Cold comfort as Roland Garros starts in shadow of coronavirus

Ground staff clean the court as the women’s singles first round of the Roland Garros 2020 French Open match between Victoria Azarenka and Danka Kovinic on September 27, 2020 was interrupted due to the weather conditions. (AFP)
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Updated 27 September 2020

Cold comfort as Roland Garros starts in shadow of coronavirus

  • A resurgence of COVID-19 cases means that only 1,000 spectators will be allowed into the grounds each day

PARIS: Roland Garros gets underway in chilly, damp Paris on Sunday still in the grip of the coronavirus which organizers had hoped they would escape by unilaterally pushing back the clay court Grand Slam event by four months.
Opening day will see 2018 champion Simona Halep start her bid for a third major while 40-year-old Venus Williams kicks off her 23rd French Open.
Andy Murray takes on fellow three-time Grand Slam champion Stan Wawrinka in the day’s marquee tie in a rematch of their epic 2017 semifinal duel.
However, it will be an eerily unfamiliar tournament, even for defending champion Rafael Nadal, chasing a 13th Paris title, and 2016 winner and world number one Novak Djokovic, as well as Serena Williams, pursuing an elusive 24th major.
A resurgence of COVID-19 cases means that only 1,000 spectators will be allowed into the grounds each day.
In 2019, more than 500,000 people watched the two-week tournament on site.
Organizers had hoped to welcome 20,000 fans a day but in the space of just a few weeks, that figure was quickly downsized to 11,500, then 5,000 before the French government slashed it to a 1,000 maximum.
“Tens of millions of euros have gone up in smoke,” said French Tennis Federation marketing chief Stephane Morel as he mourned the loss of ticket income.
Players, meanwhile, have been confined to two tournament hotels with tight restrictions on their movements.
It’s at the hotels where they undergo Covid-19 testing, a source of controversy and recrimination in the build-up.
Last weekend, five players due to take part in men’s qualifying were stood down.
Two had tested positive while three others had been in contact with coach Petar Popovic who also tested positive.
Popovic told L’Equipe it was a “scandal” and had “(Rafael) Nadal been in our shoes, he would have had the right to a second or third test.”
On Friday, veteran Spaniard Fernando Verdasco said he was “outraged and frustrated” after being withdrawn following one failed Covid-19 test which he claimed fell between a steady stream of negative results.
Verdasco said he should have been allowed a second test.
Inside the grounds of Roland Garros, situated in the prosperous western district of Paris, there are further signs of the effect of the pandemic.
Normally bustling shops, food outlets and other commercial stalls have been shuttered.
Everyone at the tournament, including players if they are not in action or in practice, is masked. Hand sanitizers dot the site.
Instead of the early summer sun usually associated with the tournament in its traditional May-June slot, players will shiver in 16°C on Sunday with rain and high winds forecast for the first week.
That should mean overtime for the new retractable roof over the showpiece Court Philippe Chatrier.
On court Sunday, Halep, the top seed in the absence of world number one Ashleigh Barty, who opted not to defend her title on health grounds, takes on Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tormo, ranked at 70.
Wimbledon champion Halep is the favorite especially with US Open champion Naomi Osaka missing through injury.
Former world number one Murray tackles 2015 champion Wawrinka in his first appearance in Paris in three years.

Alistair Gosling bringing Extreme sports to an adventure-hungry Middle East audience

Updated 42 min 53 sec ago

Alistair Gosling bringing Extreme sports to an adventure-hungry Middle East audience

  • Adventure sports are a natural home for social media, where Extreme’s numbers are approaching a community of 20 million and engagement of 50-100 million views a month
  • That light bulb moment, the instant he came up with the idea of setting up a channel for extreme sports, could not have been more appropriate

DUBAI: Alistair Gosling doesn’t just talk the talk. He walks it. He also runs it, skis it, sails it, and surfs it. 

If it involves mountains or beaches, chances are the man who launched one of the world’s most successful adventure sports television channels 21 years ago has mastered it.

“We had built up a TV production distribution business (25 year ago),” Gosling told Arab News. “Because we were in that for a number of years, we saw a gap in the market. I had read Ted Turner’s book on CNN, John Hendrick’s book on founding Discovery Channel, read the history of MTV. I was like, we’ve got all this content, this is the next phase.”

That light bulb moment, the instant he came up with the idea of setting up a channel for extreme sports, could not have been more appropriate.

“I know literally where I was, I was driving the car around a specific sharp corner, probably too fast,” he said. “And I was like, you know what, the next stage we’re going to launch a TV channel. I was 26 at the time, we put a plan together. Everybody said no, the money was hard to find, we spent a year-and-a-half looking for it and eventually met with the right guys who made it happen. That was the moment.”

The result was Extreme Sports Channel, launched in 1999 in partnership with Liberty Media and going out to 68 countries and 100 million homes. After establishing the media side, he turned to the two fields of destinations and events. Extreme’s three-pronged model was complete.

Alistair Gosling had a lightbulb moment that led to TV station. (Extreme Sports Channel)

“Once we got that underway, I was like ok, the big vision is this overall package we can take to different countries, which is looking at and driving the agendas of governments around health, fitness, wellbeing, all of these things. Kids off the streets, inspiring people,” said Gosling. “And so we started to look at destinations and the events side of things. When I look back on our vision and mission, we wanted to go to places for extreme sports, but then our really key thing is to entertain, and inspire people to then explore and experience the sport.”

