Sports in a Pandemic Don’t All Stink 1

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The Tour de France, like manymajor sporting events, is on hold because of the pandemic. But last weekend, I watched cartoon likenesses of professional cyclists fighting to win a virtual version.

Connected to the Zwift virtual world for running and cycling were the real-life athletes riding stationary bicycles in their dining rooms, garages or backyards. When they had to ride up a steep virtual French mountain, I watched a split-screen video feed of their real-life faces straining and their heart rates soaring. It was genuine fun.

Most of you probably aren’t cycling fans like me. But this sport, mostly associated with cheating and rich Europeans, has figured out virtual competitions that are (almost) as inviting as the real thing for athletes and spectators. Virtual cycling offers lessons for how other sports can appeal to fans leading increasingly digital lives.

What surprised me most was how seriously the cyclists seemed to be taking a not-real Tour de France. There were no medals or prize money at stake, yet people at the top tier of their sport were thrashing themselves to win a video game.

“We’re all competitors, and this pandemic has taken that opportunity away from us,” said Lauren Stephens, who won a mountainous virtual Tour de France women’s race on Sunday. “To be able to compete at this level in your living room — for me, it’s pretty enjoyable.”

On race day, Stephens woke up early in her Dallas home and set up in her dining room, which was filled with stationary bicycles, a 40-inch television to watch herself on Zwift, three fans and a dehumidifier to stay cool. (Cycling indoors is sweaty.) During the race, Stephens and the rest of her Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank team used the messaging app Discord to hash out strategy.

In a way, cycling is an ideal virtual sport. Compared with a basketball team, it’s easier to translate what an individual cyclist or runner does at home into real-world road speeds. And cycling is already technology obsessed. Even many amateurs ride on Zwift have gadgets to measure their vital statistics, and use apps to compare themselves with others who rode up the same hill.

I hope some of the fun elements of virtual cycle racing will mesh with the real thing. It was great to track the pros’ vital statistics like power and heart rates. And even Stephens said the close-up shots of the pros on Zwift showed viewers the pain of racing that TV footage doesn’t capture.

Best of all, without having to travel to France, more than 44,000 mortals got to ride the same virtual Tour de France roads as the professionals. (It took me nearly two hours to cycle the course that Stephens finished in under 48 minutes.)

I bet racecar fans would get a kick out of driving on the Daytona 500 course, and soccer fans would love to see their favorite players’ heart rates as they raced down the pitch. I got to do the equivalent of both.


Your Take

Safe shopping online

After I wrote earlier this week about the potential dangers of products sold on Amazon by a sprawling network of merchants, Christina Barber-Just in Leverett, Mass., emailed with a follow-up question:

If I’m careful to buy directly from Amazon — not another merchant — can I be assured that I’m not going to get a counterfeit product?

Good question. You can never be fully assured something isn’t counterfeit, but retailers like Amazon are legally accountable for the products they sell. In theory, that would make a company more careful about what it sells.

One of the risks of buying from outside merchants on Amazon is that it’s a legal gray area whether you can sue Amazon over a fake or dangerous product it lists on its site but doesn’t sell itself.

  • Frequently Asked Questions

    Updated July 7, 2020

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


I’ll tell you my personal online shopping habits, Christina.

If I’m shopping on Amazon for a product that could be dangerous if it’s counterfeit or unreliable — vitamins, children’s toys or makeup, for example — I almost without exception make sure I’m buying an item sold by Amazon itself rather than one of the millions of merchants that sell on Amazon.

Here’s what to look for: On the right-hand side of Amazon product pages, underneath the “buy” button there is text that explains the product “ships from and sold by Amazon.com.” That means Amazon bought the item from the product manufacturer and is reselling it, just like any conventional store. That’s what I want.

I tend to keep hunting if the text says a product is “sold by” a different company. There is similar advice with more detailed safety tips here from a Wall Street Journal columnist.

Online at Walmart and Target, I also mostly buy merchandise sold directly by those companies rather than outside merchants — although compared with Amazon, outside merchants represent a small percentage of goods those retailers sell online.


Before we go …

  • The tech surveillance state meets free-love San Francisco: A wealthy technology executive is paying for a private network of security cameras around the city, and he’s found a surprisingly receptive audience, writes my colleague Nellie Bowles. Many San Franciscans are tired of property crimes and are willing to set aside the city’s famously anti-authority streak to install cameras overseen by neighborhood groups rather than the police.

  • You sure about that tech surveillance, San Francisco? A company that analyzes social media posts helped law enforcement track the location and actions of Black Lives Matter demonstrators, according to The Intercept, an investigative news outlet. Civil liberties advocates have said it’s an infringement of privacy rights for law enforcement to use drones, smartphone data harvesting and other technologies to keep tabs on protesters.

  • Who is welcome in the kid-safe zone? After multiple crises about distributing videos of children, YouTube has carved out a spot with child-friendly videos. But Bloomberg News reported that some Black video creators say YouTube has unfairly excluded the programming they make from its app for kids. It’s part of a broader question about whether YouTube and other online hangouts are living up to their pledges to promote diversity.

Hugs to this

It’s Friday. You deserve to watch a baby hugging a dog.


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