Glory, mental health, censorship and tears: Let’s take a look at the top 10 sports moments of the year
From empty stadiums during an Olympics to a 10-wicket haul in a Test, from a mid-game cardiac arrest to an emotional crowd tracking the developments of one of the greatest players of football changing his allegiance, sport saw it all.
A javelin throw made an entire country roar. Mental health took front row seat as “oohs” and “aahs” greeted the ‘unheard-of’ decisions. Racism was tackled in a way never known before. Stars disappeared and reappeared quite conveniently as the world went down a warpath against human rights abuse, censorship and staying mum. 10 wickets were grabbed by a single man in a Test while ‘pedal-to-the-metal’ and a last-lap controversy decided the fate of the new “Race God” — 2021, with a pandemic raging on the side, was quite a roller coaster ride!
We’ll get right to it, shall we? The sporting highlights of the year in snippets, glimpses and adrenaline!
Neeraj Chopra clinches Olympic gold, ends India’s wait
Neeraj Chopra fought his way into the spotlight with a throw of 87.58m and immortalised himself as the first track-and-field Olympic Games medal-winner for India.
His was the country’s seventh medal and the only gold in this Olympics and he joined shooter Abhinav Bindra (2008 Beijing Games) in an elite and very hard-to-reach club of India’s individual gold winners in the showpiece.
Chopra shattered the glass ceiling to become the country’s first gold-medallist in 13 years. He became the youngest Indian to win an Olympic gold and the only one to do it in his debut Games.
“Dare ye speak of mental health”
It was the year that mental health took a prominent position in the sports world — led by two female athletes: Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka.
Biles, the American gymnastics superstar, earned her seventh Olympic medal and second in Tokyo with a third-place finish in the balance beam final on Aug. 3. That was a week after she took herself out of several competitions to deal with a dreaded mental block that gymnasts call “the twisties,” which prevents an athlete from performing high-level moves safely.
This was two months after Osaka pulled out of the French Open before the second round to take a mental health break after having announced she would not participate in news conferences in Paris. She also sat out Wimbledon before participating in the Tokyo Olympics.
Together, their sagas led the way to a new, more in-depth conversation about emotional health and athletes.
‘Streets still smokin’
An emotional Max Verstappen described his journey to being crowned 2021 Formula One world champion as “insane” after he beat rival Lewis Hamilton in a last lap sprint for victory at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on 12 December. Verstappen thus snatched from Hamilton the chance to be crowned champion a record eight times.
The intervention of a safety car four laps from the end, some would say, was the deciding factor.
It was a fitting end to a season that saw the two contenders go wheel-to-wheel in over 22 races, spanning four continents. It marked the first time the contenders were equal at the season finale since 1974.
On the same day, Mercedes lodged two appeals against Verstappen’s win over Hamilton. However, four days later, Mercedes withdrew the appeal saying they had made the decision following “constructive dialogue” with governing body FIA.
The curious case of Peng Shuai
Peng Shuai is at the centre of growing concern after the tennis star alleged in November that a powerful Chinese politician sexually assaulted her. The 35-year-old Peng, a former world number one in doubles, went missing since only to reappear quite out-of-the-blue at a sporting event and a restaurant where she declared that she was absolutely fine.
Many questioned the sudden twist in the tale, including sportspersons and celebrities who had raised a hue and cry over her disappearance, which many think prompted the Chinese government to take necessary action to thwart global outcry and suspicion.
It was the first time that the #MeToo movement has struck at the top echelons of China’s ruling Communist Party.
An ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!’ T20 World Cup
Australia won their first cricket T20 World Cup with an eight-wicket victory over New Zealand in the final on 14 November.
Australia have not lost to New Zealand in a knockout game over the last 40 years.
David Warner’s impressive comeback from being dropped by Sunrisers Hyderabad in the preceding IPL season to receiving the ‘Player of the Tournament’ medallion in the T20 World Cup, was a true story of redemption.
Ajaz Patel’s impressive 10-fer
New Zealand’s left-arm spinner Ajaz Patel became only the third bowler to take all 10 wickets in an innings as India folded for 325 during the second session on day two of the second Test against New Zealand in Mumbai on 3 December during the India vs New Zealand series.
The Mumbai-born 34-year-old Ajaz, joined an elite list comprising just Jim Laker (1956) and Anil Kumble (1999) in scalping 10-wicket hauls in a Test innings. With all 10 wickets in his kitty, Patel also surpassed the great Richard Hadlee to record the best figures by a New Zealand bowler. Hadlee had taken nine for 52 versus Australia back in 1985.
“Honestly, it’s surreal and to be able to do that in my career is pretty special. The stars have aligned for me to do it in Mumbai,” Patel said after his feat.
Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA) president Vijay Patil lauded New Zealand spinner Ajaz Patel for donating his “10-wicket” ball for the upcoming MCA museum where it would duly be the “pride of the place”.
Yorkshire racism row
Azim Rafiq grabbed the spotlight this year when his allegations of racism against the Yorkshire Cricket County Club wherein he told British lawmakers, part of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee, this November, that he “lost his career” to racism.
An independent report found the Pakistan-born player was a victim of “racial harassment and bullying” while Rafiq himself said he had been driven to thoughts of suicide over the way he was treated.
Rafiq accused Former England captain Michael Vaughan of being a perpetrator in this racism row. England spinner Adil Rashid joined ex-Pakistan Test player Rana Naved-ul-Hasan in alleging that Vaughan had said in front of a group of Yorkshire players of Asian ethnicity in 2009: “Too many of you lot, we need to do something about it.”
Novak Djokovic, during the Tokyo Olympics, lost his cool and abused his racket several times during a 6-4, 6-7 (6), 6-3 defeat to Pablo Carreno Busta of Spain in the bronze-medal match of the tennis tournament.
Djokovic received a verbal warning for the net-post incident, but Carreno Busta appeared to question the chair umpire as to why it wasn’t a point penalty since it was the second instance of racket abuse. The umpire, however, hadn’t warned Djokovic for the first incident
Messi signs with PSG, bids adieu to Barcelona after 21 years
Lionel Messi fought back tears during a press conference in August at which he confirmed he is leaving Barcelona, where he has played his entire career.
Lionel Messi broke down even before he spoke. There was a round of applause as he stood on the stage, bawling his eyes out. And then the bombshell dropped: “After 21 years I’m leaving with my three Catalan-Argentine kids. We’ve lived in this city, this is our home. I’m just really grateful for everything, all my teammates, everyone who has been by my side.”
After 21 years, 17 seasons with the first time, 778 appearances, 672 goals, 10 league titles, six Ballons d’Or, four Champions League trophies, it’s all over for Messi and his maiden club.
Olympics in a pandemic
Any sporting event is, at its heart, a show. It has the actors on center stage, performing for the rest of us. It has the spectators, sitting in their seats watching raptly. And — in modern times, at least — it has the “home” audience, which in the past half century of growing video viewership has far outpaced the numbers of those actually in attendance.
When it comes to fan interaction, sports, arguably, have been affected the most of all.
When TV cameras panned various Olympic venues and found emptiness, or even seats painted in seemingly random drab colors to look as if there are people in them, it was clear something — that certain something that only a crowd can provide — was glaringly absent.
A European Championship game between Denmark and Finland was suspended in June after Inter Milan midfielder Christian Eriksen suffered a cardiac arrest on field. Denmark’s team doctor later said that Eriksen’s heart stopped and that “he was gone” before being resuscitated with a defibrillator on ground.
Eriksen terminated his contract with Inter Milan by mutual consent six months later, this December.
(with inputs from AP, PTI)
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