Euro 2020 to Tokyo Olympics: How sports gave COVID-19 the boot!

Sony TV’s broadcast in six languages captured the country’s imagination in Indian sport’s triumphs and tragedies—from Neeraj Chopra’s monumental gold-medal winning hurls to Aditi Ashok’s so-near-yet-so-far finish. Did Tokyo Olympics 2020 threaten to topple cricket from its high horse ?

Hyderabad: The Corona virus had laid Mumbai low. The metropolis was seen as the epicentre. Undeterred, Sony Pictures Sports Network (SPSN) remained committed to its cause of delivering high-octane action from Euro 2020, Copa America 2021, Tokyo Olympics 2020, the India-Sri Lanka and India-England cricket series.

With a view to providing the best work environment, tonnes of equipment were shifted from Sony’s Malad studio to Westin Hotel in Goregaon East. The bubble was in place by the last week of May, with about 200 rooms across several floors, some suites, two initially, then four lifts, the first, fourth floor lobbies, dining areas exclusively earmarked for Sony personnel. For months, they would be cut off from family and friends.

Every now and then, RT-PCR tests for COVID-19 were conducted to rule out infections. Each first floor executive conference room was converted to a studio or PCR, with a maze of wires strapped down to the carpet by high-adhesive tapes. The Central Monitoring Room (CMR), incidentally one corner of the lobby on the same floor, was the veritable war room.

MS Education Academy

Leading by example were the triumvirate of Vice President Siddharth Padhye, Associate Vice President Ayush Khanna and Senior Producer Girish Bubna. Facing several monitors simultaneously beaming footage from various venues in Japan’s capital and beyond, the trio was in position, often from the wee hours of the morning every day and towards the end of the Tokyo Games, much before Aditi Ashok teed off around 4 AM, IST.

Interspersing live action were sessions of Sports Extraa, the chat show, a blend of good looks and gravitas. Among the guests and experts were ex-ESPN writer, former CNN-IBN Sports Editor Gaurav Kalra, soft-spoken yet measured, not a word uttered extra or less and Arpit Sharma, placid-faced and perhaps sports’ Prannoy Roy. Olympian, Indian captain Viren Rasquinha and the impeccable Siddharth Pandey complemented each other with their insights into the country’s hockey exploits.

Seasoned campaigner, ex-Times of India Sports Editor Ayaz Memon attributed his energy to a certain elixir he euphemistically named ‘sherbet-e-aazam.’ With his flowing locks, former tennis ace Somdev Devvarman and Raman Bhanot added vigour to the conversations. Ridhima Pathak’s 1000-watt smiles, ex-shuttler Trupti Murgunde’s takes on badminton, P.V. Sindhu were as much on the mark as Anju Bobby George and Anjali Bhagwat’s clinical dissections of differing displays.

Foundation for the flow of words came from the unending string of stats packs and dockets sent by Joseph George Vettuvazhy. In diverse despatches they sometimes arrived at unearthly hours, midnight and beyond. They contained every essential for comprehensive coverage of each contest, even if they featured much lesser known sports such as equestrian or canoeing.

Joseph’s outstanding work came amidst chemotherapy treatment sessions for his four-year-old daughter, spanning over eight months and still continuing. Despite that sword of Damocles dangling over his head, he delivered every time without delay, reliably and regularly, facts and figures always updated and verified.

Matthew Arnold’s maxim—Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style—found a true follower in Sudheer Mahavadi, ‘The Voice’ of Telugu commentary. Praised effusively by VVS Laxman, Venkatapathy Raju, MSK Prasad and Venugopal Rao for the mastery of his craft, Sudheer covered 10 editions of the IPL on the trot and right from the start.

Elder statesman of Telugu commentary Sudheer Mahavadi takes up position in the booth minutes before a broadcast gets under way.

Incidentally, Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao was a guest on a TV music programme Sudheer hosted. Bringing their own brands of versatility to English and Hindi commentary were Munish Jolly, a former Ranji Trophy cricketer for Bengal, T.N. Raghu and Radha Krishnan (RK) in Tamil.

If quality comes through professionalism, Amrita Sampath Kumar’s grip and grounding in sports (a must for producers), stemming from extensive reading, were exceptional. An ex-badminton player herself, an alumnus of Christ University and Chennai’s Asian College of Journalism, her strong point seemed to be soccer. Creative inputs in the form of snippets and live stats came shortly before, during and even after matches in the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, Euro 2020 and Copa America 2021.

Much as sports unites, there were divisions of loyalties when it came to backing favourite sides during Euro 2020. When England defeated Germany 2-0 in the round of 16, Sudheer broke into an impromptu jig, unable to contain his joy. The senior sportscaster was nowhere in sight when the cup went to Rome ! An enduring image of the campaign will be that of Production Manager Mohammed Shaikh, exhausted from the day’s proceedings, too tired to go up to his room, curled up on the sofa to catch some precious sleep.

An army marches on its stomach–Napoleon Bonoparte’s famous line–held good here too. While Chefs Sushanth and Kuldeep took care of the sumptuous fare on the buffet, the smiling faces of Anupa Peter, Mandar Jitendra Patil, Snedden Dias and Shrikant Shailender Basha ensured the dining experience was always an enjoyable one. Sean David, Assistant Manager, Front Office, Westin, was seen everywhere, ever ready to extend help to anyone in need with warmth and promptness.

Rajesh Kaul, Business Head, Sports, who was chief guest at the farewell party, couldn’t contain his excitement after the Tokyo Games’ completion. With Sony’s portfolio already bulging with the biggies, such as the FIFA World Cup, Euro, Champions League, Olympics, Copa America, and so on, the appetite for more challenges seemed insatiable.

“We’ll go for the Asian Games next. ” he announced to resounding applause. 

(A. Joseph Antony is/was a Sony TV commentator for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Euro 2020, Copa America 2021 and Tokyo Olympics 2020. The author of ‘My way—The biography of M.L. Jaisimha’ (Amazon, Apple Books), he was a Senior Assistant Editor with The Hindu in Hyderabad.)

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