Few occasions bring people together the way sporting events do. For a world experiencing the painful burden of distance under the weight of a pandemic, it can be said without a doubt that a coming together of sorts – perhaps not physically, but in spirit – is sorely needed.
International sporting action returns to the UAE this weekend when "UFC Fight Island", a two-week-long mixed martial arts competition, begins in Abu Dhabi on Sunday. It marks the first time a high-profile athletic event is to be held in the Emirates since March, when the coronavirus outbreak forced almost all of the major tournaments and leagues around the world to be called off or postponed. It also serves as a timely reminder that, in these immensely difficult times when normal life has been upended by Covid-19, the show can go on.
This is not the first event to be held globally since the pandemic forced a time-out in sport. Most football leagues across Europe returned to action in June and a cricket match between England and the West Indies is currently under way in the English city of Southampton.
Fight Island, however, is receiving an enormous amount of global attention for a variety of reasons.
First, it has taken the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi and the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the world's leading MMA production, a matter of mere weeks to put it together, at relatively short notice, and at a time when the pandemic continues to be a part of daily life.
The event also serves as a statement of intent, for the organisers and the host nation: despite the adverse impact of Covid-19 on lives and livelihoods, humankind should still be able to enjoy what life has to offer, not least one of its most soul-nourishing pastimes. This intention was reflected in the fact that the UFC announced the concept for this competition as early as April, when other sports were still grappling with the difficult question of when, or even whether, to return to action.
Furthermore, with one of the UAE’s biggest strengths being its ability to host high-profile sporting events, Fight Island serves as a signal to the world that the country is once again open for business, with appropriate planning and care. Over the past three decades, the Emirates has built its reputation as the pre-eminent destination for a wide variety of international competitions, including Formula One racing, Dubai Rugby Sevens, Test cricket and the Special Olympics.
Few countries can match the UAE's profile as a hub for sports tourism. That the UFC was able to swiftly replace its original headline act Gilbert Burns, who pulled out after testing positive for coronavirus, with Jorge Masvidal, another fighter of global repute, less than a week before UFC 251, is testament to this fact.
The reasons for the country's attractiveness in this regard are many – including a strong middle class, an advantageous geographic location and the ease of doing business. The third factor was particularly crucial for the UAE last month when it secured the right to host Fight Island. In the weeks since, Abu Dhabi has pulled out all the stops, involving government agencies, the Abu Dhabi Sports Council and Etihad Airways in putting together the event to be held on Yas Island, the home of the annual Abu Dhabi Grand Prix F1 race.
Four months ago, the pandemic delivered a knockdown blow against the world of sport. Which is to say that the global sports industry, valued at $471 billion by the World Economic Forum in 2018, sustained injuries that were so debilitating that it could not fight the good fight, at least temporarily.
We should welcome the fact that, even as it gingerly returns to action, sport is ready to fight again.