By Tom Walker | Head of Sport
Where this is usually a time for reflection on the year just passed, it is difficult to isolate sport from a year that has been defined by anything but. All major summer sporting events in 2020, including the 32nd Olympics, Wimbledon and European Championships were either postponed or cancelled due to the damaging effects of the coronavirus pandemic. A combination of political frustration and the distain at the unequal treatment Black people in America, and the murder of George Floyd manifested into a huge social justice movement, headed by many athletes across the world.
Given these circumstances, it seems sport should be the last topic of conversation. However, the ever growing crossover between sport and the socio-political sphere has made sport a platform for these issues, with athletes and respective competitions using their platforms to pursue change and provide rest breaks for those despaired of entertainment and the harsh reality many had been experiencing.
With that said, it is time to look back at the sporting year and its standing within this exceptionally unique 2020.
A memorable beginning
2020 was set to have a blockbuster of a sporting schedule. The annual Six Nations tournament kicked off at the beginning of February and started with a bang, with a classic encounter between England and France setting a precedent for the rest of the championship. This was Wales first major competition with new head coach Wayne Pivac who began with the somewhat formality of beating Italy but went on to lose their next three fixtures against Ireland, France, and England.
The heavyweight rematch that everyone has been looking forward to since their controversial draw in 2018, also took place in February. Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury took to the stage at the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas. It was the ‘Gypsy King’ who came out on top in comfortable fashion, putting an end to Wilder’s five-year reign as WBC heavyweight world champion in seven thrilling rounds. The victory for Fury changes the face of the heavyweight scene for the near future, with an Anthony Joshua fight around the corner (well, hopefully!).
The final occasion of note was SuperBowl LIV contested between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers. A miraculous display from superstar Patrick Mahomes drove the Chiefs over the line, coming from behind with a 21-point fourth quarter to see off the 49ers 31-20. There must also be a mention for the Shakira and Jennifer Lopez halftime performance, who for me anyway, stole the show, sorry Patrick.
All would come to a head in early March of 2020 however, following the sweeping effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Within a short space of time, all European football and rugby leagues, ATP tours, Formula One races were either postponed or cancelled, as well as the NBA season, European Championships, Wimbledon, and the Olympics.
It looked bleak for many teams and sporting organisations across the UK. The complete diminishment of income resulted in many teams entering financial crisis, and with no end in sight everything looked rather dark.
A glimmer of hope arose for those sports heads in the UK with the restart of the Bundesliga on May 16. However, it would not be until June 17 until football returned in the UK, with the Premier League and Championship being given permission to retake the field. There would be no fans allowed at the ground, something only just reinstated at the time of writing. Other sports started to follow suit, the NBA announced it would be resuming its regular season and playoffs in a bubble environment, based in Orlando, Florida. The US Open took place in a very similar setting at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York. The Pro14 also announced its restart date for late August, offering a conclusion to that competition.
Liverpool were able to secure their long-awaited Premier League title, but having been knocked out the Champions League just before the lockdown, were not able to retain their Champions League crown, secured by Bayern Munich in later August.
Lebron James secured his fourth NBA title as he led the Los Angeles Lakers to their 17th championship. England secured their 29th Six Nations title following a tense last day whereby an Ireland against France loss gave them the title.
The sporting world was beginning to look somewhat familiar, fans are being slowly reintegrated into the scene, obviously an integral foundation to normality, as well as the resumption of all the leagues and competition who were sacrificed at the start of the pandemic.
The sheer nature and extensive reach of the sporting world means that whenever someone from that family is taken away, it is felt by millions. However, 2020 feels a bit different. Two of the greatest ever to play in their respective sports were cruelly taken from us, leaving not just the sporting community hurting, but the whole world.
First was the tragic death of Kobe Bryant. The five-time NBA champion was tragically killed in a helicopter crash on January 26, along with his daughter Gianna and seven other passengers. The story reverberated across the globe, with many athletes, not just in the NBA, paying their respects to one of the best ever to play the game.
More recently, footballing icon Diego Maradona passed away of a heart attack at the age of 60. His impact on the sport was unmatched. Despite the controversy that surrounded his personal life, his ability on it was untouched by anyone in his era, and he is single handedly (pun intended) responsible for one of the most memorable moments in football history, and a phrase that’ll resonate with England fans for life; Hand of God.
There were of course more who deserve their own tribute, but Bryant and Maradona were inspirational to millions for what they did at the top level of their respective sports. They will be missed.
It is difficult to pull many positives from a year where many have felt so much pain. But sport often offers a light, an escape, a passion that many can get behind to take their mind off the harsh reality of the current times.
As the reality of a vaccine grows stronger, hopefully 2021 can be a better year all round, and we can once again appreciate sport in the flesh.
Our Editors give their own sporting moments of the year:
Despite all that has happened over the course of 2020, my sporting moment will be taking us all the way back to February 23, to a seventh-round knockout by none other than the Gypsy King himself. This heavyweight championship fight between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder is exactly the fight we all needed to see. Not just for the over the top ring walks, the unpredictable rounds and the knockout itself, but for Fury walking away with his first title since making his comeback. Since then there have been many rumoured fights on the horizon for Fury, leaving 2021 looking like it could be an exciting year for the boxing world.
In a year of uncertainties, the ever present class of Rafael Nadal was just enough to help maintain my sanity. Nadal won the French open yet again. Even 2020 could not defy the inevitable. Nadal stormed to a 13th French open title of his career, bringing him level on Grand Slams with Roger Federer. Astonishingly Nadal did not drop a set across the whole tournament, even bagelling world number one Novak Djokovic 6-0 in the first set of the final as he stormed to victory at Roland Garros in classically sweaty and twitchy style.
The sporting moment of 2020 from my point of view would be James Anderson reaching 600 test wickets. This incredible achievement came in England’s third test match against Pakistan, and it was the wicket of Azhar Ali that got him to the magic number. As the first fast bowler ever to reach this milestone, Anderson is now fourth on the list of the highest wicket takers of all time, sitting behind three legendary spin bowlers. A fantastic accomplishment!
If LeBron James’ greatness was ever in doubt, this years NBA finals put that debate to rest. The King had one goal and one goal only when entering the Orlando bubble in early July, and 96 days and 95 nights later, he achieved that goal and added a fourth ring to his collection. The whole playoffs were rememberable. From the Boston Celtics’ epic Game six against the Toronto Raptors, to Luka Doncic’s outstanding game winner against the Los Angles Clippers. But LeBron James bringing LA their first championship since Kobe Bryant did 10 years ago is just something special.