Tuesday, Nov 29, 2022

Yearender 2021: Sports Helped Fight Vagaries Even As Mental Health And Racism Dominated Headlines

Sports was at its grandest best in the Land of the Rising Sun. In COVID times, it was nothing short of a miracle for Japan to successfully stage Tokyo Olympics. Here's a look back at world sports in 2021.

Yearender 2021: Sports Helped Fight Vagaries Even As Mental Health And Racism Dominated Headlines
In COVID times, the successful staging of Tokyo Olympics reinforced man's belief in sports' ability to act like tonic of life. | AP Photo
Yearender 2021: Sports Helped Fight Vagaries Even As Mental Health And Racism Dominated Headlines

If you take sports away, there's nothing left to celebrate. Well, almost. There are other endeavours, more refined and cultured, and also the politics of everything to keep mankind engaged. But when the world itself demands a semblance of living, nothing helps like sports. It more often than not serves as a perfect tonic. That's exactly what sports did in 2021. (More Sports News)

As a new year dawns upon us, here's a look at some of the moments which gave us not only joy but also helped keep faith in our abilities to fight the vagaries of uncertain times, this time mainly caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tokyo Games Give Pandemic The Best Fight

It was chided, delayed and even asterisked. But the Olympics won it all in a year which will be remembered in the annals of history for mankind's bid to return to normalcy.

It all happened in Tokyo, fittingly so in the capital of the 'Land of the Rising Sun'. The fact that the 32nd Summer Games and the 16th Summer Paralympic Games happened at all was a miracle in itself.

The Olympics movement got its biggest test after the great wars. AP photo.

Few countries would have managed to pull off such events in the most trying of circumstances. But by hosting the world's best athletes when the world itself pondered over life and death, Japan once again showcased its exemplary resilience, its ability to withstand any pressure.

As the International Olympic Committee rightly said, these Games will continue to "stand as a beacon of hope to the world during these troubled times". And some of the records and feats achieved during those Games will justify that claim. Pick your event, or athlete, and you will find something to cheer about.

Breaking The Mental Health Taboo And Taking A Break

Winning is stressful! In a super-competitive environment, athletes can't afford to make the even slightest concession. Giving an inch means surrender. It amounts to wasting years of sacrifices. But two global superstars, best in their respective sports, chose not to compete, admitting their vulnerability. And thus Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles joined a fast-expanding list of famous sports stars who have spoken out about mental health.

Osaka, the highest-paid female athlete ever in the world, pulled out of French Open after winning her first-round match, then skipped Wimbledon. Biles, one of the most decorated gymnasts of all time, followed the suit by withdrawing from individual and team events mid-way during the Tokyo Olympics.

“I had no idea where I was in the air,” Simone Biles said while describing her experience with the twisties. AP photo.

Stars from other sports also put mental health first and took breaks. Cricketers Ben Stokes, Adam Zampa, Glenn Maxwell, etc have since opened up. Past legends also continue to share stories of their fights with depression.

Sports Fight Racism And Discrimination

Talks about race and racism have always been there. From the dawn of the first civilasation, the fear of the 'other' has always played its ugly part in whatever a man and his society have done.

But sadly, even in a globalised world, man continues to dehumanise the other. And it often plays out in sporting arenas. There are examples galore. Take the case of Azeem Rafiq, England national football team after the UEFA Euro 2020 final defeat, Indian cricketers facing racist slurs in Australia, etc. — all detestable incidents linked to sports.

Indian cricketers were subjected to racist chants from the Sydney crowd. AP photo.

Any sport inherently builds values of equality and fairness, but racism and discrimination are the very opposite of these values. It's only fitting that sports is at the forefront of the fight against racism and discrimination. More cases of racism were reported in 2021, but the year has also been a year of revelation. Almost every national and international sports bodies have acknowledged the need to deal with this menace.

Lionel Messi Stays Relevant

Lionel Messi fulfilled one of his biggest dreams in 2021. And that's something, even though the football great admitted that he didn't "know if it's the best year" of his life. That's what he said after winning a record-extending seventh Ballon d'Or in November. In an eventful year for the little genius, winning the biggest individual award in football was not his main goal.

After Beijing Olympics, Lionel Messi finally lifted another trophy in the national team jersey. AP photo.

Earlier in the year, the 34-year-old Argentinian won his first major international trophy with the national team, guiding the Albiceleste to a record-equalling 15th Copa America title. Messi indeed said that he now has "peace of mind". Understandable, considering the lead-up to his retirement and the subsequent return for the national team even as he continued to dominate the football world elsewhere. Unthinkable as it may sound, the postal address to that elsewhere has changed in 2021. It's now in Paris.

Novak Djokovic 'Calendar Slam' Bid

Amid cancellations and postponements due to the coronavirus pandemic, 2021 witnessed all four Grand Slams events as tennis made a triumphant return to normalcy. And one player who captivated the world with his relentless pursuit of excellence was Novak Djokovic. The 34-year-old was chasing tennis immortality in 2021. He missed it by that much, again (after 2015).

The Serbian great was bidding to become the first male tennis player since Rod Laver in 1969 to complete the 'Calendar Slam' and break the three-way tie for the most Grand Slam titles win (with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal). Sadly, it didn't come to fruition as he lost the US Open final.

A subdued Novak Djokovic shared the stage with Daniil Medvedev at Flushing Meadows. AP photo.

After hitting Daniil Medvedev-road block in New York, Djokovic's eye on the Golden Slam also evaporated. But he achieved a series of records, including — beating Federer's record number of 310 weeks at the top of ATP singles ranking, beating Pete Sampras' record of six year-end top rankings, beating Nadal with 36 Masters 1000 titles, and also joining the Swiss maestro in the all-time record for 31 Major finals.

