Kolkata: There were only three occasions in the 20th century when the Summer Olympics were cancelled – in 1916 due to World War I and 1940 & 1944 due to World War II. The next time it happened was this year when Tokyo Olympics was postponed due to Coronavirus pandemic – and this perhaps puts into perspective about how much sport was affected by it in 2020.
It was, in a nutshell, a year where lives were more important – and sport surely could wait. Hence, there was never any lack of unanimity when a series of the marquee sporting events started getting cancelled – with Olympics, Euro 2020 and T20 World Cup standing out among them.
Wimbledon Championships, the holy grail of tennis which was cancelled, was another event which was suspended only once before because of WW II while French Open was shifted to September. Tennis, golf and Formula One circuits went topsy turvy – ditto with international cricket and football leagues the world over while no country could follow their sporting calendar.
The economic ramifications of such cancellations – or postponements – were huge. While it’s impossible to put a ball-park figure to the losses around the globe, a conservative estimate puts the overall figure to the tune of $ 74 billion. Tokyo, meanwhile, is set to suffer a loss to the tune of $ 277m.
It was the spectre of losses of TV revenue that gradually lead to the opening up of sport from June-July. The German Bundesliga was the one which showed the way by resuming their action behind closed doors and with rigorous testing of the footballers as well as the stakeholders, while Premier League and the other European counterparts – except Ligue 1 – followed suit.
However, sport in the times of the ‘New Normal’ was no longer what it used to be. The energy which a professional sportsperson derived from the roar of the crowd was a thing of the past as cardboard cutouts, synchronized recorded cheers took over as matches were played for days together behind closed doors.
As we wind down on what had been a largely forgettable year for sport, it will be best remembered as a ‘Year of the Bubble.’ It will also be remembered as a year when on either end of it, sport lost the NBA giant to a tragic helicopter crash and the football genius of Diego Maradona.
Just when it seemed there were little chances of resumption of cricket, the England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB) hosted the West Indies and Pakistan by creating a ‘bio bubble’ – an unique concept which created a template to clear some backlog of fixtures.
Interestingly, the UAE also played it’s part in the global sporting landscape as hosts of Indian Premier League between September and November amid extremely challenging circumstances. It was no mean feat to host the Who’s Who of world cricket for a period of almost three months, as various arms of the government collaborated to make the event an unqualified success.
The bio-bubble was meant to be a safe and secure environment, isolated from the outside world, to minimise the risk of COVID-19 infection. It permitted only authorised sportspersons, support staff and match officials to enter the protected area after testing ‘negative’ as the ground and the hotels in which players could stay after permission from authorities.
The sight of empty stadia looked appalling as the action began, but it was necessary as the pandemic was severe. The only exception was New Zealand and to a certain extent Australia, where crowds did turn up as both nations had success in combating the coronavirus pandemic, more so for New Zealand. The country hosted a rugby tournament and has seen fans attend in the thousands in cricket.
Another significant gesture from the celebrity sportspersons came was during the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the early half of the year. If the United States had erupted against the cowardly killing of George Floyd, the smoke could be felt with a cross section of elite sportspersons - led by none less than the seven-time F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton, the NBA heroes, boxing ace Anthony Joshua, tennis stars like Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff and the football fraternity showed their solidarity with the movement.
The sight of both West Indies and England players taking the knee on the first day of resumption of international cricket in July is also vivid in memory. Even more poignant was the emotional outburst of Michael Holding, the legendary fast bowler of West Indies - so it’s an issue which needs to be pursued in an unrelenting manner.
No dearth of sporting landmarks
However, there were no dearth of sporting landmarks even in such a year. At an individual level, Lewis Hamilton and Rafael Nadal would stand out as the former emulated the iconic figure of Michael Schumacher with a seventh World Championship title while the Spanish tennis ace extended his lease on the French Open with a 13th title (yes, that’s right) at Roland Garros.
Here’s the Gulf News pick of top five landmarks:
Hamilton in record-equalling seventh F1 title
Michael Schumacher’s seven F1 drivers’ championship titles was a testament to the German racing great’s skills and tenacity as he ruled in the colours of the ‘Prancing Horse’ of Ferrari from 1994 to 2004.
However, barely 16 years later, Lewis Hamilton managed to emulate Schumacher’s record achievement with another dominant season under Mercedes GP. The Briton won 11 out of the 17 races in a season truncated by the pandemic to clinch his seventh title with three races to spare.
For Liverpool, better late than never
When the Premier League was halted for nearly three months, the entire Liverpool team management must have been fretting if it would be yet another case of so-year-yet-so-far for them. They had come agonizingly close to ending their nearly three-decade drought of the Premiership title only last year, and there were chances that the league could not be completed due to the pandemic.
Hence, when the Reds finally ended that title drought on July 22, it was an extraordinarily joyful relief for the club and their supporters as captain Jordan Henderson lifted the trophy in a near-empty Anfield stadium. They had thus capped a dream season when they went unbeaten for the first 27 league matches, winning 26 of them, to clinch the EPL title with a record-setting seven games to spare.
Bayern Munich, in a league of their own
The Bavarian giants won their sixth European Cup when they beat Paris St. Germain 1-0 in the final in Lisbon, where the knockout stages were played. It was the crowning glory of their treble, which included the Bundesliga and League Cup.
It was a solid performance from them, during which they came up with some overwhelming performances: a 7-1 aggregate last-16 win over Chelsea, followed by a 8-2 mauling of Barcelona in the quarter-finals, before a emphatic 3-0 victory over fellow German side RB Leipzig sent them into the final.
If it’s Roland Garros, it must be Nadal
If any one had wagered about the French Open, the grand slam on clay, taking place in September at the beginning of the year – it would have been written off as a gibberish. The pandemic made it happen, but it did not change in the fortunes of Rafa Nadal – the king of clay.
Nadal – who had already won an unbelievable 12 French Open titles before this year – stormed to title No. 13 at Roland Garros without losing a single set from round one to the final. In the final, he “bageled” Novak Djokovic – a 6-0 first-set humbling of his great rival – and generally looked as imperious as usual.
Lakers clinch first NBA title in 10 years
The year started in deep tragedy for Los Angeles Lakers, with news of their club legend Kobe Bryant being killed in a helicopter crash with his young daughter Gianna and seven others. Bryant, 41, was the linchpin of their last National Basketball Association (NBA) title triumph in 2010 – a reminder of the marquee club’s struggles to regain prominence in the ensuing decade.
Whether the current Lakers team used the tragedy as motivation for the rest of the NBA season, only LeBron James, Anthony Davis and gang would know for sure. What was definite was that they swept to their 17th NBA title amid the COVID-19 bubble set up by the league in Orlando’s Disney World to complete the season. James and Davis were by far the best duo in the league, an unstoppable one-two punch complemented by their teammates’ tough defence.