Footage of Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert mocking the coronavirus outbreak by touching microphones at a news conference two days before testing positive quickly became a notorious chapter in the story of how the pandemic has affected the sports world.
Imagine, then, if instead his faux pas had been using fear of a pandemic to gain a competitive advantage.
These were precisely the mental images most associated with the H1N1 pandemic 11 years ago, when Hector Reynoso of Guadalajara’s Chivas was caught trying to cough and sneeze on an opponent during a Copa Libertadores match in Chile. The H1N1 flu strain — commonly known as swine flu — originated in Mexico, so the sight of a player from a country stricken with the infectious disease using that to intimidate an opponent caused an immediate uproar.
“They kicked us out,” Reynoso said. “Teams didn’t want to come to Mexico after that.”
As the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 continues to bring the world to a halt, it can be easy to forget that in 2009 Mexico found itself at the center of a global health crisis. The H1N1 virus was responsible for the eventual infection of up to an estimated 1.4 billion people worldwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The virus originated in the rural town of La Gloria in the eastern state of Veracruz, where 5-year-old Edgar Hernandez was declared “patient zero” in early April. A third of La Gloria’s population of 4,000 eventually fell sick, and the Mexican government estimates that almost half of the town’s citizens made the daily 150-mile trek to Mexico City for work in 2009.
“This is how the disease spread. It went into a major city and turned us into the epicenter of it all,” said Salomon Chertorivski, Mexico’s former secretary of health, who was part of the country’s response team during the H1N1 pandemic.
Reports of Gobert’s positive test on March 11 sparked a chain reaction that virtually shut down the sports world, not unlike what happened on a much smaller scale in Mexico in 2009. During the early stages of swine flu detection, the country went into lockdown, promoting social distancing while temporarily closing businesses and suspending sporting events, among other mass gatherings. It was a foreshadowing of what would come globally a little over a decade later. In the midst of the worldwide recession, the closures hit Mexico’s economy the hardest, with the country’s GDP contracting 5.3% by the end of 2009.
“Those measures were taken with many degrees of uncertainty,” Chertorivski said. “We concluded something very strong was coming and that we had to take immediate measures as far as social distancing.”
Fans were barred from attending soccer and baseball games throughout affected areas in Mexico in an attempt to curb the spread of infection. Officials handed out more than six million surgical masks in Mexico City, helping to flatten the curve of new cases by late April.
Before a vaccine became available for H1N1, doctors prescribed the antiviral drug oseltamivir, commonly sold under the brand name Tamiflu, to treat symptoms. That’s a key difference from COVID-19, which currently has no decisive treatment and can be asymptomatic. While experts have said it might take up to 18 months to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, the H1N1 vaccine was rolled out in the United States in October 2009, just six months after the disease had been classified.
Though the measures taken were effective, athletes connected to Mexico were nevertheless shunned internationally. Events involving athletes or teams from Mexico were scrapped. A mid-May baseball exhibition scheduled at Dodger Stadium between Mexico City’s Diablos Rojos and the Sultanes de Monterrey was cancelled. The 2009 A1 Grand Prix set to run in Mexico City was also lost.
“There was a lot of fear through misinformation during the pandemic,” Chertorivski said. “Back then, social media was still somewhat in its infancy and didn’t have the penetration you have now.”
Mexican clubs Guadalajara and San Luis pulled out of the Copa Libertadores that spring after Reynoso’s incident stoked fears of potential infection. In the waning minutes of Chivas’ April 29 group-stage match against Chile’s Everton, defender Reynoso approached striker Sebastian Penco, who earlier had come close to scoring a decisive goal for the Chilean club.
“I wanted to disrupt his concentration,” said Reynoso, who retired in 2015. “I pretended to cough and sneeze on him, and it worked. I could tell it scared him, so I kept doing it.”
Reynoso hounded Penco for the remainder of the match, and the strategy worked. Everton failed to score, with the 1-1 final allowing Chivas to move on to the next round.
“[Penco] never stood up to me during the game, and I figured that was the end of it.”
It was not.
TV cameras caught Reynoso in the act. Though he apologized, he was fined and suspended by CONMEBOL, South America’s governing body and the tournament’s organizer. A few days later, Mexican clubs were forced to retire from the competition when opponents refused to travel because of potential contagion.
Despite the initial panic, sports eventually returned to normal in Mexico even as the H1N1 pandemic spread around the world. In June, the national soccer team vied for the CONCACAF Gold Cup in the U.S., and the NBA held a preseason game in October between the Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns in Monterrey.
In the United States, only events at the amateur levels were cancelled or postponed because of the outbreak. President Barack Obama declared a national health emergency in October following confirmed deaths in all 50 states.
That same month, the New York Yankees won their 27th and most recent World Series title in six games over the Philadelphia Phillies. Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, who pitched four innings in his final Series start while struggling to breathe, said he and several other Phillies teammates played that postseason despite being stricken with H1N1.
“We concluded something very strong was coming and that we had to take immediate measures as far as social distancing.”
Salomon Chertorivski, who was part of Mexico’s H1N1 response team
“Some of the guys had swine flu and had to be kept away. I caught some of the virus,” Martinez said in 2019. “It wasn’t told, but most of us were sick.”
The World Health Organization declared an end to the swine flu pandemic in August 2010. The CDC estimates that the final death toll from H1N1 ranges between 151,700 and 575,400, with most occurring in Africa and Southeast Asia. Outside of Mexico, no other country applied social distancing measures.
“The world should have taken more of those techniques to halt the spread,” Chertorivski said.
In 2020, the approach around the world to COVID-19 has been markedly different, and the near-universal stoppage or delay of sporting activity is just one of several social pillars affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Stopping mass events like sports from happening is an effective way to inform the masses that attention needs to be paid to a specific threat,” said Alberto Diaz-Cayeros, director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Stanford.
Following the abrupt and widespread suspension of events and leagues in mid-March, those starved for action turned toward the slim pickings available around the world. Liga MX was one of the few and notable holdouts at the time — the league was still hosting games with fans in attendance on March 13, though the remaining matches that weekend were played without crowds before the league halted entirely that Sunday. The relatively late move to fall in line with the rest of major North American sports organizations was notable considering Mexico’s H1N1 history.
The delayed coronavirus response on the sports front can be traced to the strategy carved out it by the current Mexican government, which delayed full-on social distancing in an effort to slow the negative impact on the economy.
“It’s ambitious, but risky,” said Diaz-Cayeros, whose work focuses on the intersection of politics and economy in Latin America. said. “And it is certainly a departure from how the previous pandemic was handled.”
Mexico has been put under the microscope. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has been criticized for holding mass rallies and engaging in physical contact with supporters until late March. The tepid reaction was reason enough to label Mexico among the worst responders to the coronavirus pandemic.
With COVID-19 making its way through the world at an uneven pace and intensity, only time will tell if internationally prominent events scheduled within Mexico toward the back end of 2020 — such as yearly commitments with the NFL, NBA and Formula One — will even take place. MLB’s two-game series in Mexico between the San Diego Padres and Arizona Diamondbacks has already been cancelled.
With uncertainty reigning, it’s likely that each country’s specific response to the outbreak will determine how long athletic pursuits are sidelined.
“We might be looking at a near future in which sports become more local than global,” Diaz-Cayeros said.
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