Inspire. Explore. Experience. That’s Extreme’s motto.

You can spend several lifetimes trying out adventure sports and not make a dent into the list of activities on offer.

Mountain biking, rock climbing, karting, caving, ziplining, and horse riding. Sailing, surfing, white water rafting and scuba diving. Skydiving, bungee jumping, hang gliding. Skiing, snowboarding, heli skiing, ice diving, luge, cross country skiing and winter mountaineering.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg

Wrapped into this community of adventure sports lovers, which is approaching 20 million people now, are what Gosling calls the “other two pillars” of his vision; sustainability and technology. 

“We’re not perfect in all of those but we thrive to use those as pillars we can work towards.”

Gosling was born in London in 1971, brought up near Cambridge and studied at Gordonstoun in Scotland, a school where many a royal, including Prince Charles, went before and after him. He admits he is “not a city boy”.

Today Extreme has its headquarters in London, with bases in central Europe, Asia and the Middle East, including Dubai. Increasingly, eyes have turned to Saudi Arabia.

“You’ve got a perfect alignment going on,” he said. “You’ve got the Kingdom which has made a strategic decision at the highest level to develop their tourism. You’ve got an untapped market with the most amazing natural topography, and facilities and environment - from the beaches to the mountains. And it’s untouched, undiscovered.”

“And then you’ve got the growth in extreme and adventure sports happening,” he added. “[Even with] COVID-19, this will be the best year for the sports, ever. And for our sector. Not so much for the travel side, but in terms of people going out and doing things. Going back to our core belief of entertain, inspire, explore, experience, this year’s going to be amazing. Because everyone came out of lockdown and said, I want to go do stuff.”

Gosling praised the grass roots projects being set up by what he called the Saudi’s “visionary senior royal court and senior ministers”, initiatives that appeal to the country’s predominantly young population. Then there are the bigger projects, such as the Dakar Rally. 

“(The idea) that we’re going to take those vehicles and we’re going to race them across the Kingdom, that’s amazing because it shows off the country on an overall basis in terms of the activities that are happening. Then if you look at some of the smaller initiates being developed across the Kingdom, we’re heavily involved in many of these.”

“It comes back to what the Kingdom’s got to offer, whether it’s the beaches, oceans, the mountains, the city and the young demographic, all of those moving parts,” Gosling, who is also on the advisory board of Qiddiya, added.

He points out that while theme parks can be amazing, you’re unlikely to visit them more than once a year. But if you get into a sport with readily available facilities,” you can go back every day, or every other day, and it creates health, wellness, education, self-confidence”.

COVID-19 has slowed down the events side of the operation but Gosling says that he and his experienced colleagues - “25 years event veterans, no better team around the world” - have spent the downtown working on events strategy. Many of the plans will include the Middle East, as they have done for some time.

“We’ve done a lot of work with Ras Al Khaimah to date,” he said. “There are a number of other countries like Oman, and Bahrain we’re looking at pretty seriously. The world’s governments are waking up to the fact this sector is the fastest growing segment in the tourism market. It’s not the biggest, but it’s the fastest growing. Driven by the Instagram generation, and lots of different factors.”

Adventure sports are a natural home for social media, where Extreme’s numbers are approaching a community of 20 million and engagement of 50-100 million views a month.

“If you look at Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, all of these platforms are places where you want to show your friends what you’re doing,” Gosling said. “It’s such an ideal platform if you’re doing something interesting. It’s not so good to Instagram a photo of you sitting on a beach reading a book, it’s quite good if you’re doing the zipline in Ras Al Khaimah.”

Gosling himself continues to enjoy the activities that got him into the business in the first place. And there’s many of them.

“My passions are really the mountains and the oceans,” he said. “My wife (Amber Nuttall) is a huge environmentalist, her father started one of the first marine reserves in the world, in the Bahamas in the early 80s, BREEF (Bahamas Reef Environment Educational Foundation). She also works with Blue Marine Foundation creating reserves around the world.”

Gosling is a certified aviation pilot and a dive master, qualifications he says are perfectly suited for jobs either in ski resorts or on the beach.

“That came from kite surfing, windsurfing, surfing, diving, and sailing,” he said. “On the mountain side, one of the key drivers was ‘can we go and make movies with helicopters in the mountains, and ski while we’re doing them?’. I spent a lot of time jumping out of helicopters in northern Alaska or across the world. Working with incredible talent, directors and filmmakers, making some amazing ski movies while doing some skiing at the same time.”

Access to his hobbies is never too far away, wherever his work or family life takes him.

“In the winter I’m normally based in Verbier, Switzerland, for skiing and then in summer I’m back in the UK,” he said. “My bases at the moment are the Middle East, Switzerland and the UK. I’ve got a family and children, I really want to be spending four or five months in the mountains while running the business and the rest of the time I want to be on a 68-foot Gunboat, a large, very, very fast catamaran, which you can live abroad and run your office from there.”

It seems that after a 25-year labor of love, Gosling is still enjoying all the benefits that his work has to offer, while very much taking care of business. 

“I work super hard, but I love the sports,” he said. “Between my family, my wife and the environment, sports and work, it’s amazing. It’s super cool.”