2021 in a nutshell: Sporting events and athletes who made the year that was

By Express News Service

Focus on mental health, elite athletes coy on vaccination & Simon Kjaer’s heroic effort in a surreal Copenhagen night. Here’s a brief look at some of the big sporting moments as well as athletes who made the year that was… 

Coming to Tokyo, all eyes were on Simone Biles. She wasn’t just a superstar gymnast but a totem, an inspiration who had transcended her sport. A sexual abuse survivor, Biles was also at the forefront of change.

Elite women athletes, led by the likes of Biles and Katie Ledecky and Sifan Hassan, were finally getting the respect they deserved. They were also top of the pile in terms of endorsements as well as popularity ratings.

At the Olympics, though, the US star shone a light on ‘mental health’. She withdrew from a few of her events after speaking out about her struggles on the mat. The 24-year-old was brave, courageous and poured her heart out as she allowed the world media a peek into the life of the pressures and expectations faced by her. 

Rise of the activist athlete 

It was the year when taking the knee went global. The likes of Colin Kaepernick, Megan Rapinoe and Naomi Osaka had already done their bit as they took a stance against racism.

In 2021, others, including teams, followed their path in this honourable fight against a disease. Even as three black English footballers were racially abused for missing penalties, the wider athletic community came out in full and unconditional support.

The Denmark men’s football team went over and beyond their call to say they will put in place a series of messages aimed at showcasing the human rights abuses in Qatar, hosts of next year’s World Cup. That they did this after qualifying for the meet suggest their intentions are true. Other athletes signed up to act against climate change.  

Kjaer’s heroic act

Parken at Copenhagen came to a standstill on a lovely summer’s day in June. Denmark were taking on Finland in a Euro 2020 league match. In the first half, Christian Eriksen collapsed on the pitch as he suffered a cardiac arrest. Kjaer, who wasn’t to know that till the diagnosis, was one of the first players on the scene.

He prevented Eriksen from swallowing his tongue, led his team admirably as teammates were in shock. He consoled Eriksen’s partner on the ground as the doctors got to work on him. The medics did cardiac resuscitation and brought the midfielder back to life.

Eriksen has not played competitive football since that day but that’s a small price to pay because things could have gone very wrong that night. 

On-court djoko, off-court djoko

In terms of the difference between on-court superiority and off-court mindlessness, Novak Djokovic finished head and shoulders clear of the rest. He came within one match of a calendar Grand Slam, one of the biggest achievements in all of sport.

After winning Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon to put himself level with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at 20, he fell at the final hurdle in the final of the US Open. Off the court though, he let himself and his legion of fans down as he continued to beat around the bush with his vaccination status.

At the time of writing, the world world still doesn’t know if he will travel to Melbourne. A few other athletes preferred to sit at home rather than get themselves vaccinated as anti-vaxxers spilled onto the sporting arena. 

Italy’s redemption arc 

In 2017, they failed to qualify for the World Cup. Powerhouses and the sport’s aristocrats out of the biggest party. Four years later, Roberto Mancini and his merry men partially corrected that wrong by winning the Euros.

What was pleasing about the result wasn’t just the result but the way in which they went about achieving it. Italy, more known for their emphasis on defensive solidity, caught the eye going forward.

Their press, interchange in midfield and forward play, some of them led by the impressive left-back Leonardo Spinazzola, told its own story. If they do manage to qualify for the 2022 World Cup, you would be an incredibly foolish person to bet against a rare double. 

An F1 season for the ages

In the end, this most bonkers of all F1 seasons finished, rather aptly, a few days after the actual season. The last race in Abu Dhabi was a microcosm of the year-long duel between eventual champion Jon Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, chasing a record-breaking eighth title. In the end, the former won, overtaking the Brit on the last lap after the safety car exited the track.

That formed the crux of the Mercedes’ argument. For a period of time it looked like lawyers would have to be involved to settle the dispute but Mercedes and Hamilton, who was level on points with the Dutchman when the lights went out to start the last race, ultimately showed grace in defeat. 

Lionel Messi leaves Barcelona after spending 15 years

The unthinkable happened. After more than 15 years at the club, at his club, the Argentine genius exited the Catalan club on a free to Paris Saint Germain. The tears freely flowed as one of the sport’s greatest ever players held a farewell meet.

This was perhaps the logical end result of a years-long financial mismanagement that saw the club bleed money left, right and centre. They couldn’t afford to resign Messi because they were so skint, or so the club claimed. On the pitch, Barcelona showed no signs of recovery as they will play the Europa League.

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