One more thing he could have done though was stopped being an anti-vax. But he has "freedom of choice" in his defence.

Cricket's Kiwi Spark From Down Under + Ajaz Patel

For whatever it's worth, the 'Gentleman's Game' has long ceased to be a gentleman's game. Where's the nobility, the honesty and myriad virtues associated with cricket — presumed or otherwise? Today, this once extolled game of bat and ball is played in its most extreme form(s). Even the venerated Test is competed with such ferocity that players and fans often find ways to challenge the decisions given by the umpires. Mere codification is not enough. Interpretation is the byword. And it has many variables.

But one national team continues to win hearts for its fair play. The Kiwis remain the nice boys of cricket. And for a change, they have also started to win trophies. In 2021, the Kiwis took home their first major international trophy by beating India in the final of the inaugural ICC World Test Championship. They also reached the T20 World Cup final, only to lose the title clash to their Trans-Tasman rivals Australia in a replay of the 2019 ODI World Cup finale. All in all, a year to celebrate for cricket teams from Down Under!

Kane Williamson leads a team of gentlemen and a fitting mace to celebrate their superiority. AP photo. 

Then there's Ajaz Patel. The Mumbai-born spinner became only the third bowler in the 144-year-old recorded history of Test cricket to take all ten wickets in an innings. The 33-year-old achieved that feat in the city of his birth.

UEFA Euro 2020 - The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

If cricket is the 'Gentleman's Game', football is the 'The Beautiful Game' or 'O Jogo Bonito' as its ultimate player, Pele professed. But football is not always about beauty. Football, or soccer, has its share of the good, bad and ugly too. It all played out during the UEFA Euro 2020, a month-long football jamboree hosted in 11 cities. Successfully conducting a 24-team tournament in 11 countries in itself was one astonishing feat, but the events that transpired during the tournament allowed fans to wonder what football can actually do.

Kasper Schmeichel consoles Christian Eriksen's wife Sabrina Kvist. AP photo.

The world stood still when Denmark's Christian Eriksen collapsed on the pitch during a game against Finland. A timely act from his teammates saved the midfielder's life. That frightening incident in Copenhagen, on the second day of the tournament, united fans across the world. But days later, those same fans fought with each other and racially abused players even as England lost the final after a penalty shoot-out. For Italy, who failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, it was some sort of redemption.

Lewis Hamilton Vs Max Verstappen: One-lap Racing

The 2021 FIA Formula One season produced the tightest and one of the greatest title races in its 75-year history since the first race in Turin (1946). Governed by a set of rules (formulae), the F1 is regarded as the epitome of motor racing. F1 has no place for errors, human or machine. But the F1 and its governing body, the FIA found themselves short on rules or failed to interpret properly whatever they have formulated as Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton and Red Bull's Max Verstappen bring their title fight to the Abu Dhabi season finale. Result: a farcical one-lap shootout for the 2021 Drivers' Championship title at Yas Marina Circuit.

It needed more than racing to decide an F1 world champion. AP photo.

Hamilton, who needed one more title to become the most successful F1 driver ever, and Verstappen, bidding to become the first Dutch world champion, entered the race level on points. Hamilton took the lead from pole-sitter Verstappen, and consolidated it. But with five laps to go, Nicholas Latifi crashed his Williams and the safety car took over; literally, as Race director Michael Masi made his contentious 'overtake' call and ordered the race and the season to be decided on one lap. Verstappen, who had made multiple pit stops, used his fresh tyres to beat Hamilton's faster car on the final lap.

Emma Raducanu: Women's Tennis Finds A Star

Emma Raducanu turned pro in 2018 as a 16-year-old. She made her WTA Tour debut in June 2021. In July, competing in her first Grand Slam tournament as a wildcard, she reached the fourth round at Wimbledon. Two months later, she claimed her maiden Major at the US Open, becoming the first singles qualifier, male or female, to win a Grand Slam in the Open Era. And she did that without dropping a set. It will take some miracle to replicate her Flushing Meadows feat.

She not only became the new face of tennis, but also a global superstar. According to some estimates, Raducanu outstripped the social media growth rate of the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. And tennis is not football.

Emma Raducanu makes heads turn. AP photo.

Emma Raducanu, with her multicultural background, has a universal appeal. Born to a Romanian father and Chinese mother, she moved from Toronto, Canada to London, England and has since become a British favourite. The Chinese are also making their 'heritage' claims with a legion of fans in the world's most populous country following Raducanu's every step.

To their benefit, Raducanu even said that "she can't wait" to play in China. But with WTA and the Chinese government at war over the disappearance of Peng Shuai, Raducanu's Chinese appearance is unlikely to happen any time soon. Or maybe, she could lend her voice and make China listen.

Ageless Tom Brady Plays 'Football' Like Never Before

At 43, sports become a pastime. Not many have the legs to run the course, let alone lead a team. But for Tom Brady, age is just a number, as the saying goes. After spending almost two decades (20 seasons) and winning six Super Bowl titles with New England Patriots, he joined Tampa Bay Buccaneers in March 2020. And soon, he helped perennial losers Buccaneers win their second Super Bowl title in his first season with an MVP performance against hot favourites Kansas City Chiefs (31-9) in February.

In the process, Brady extended his record Super Bowl MVP wins to five, two more than Joe Montana, Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw and Eli Manning. Competing in his 22nd National Football League (NFL) season, Brady is a favourite to win the league's MVP Award. He was also named the Sportsperson of the Year for 2021 by Sports Illustrated, a second in his illustrious career, and first since 2005 — a gap of 16 years. It pretty much sums up ageless Brady's brilliance. 'Tom Terrific' is widely regarded as the greatest-ever quarterback of all time.


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