Wednesday, April 30
Updated: May 4, 4:33 PM ET
The fear that plagues sports

By Greg Garber

Like so many professional tennis players, Alexandra Stevenson is a transient citizen of the global village. She lives in Los Angeles, feels comfortable in New York and moves easily through the grand European capitals, Australia and Asia.

The fear of contracting SARS has given both fans and athletes reason to be cautious.
But ask her about upcoming events in Berlin, Rome and Paris and her wide brown eyes open even further with alarm.

"I have asthma, so I'm very concerned about SARS," Stevenson said Monday in New York. "I fly out of LAX. It's a big city and a big drop-off for people flying from Asian cities. Believe me, I'm up on this stuff. You have to watch your back."

Stevenson, 22, is better known as the daughter of Julius Erving, but she also happens to be the No. 26-ranked player on the WTA Tour. The outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome -- there are already more than 5,663 confirmed cases in 27 countries and 372 deaths -- has Stevenson thinking about skipping the clay-court circuit.

"We're going into countries where people travel a lot," said Stevenson, a semifinalist at Wimbledon four years ago. "I don't know what I'm going to do yet. I'm scheduled to go now, but if it's that serious … I mean, life is more important than tennis. I'm scheduled to go right now, but…"

Her voice trailed off and she shrugged.

James Blake, who is No. 28 in the ATP rankings, said he will play in Rome, Hamburg and Paris as planned.

"I feel like I have a good immune system," Blake said. "Do I have concerns? Sure. I know it's transmitted easily on planes and in enclosed areas. But it's something I can't occupy my mind with. You can't worry about things like that and play top-level tennis."

Most people in the arena of athletics fall somewhere between the viewpoints of Stevenson and Blake.

SARS, thought to be a virulent form of pneumonia, has flu-like symptoms that include a high fever, dry cough and difficulty breathing. The virus reproduces itself and destroys healthy cells; SARS victims suffer catastrophic damage to their lungs and can essentially drown in the fluid their body produces to fight the disease.

"We still don't know exactly how it works," said Rhonda Smith, a spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "The leading hypothesis is that it's a corona-virus most commonly associated with the common cold."

Despite its well-publicized spread from Asia to North America, SARS has not officially reached the level of an epidemic, though the threshold of being counted among the verifiable SARS case eliminates anyone who is symptomatic of the disease but has a body temperature of less than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

The hardest hit areas to date are Asia and Canada. The disease originated in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong and is spread by person-to-person contact. China has the most documented cases (3,460, with 159 deaths, as of Wednesday), followed by Hong Kong (1,589 and 157), Singapore (201 and 24) and Canada (148 and 20). There have been only 52 cases reported in the United States with no fatalities.

Consequently, the intersection of SARs and athletics has been confined to Asia and the Toronto area. The World Health Organization rescinded its travel advisory against the Ontario capital, effective Wednesday, one week after the initial announcement. In Canada, at least, the SARS outbreak seems to have crested but Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, WHO's director-general, said Tuesday "the lifting of this travel advice does not change the reality that Toronto has a status as an affected area."

When you talk about personal health, the further you are away from a location that is under siege for a health scare, there is a natural reluctance to say 'Why should I expose myself and my family to that type of situation?' You're thinking, 'Even if they're wrong, why do I have to roll the dice?'
Blue Jays president and CEO Paul Godfrey
Asia, however, remains a hot zone. A number of events already have been canceled or postponed:

  • The Asian Football Confederation moved the final round of Asian qualifying for the 2004 Athens Olympics from the fall to March 2004.

  • The upcoming World Badminton Championships in Birmingham, England are likely to be called off because the event is usually dominated by Asian players.

  • Portugal withdrew from two friendly soccer matches scheduled for June in South Korea and Japan. England's Aston Villa and Everton and Germany's Bayern Munich canceled postseason tours in Asia.

    While several smaller tennis events have been canceled, the major men's and women's events set for the fall in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo are still on.

    "We are continuing to monitor the situation," said Greg Sharko, the ATP's director of communications. "The tournaments have not been canceled."

    Darrell Fry, director of corporate communications for the WTA Tour, said Tuesday's WHO announcement was encouraging for the Rogers AT&T Cup tournament scheduled for mid-August at Canada's National Tennis Centre in Toronto.

    "Obviously, the situation in Toronto is greatly improved, so we're looking at a green light," Fry said. "The Tour will continue to take steps to ensure the health and safety of our players.

    "It's been one thing after another, really. (Sept. 11), then the war and now SARS. You wonder when it's going to end."

    Good news, bad news
    When the World Health Organization withdrew its travel advisory, there were mixed emotions in Canada's largest city.

    "We're thrilled in one way that it happened -- and sort of ticked off in another," Paul Godfrey, president and CEO of the Toronto Blue Jays said Tuesday. "That the episode had to happen at all … there's going to be lasting scars. The announcement that got all those headlines in the U.S. papers and networks -- let's just say the good news will not get close to the coverage that the bad news got. Bad news is on page 1 and good news goes on page 21."

    Shannon Stewart
    Blue Jays outfielder Shannon Stewart shows he wasn't afraid to sign autographs during Tuesday's game, a sellout at the Skydome.
    This Godfrey knows, because before he joined the Blue Jays he was the publisher of the Sun Media Corporation, which owns the Toronto Sun, Canada's second-largest paper. As SARS spread in Toronto, the news was almost all bad.

