop, until it all stabilises.

I recently went on holiday to Bali and while I was there I met a German girl called Theresa who had moved to Shanghai for work a short time ago.

She flew to Bali just as the virus had started to take its grip on the country. Her workplace was shut down and she was told not to return for at least 2 weeks, so she extended her stay in Bali to make the best of a bad situation.

Six weeks later she was back in the country, but in quarantine for two weeks. Masks were compulsory, shops were shut and strict rules applied when travelling between buildings.

Nine weeks on and she tells me it’s almost back to normal. Restaurants and shops have reopened and the streets don’t look like ghost towns anymore. I choose to take that as reassurance.

And, while the supermarket shelves are emptied, toilet roll becomes more valuable than gold and Deliveroo introduce contact-free delivery, it is a small bit of positivity in an otherwise unrecognisable world.

Laura Woods' previous Sporting Life columns

Laura Woods talks to Southampton boss Ralph Hasenhuttl

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