2020 in review: The year that was

Pandemic, politics and more: Looking back at sports in 2020

Rafael Nadal, Naomi Osaka, Diego Maradona, Kobe Bryant  

December 3, Seddon Park: Kane Williamson looks at the field, twirls his bat and taps it on a pitch that resembles a Wimbledon court. He taps, taps and twirls it — the bat in his hand pirouettes like a ballerina. Meanwhile, the six-foot-seven West Indian pacer Jason Holder hustles from the other end. Williamson’s head is steady; his eyes completely on the ball. The ball is delivered at about 140 kmph. Williamson has less than half a second to assess where it lands, how it lands, at what pace it is travelling and what trajectory it will take after hitting the ground. The ball lands — just over a hundred milliseconds before it reaches Williamson. When it reaches, it is made benign by Williamson’s bat. It has been blocked.

The blocking of a ball is routine in Test cricket. Many might find the sight even boring. But Williamson makes the mundane special. The calmness and reassurance he exhibits and exudes while blocking the ball has a soothing effect, even if you are thousands of miles away from Seddon Park, watching him bat on your phone screen.

December 3 was also when global COVID-19 cases crossed 6.5 crore. The glum sky made the morning newsfeed more sombre than it was. Yet the world seemed well while watching Williamson bat.

Isn’t this primarily why sport is watched? To escape, albeit temporarily, from the tribulations and anxieties of daily life? And in a year that has been the most tumultuous in recent history, moments like Williamson blocking the ball was perhaps more necessary than ever. “Sports are more than games, meets and matches,” writes sociologist Jay Coakley in his book Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies. “They are important aspects of social life that have meanings going far beyond scores and performance statistics.”

Yet, for several weeks across the world, on-field action was absent. Some of the much-awaited events of the year including the Tokyo Olympics and Wimbledon Tennis Championships had to be cancelled or deferred. The global sporting calendar saw its worst disruption since World War II.

Coping mechanism

However, some athletes and fans might have welcomed this unforeseen pause. For, professional sport over the last two decades, has been frenetic. “With overwhelming amount of performance data, media and social media obligations, and expectations, it does make being a professional athlete in the 21st Century categorically different from athletes who came before,” sports historian Victoria Jackson, a professor at the Arizona State University, wrote in the university’s website. “These pressures provide context to understand why there has been a mental health crisis among college, Olympic and professional athletes.”

Voices for change
  • The instances of elite athletes making strong political statements has become rare in contemporary sports. A PR machinery, which is cautious of courting controversies and criticisms, usually controls and filters their words and actions. Governing bodies, too, have curtailed and punished such instances in the past. In 1968, Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two Black medal-winning athletes, were booed before being expelled from the Olympics for their podium protest against racism.
  • This year, however, many American athletes made emphatic statements, through words and actions, against racial inequality. Following the tragic shootings of Jacob Blake in August (and George Floyd, earlier this year), the NBA team Milwaukee Bucks refused to play a game in protest.
  • The boycott sparked more protests across sports strengthening the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. WNBA postponed its fixtures. Major League Soccer called off a few games. Major League Baseball games were deferred. Three-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka withdrew from the WTA Western & Southern Open semi-finals. Players in Premier League wore a ‘Black Lives Matter’ logo before it was replaced with the phrase ‘No Room for Racism’. West Indian cricket legend, Michael Holding, in July, started Sky’s coverage of England’s Test series against West Indies in July with a powerful monologue about BLM. Hardik Pandya took a knee in support of the movement during an IPL game.
  • Indian sportspersons, however, remained silent on the violence against minorities within the country.

Being away from home is one of the sacrifices elite athletes make in pursuit of their passion. The pandemic-induced lockdown, hence, gave many a chance to be with their families. Earlier this year, table tennis star Sathiyan Gnanasekaran told Metroplus how he cherished having dinner with his family — a quotidian affair for many, but a special one for him.

Fans, meanwhile, were starved of live sport, perhaps for the first time in their lives. The media was swift to react. 24x7 sports channels repeated re-runs of old classics. Sportswriters reminisced about yesteryear athletes. Athletes interviewed fellow athletes. Live sport, however, had to return. Because at stake were truckloads of money, livelihoods, and millions of fans.

Bouncing back

On May 5, nine-year-old baseball fan Lee Raon stood on the mound at the Suwon Baseball Stadium; he was within a giant, transparent, baseball-shaped bubble as he walked towards the catcher, kicking off the South Korean baseball league after a five-week delay.

Mumbai Indians, winners of IPL 2020.

Mumbai Indians, winners of IPL 2020.   | Photo Credit: Sportzpics/BCCI

The bubble was a year-defining symbol for physical distancing in the sporting world. Competitions cautiously restarted within a larger, invisible ‘bio-bubble’ (a secured environment to prevent infection).

By August, the major football leagues in Europe, the ATP and WTA tours in tennis, international cricket, Formula One and NBA among other big events resumed, but not without a few abnormalities — the lack of crowds being the most conspicuous one. “It’s going to be strange and new,” said Virat Kohli before the Indian Premier League, played in empty galleries in the UAE, began in September. “The echo of the ball hitting the bat. I haven’t experienced that since I played Ranji Trophy back in 2010. For 10 years, I haven’t had a game where I have had no crowd.”

To compensate for the crowds, organisers placed cardboard cutouts of people, played cheering noises on loudspeakers and installed giant screens showing fans in front of their cameras. The definition of spectator sport changed.

Once the tournaments began, however, the storylines within each sport became the talking points again. Liverpool’s 30-year-wait to become Premier League champions came to an end. Lionel Messi came close to leaving FC Barcelona. Lewis Hamilton equalled Michael Schumacher’s record of seven World Drivers’ Championship. Mumbai Indians clinched their fifth IPL title. And Rafael Nadal won the French Open for the 13th time — even a pandemic could not stop that man.

Interspersing these moments of elation were farewells, both bittersweet and tragic. “Thanks a lot for ur love and support throughout. From 1929 hrs consider me as Retired” — with these lines on Instagram, accompanied by a montage with a Sahir Ludhianvi song, Mahendra Singh Dhoni ended his extraordinary international career on August 15. Seeing him play for Chennai Super Kings, albeit having a horrible season as a captain and a batter, was consolation for the Dhoni faithful. But the tragedy of the beloved basketball legend Kobe Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash with his daughter in January, was tough to digest. The demise of Diego Maradona in the last week of November was difficult to cope with, too.

Then, a week later at Seddon Park, Kane Williamson’s 412-ball 251 offered some solace.

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Printable version | Mar 7, 2021 7:08:50 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/pandemic-politics-and-more-looking-back-at-sports-in-2020/article33395447.ece

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