    Several hospitals were essentially shut down and hysteria reigned in the city of 2.5 million residents. Paper masks sold briskly. Health officials desperately searched for answers. They eventually traced every local case through a chain of direct personal contacts back to the original case, a grandmother who arrived in the city from Hong Kong.

    Visiting major league players, aware of the SARS scare, were put in an extremely uncomfortable position.

    After New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter suffered a separated shoulder in a violent collision at third base, he was transported to a Toronto hospital. According to the Yankees, he donned a mask during his examination. Boston Red Sox pitcher John Burkett refused to sign autographs during his team's April 8-10 series in Toronto. Blue Jays shortstop Mike Bordick, outfielder Frank Catalanotto and pitcher Corey Lidle all cancelled plans for family members to meet them in Toronto after a three-city road trip. Other Toronto players sent their wives back to their off-season homes.

    The Royals set up a recreational room at the Toronto Hilton so the players had the option of staying in during their series this past weekend. There was also a team dinner Saturday night at the hotel, a rare occurrence. Trainer Nick Swartz offered anti-bacterial handwipes in the dugout.

    There were reports that Major League Baseball would advise the 10 teams that would visit Toronto before the All-Star break to avoid large crowds -- and, along with it, the signing of autographs. That didn't happen. In a conference call with the trainers of five teams last Thursday, Dr. Elliot Pellman, baseball's medical advisor, said players should exercise common sense. Frequent washing of hands, he advised, and be careful when mingling in crowds.

    "I won't say don't sign autographs," Pellman told the Toronto Sun. "But I'll tell them not to use a pen handed to them or touch the object a fan wants signed."

    Anaheim Angels pitcher Kevin Appier said he wanted the team's May 2-4 series in Toronto moved to Anaheim. Texas Rangers shortstop Alex Rodriguez made headlines when he said of this week's series in Toronto, "If you need me, I'll be in my room."

    These reactions, Godfrey said, were understandable.

    "When you talk about personal health, the further you are away from a location that is under siege for a health scare, there is a natural reluctance to say 'Why should I expose myself and my family to that type of situation?' " Godfrey said. "You're thinking, 'Even if they're wrong, why do I have to roll the dice?' "

    Turning the page
    The WHO's one-week travel advisory is said to have already cost Toronto billions in tourism revenues. The Blue Jays say the SARS damage amounts to roughly 15,000 tickets -- a number that continues to increase.

    Mendy Lopez and Michael Tucker
    Though the Royals' Mendy Lopez (center) stops to sign his autograph, his teammate, Michael Tucker, ignores a fan's request to sign his ball.
    Last week, the Blue Jays decided to go on the offensive. Rogers Communications, the team's parent company, purchased all the unsold tickets for Tuesday night's game at SkyDome with the Rangers -- approximately 35,000 tickets at a cost of nearly $700,000 -- and offered them to the public for $1 each.

    "We have the biggest venue in the country, so what better message to our friends in the United States -- we're playing your game in our house," Godfrey said hours before the game. "It's an appeal to the people of Toronto to show the world and America that Toronto is a safe place. This is more than baseball tonight. It's about Toronto."

    The Blue Jays sold all the tickets within 27 hours, Godfrey said. While attendance has been more typically in the mid-teens, a robust crowd of 48,097 showed up for the Rangers game, a near sellout.

    When Rodriguez stepped to the plate, he was booed -- as he always is -- mercilessly. He finished the game with four hits, including a home run in the Rangers' 16-11 victory over the Blue Jays. Rodriguez and his Rangers teammates did not sign autographs before the game. One fan yelled "Chicken" during his first at-bat. The Blue Jays, as usual, signed autographs. And when the video screen showed a clip of the WHO's Dr. Burndtland clearing travel to Toronto, the air, as it were, had been cleared.

    "This has been such a bum rap," Godfrey said. "I hope the Rangers follow the Yankees' lead. I mean, they came, they saw, they conquered us -- and they left without SARS. There's been a lot of misrepresentation, but when the teams get here they separate the anxiety and emotion from the reality."

    Three months from now, organizers of the women's tennis tournament in Toronto hope the reality will be business as usual.

    "We're definitely concerned," said Anthony Alfred, media director for the event. "But so far there's been no major fallout for the tournament. Both Williams sisters are scheduled to play -- a first for us -- and Kim Clijsters and Jennifer Capriati are coming, too. We're looking forward to it."

    Asia, of course, is another story.

    "Luckily, there are no tournaments in Asia until the fall," said Patrick McEnroe, the U.S. Davis Cup captain. "I don't think anyone's in a hurry to get over there right now.

    "Listen, you don't want to travel, but it's what we do. If you want to be a player or a coach or even a writer, you have to get on the plane and fly all over the world."

    Said Jim Courier, the four-time Grand Slam winner, "I don't think it's anything you can take lightly, but when AIDS was first identified everyone thought it was the end. But there are people today who are still living their lives fairly normally.

    "I don't think I'd change my schedule. I live in New York City. If I was afraid I wouldn't live here. We can't live in fear."

    Maybe it's because he's coming off a superb performance in Houston -- he lost to Andre Agassi in a three-set final -- perhaps it's because he's only 20, but Andy Roddick sounded fearless earlier this week.

    "Obviously, it's a very serious issue from everything I've heard, but I'm not scared," said Roddick, currently ranked No. 6 on the ATP. "I almost try to watch and read as little as possible.

    "But I'm not going to change my schedule or the way I live my life."

    Greg Garber is a senior writer for

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