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Sport in the time of Spanish flu

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Paris (AFP)

The world's desperate combat against coronavirus evokes the battle it faced over a century ago with Spanish flu. AFP Sport examines here some cases of how sport fared during the 1918 pandemic:

Spanish - in name only

It claimed an estimated 50 million victims, infecting around 500 million to earn the dubious honour of the deadliest pandemic in history. The virus marched across the globe but misleadingly became known as the Spanish flu. With World War One censorship in place newspapers were free to report on its effects in neutral Spain, generating the false impression the country was at the epicentre of the health crisis.

Stanley Cup

The 1919 National Hockey League play-off series between Seattle Metropolitans and Montreal Canadiens was reaching its conclusion only to be called off abruptly before the decisive sixth game when some of the Canadiens players fell ill. One, Joe Hall who had collapsed on the ice in the fifth game, died whilst manager George Kennedy succumbed to influenza-related complications in 1921. It left the Stanley Cup without a champion, the only other time that's occurred was in 2005 with the season lost due to a labour dispute. The NHL will be hoping the suspended 2020 campaign does eventually resume to crown a champion.

A legend emerges

Spanish flu and the war had a hand in Babe Ruth's emergence as a legendary baseball slugger. The disease had been carried to the US by troops returning from the war in Europe. Despite those twin evils a shortened version of the MLB season and World Series went ahead. In March, Ruth, the Red Sox's best pitcher, was given an opportunity to prove his skill as a hitter, smashing five home runs in practice for troops at an army camp in Arkansas. He was to survive two flu attacks that year to help the Red Sox to the title. In the first he was rushed to hospital, triggering rumours that he was on his deathbed. Widely regarded as the greatest baseball player in history he won seven World Series. The staging of the 1918 series in Boston was blamed for contributing to the spread of a lethal second wave of the disease that took the life of renowned major league umpire Silk O'Loughlin.

Chelsea win silverware

The English League was suspended during the war years but regional competitions soldiered on. In 1919, with the invisible invader continuing its assault, Chelsea even won a trophy. The club's website notes that 36,000 were at Highbury to watch the 3-0 win over Fulham, the game going ahead despite two players, Tom Logan and Harry Ford, "being escorted by 'the Spanish Lady'". Both recovered, unlike former outside right Angus Douglas, the Scottish international, who died aged 29. Other players to lose their lives were former Newcastle and Nottingham Forest forward Jack Stanley Allan (after returning from the war) and former Gainsborough Trinity winger Johnnie Pattinson. A quarter of a million Britons perished. The Football League resumed in September with the flu still not totally defeated.

Barcelona defy suspension

Then, like now, the Spanish Football Federation in line with all the other major leagues suspended play. But sports daily Marca relates how Barcelona president Joan Gamper defied the lockdown with the Catalan Championship starting in October, 1918. Gamper headed a commission contesting the local health board's ruling that "football games will be suspended; theatres, cinemas and other venues will close, and large scale public hygiene measures will be implemented."

Olympics escape

Coronavirus put paid to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the Games eventually being postponed until 2021, although this week a Japanese virus expert declared he was "pessimistic" they could even be held then. There was no such drama over the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, which with Spanish flu defeated went ahead without a hitch.

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