A drawing of the Olympic rings with the word "CANCEL" written above it. A magnifying glass is positioned in front of the rings.
Numerous groups have called for cancellation of the 2020 Olympic Games (image by Henry Wong, South China Morning Post)

Does holding a sporting mega-event like the Tokyo Olympic Games amidst a pandemic and the continuing environmental crisis of global warming exemplify the “death drive” of 21st century capitalism? By “death drive,” I am referring to recent work by the Swiss-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han, who argues that the capitalist system’s “compulsion of accumulation and growth” is driving global society towards environmental and human catastrophe. Han extends from the work of Sigmund Freud, who believed that the “cruel aggressiveness” of humans could be attributed to our propensity for self-destruction and our “drive to return to the inanimate condition” of death. Han uses Freud’s notion of the death drive to explain the destructive tendencies of capitalism. It is the human’s “unconscious fear of death,” he writes, that feeds the capitalist order: people pursue and accumulate capital as a way of escaping the grips of death, believing that more growth, more power, and more capital “means less death.” The result is a “frenzy of production and growth” as capitalism prioritizes unrestrained entrepreneurialism and the accumulation of capital over the global ecosystem and the well-being of life on Earth.

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An empty basketball arena with the court lit up
The COVID-19 pandemic brought most sports in North America and around the world to an abrupt halt in March 2020. (Photo via Boston Globe)

In March 2020, COVID-19 abruptly halted sport as we know it across almost all ages, levels, and communities in North America and much of the world. In a matter of days we went from sport to no sport—from sport everywhere to nowhere. So what does this mean for sports fans and for society in general? What are the implications of a society without sport?

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A baseball game takes place at night in an empty stadium
Thanks to successful efforts at mitigating the spread of COVID-19, Taiwan’s professional baseball league began its season on April 11 (photo by Gene Wang/Getty Images)

Since COVID-19 has shut down sporting events in North America and many parts of the world, sports fans are desperately trying to find anything to watch. In North America, the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League had to suspend their seasons indefinitely, NCAA March Madness was cancelled, and Major League Baseball, which was set to start the season at the end of March, has not yet decided on a potential date to open the 2020 season despite creative contingent plans being floated around by league officials. With no baseball games on the schedule in North America, baseball enthusiasts can turn to Taiwan, where its professional baseball league started the season on April 11. To abide by social distancing policies of Taiwan, no fans are allowed in stadiums, but robot spectators fill the bleachers in lieu of actual people.

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A white women with long hair, wearing glasses and a coat stands in a field with bushes and trees in the background.
During the current suspension of sport due to COVID-19, we should consider the importance of “doing nothing” for a healthy, happy life (photo of artist Jenny Odell, author of “How to Do Nothing,” by Ryan Meyer)

The COVID-19 pandemic has systemically disrupted sport organizations and spectator sporting events around the world. Major and minor sporting events have been cancelled, youth sports have been put on hold, and professional leagues have followed the National Basketball Association (NBA) in suspending their current seasons. “Social distancing” largely underpins these unprecedented adjustments, as sport organizations heed the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus. The disruptions will undoubtedly result in a financial hit for leagues, teams and players, and exacerbate the precarious economic situations of low-wage stadium and arena workers. For women’s sports, the pandemic has meant the sudden interruption of recent progress made in the push for greater financial equity and media coverage. Amidst fears of a pending economic recession, American consumers now must adapt to living without much of their common sporting entertainment for at least the near future.

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