Updated: Jan 13
✦ The past 12 months have been a tumultuous period in the age of modern professional sports with several seismic events redefining the landscape for future competition.
Things were always going to be uncharted and somewhat strange given that, at the year’s outset, much of the world was only just starting to take the tentative steps into a post COVID-19 environment, with many countries still under strenuous lockdown at that time.
Naturally, as it did with almost every facet of our everyday lives, COVID impacted sport. In the year or so previous, numerous events had fallen foul of the pandemic and been cancelled outright, including major occasions in the Australian sporting calendar such as the Formula One and Open Tennis tournament in Melbourne.
As we take a look back on how the sporting landscape fared during this past year, it is perhaps somewhat fitting then that we start in Melbourne with the Australian Open tennis, held from January 17-30. Excitement was high in the build-up as the tournament returned after a one-year, COVID-enforced absence but this was soon greatly overshadowed as the impact of the coronavirus was still from and centre. World Number 1 Novak Djokovic was a vehement anti-vaxer which meant he was unable to take part in the event and the furore surrounding this decision became front page news as the Serb’s battle with Australian immigration saw his visa cancelled twice by Australian Immigration Minister Alex Hawke, meaning he was unable to participate and even forced to leave the country. One man celebrating this was Salvatore Caruso, ranked 150 in the world, who took Djokovic’s place in the draw as the “lucky loser”. He was unable to make any significant impact but we are sure the experience alone was one the Italian will never forget!
Once the action got underway, it was Djokovic’s great rival Rafael Nadal that won the men’s singles title, coming back from two sets down to defeat second seed Daniil Medvedev of Russia in the final. In winning his second Aussie Open title, the 21st of his professional career, Nadal broke the record for all-time men’s major singles titles, previously tied at 20 between himself, Djokovic and Roger Federer.
Local Aussie hero Ashleigh Barty won the women’s singles title then immediately afterwards caused shockwaves by announcing her retirement from the sport. It was Barty’s first Australian Open title, the first Australian to win the it since Chris O’Neil in 1978.
Later in the year we saw the retirement of a true great of the court when Serena Williams officially announced she was hanging up her racquet. The 40-year-old American played the final match of her singles career at the US Open on September 2nd when she lost to 46th-ranked Aussie Ajla Tomljanovic. It brought the curtain down on a glittering 27-year professional career which, in addition to her 23 Grand Slams, saw her win an overall haul of 73 titles, in addition to 14 doubles titles with sister Venus and four Olympic gold medals. She spent a total of 319 weeks as the world number one, including a joint-record 186 consecutive weeks. You can read our story on Serena here. Take a bow Serena as you certainly earned it!
Not long after the Aussie Open had finished we saw the worrying sight of Russian troops invading Ukraine and with it the blurring of lines between sport and politics. They say the two don’t, or shouldn’t, mix and always be kept as separate entities, but we don’t live in an ideal world meaning this is nigh on impossible. Sport is a powerful medium which almost naturally carries with it a power, some say a responsibility, to raise awareness of certain issues.
Civilians being bombed in their homes, women, children and scores of innocents being forced from their homeland and the outright devastation caused by Vladimir Putin subsequently prompted many sporting bodies to shut out Russian and Belarusian athletes from global events. Both country’s national football teams were banned from qualifying for the 2022 Men’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar and the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand and domestic football teams from both countries were banned from European football competition; the prestigious UEFA Champions League Final, scheduled to take place in St Petersburg in May, was reloacted to Paris.
Wimbledon banned players from Russia and Belarus taking part in tennis’ global showpiece tournament, Formula One pulled its annual race from Russian soil and prohibited both countries’ flags and anthems; furthermore, Formula One team Haas terminated the contract of Russian driver Nikita Mazepin and its title sponsor Uralkali. Russian and Belarusian athletes were banned all World Athletics competition, including the Paralympics, and the World Swimming Short Course Championships this month were moved from Kazan in Russia to Melbourne, Australia. The list of sports that implemented bans was extensive, ranging from chess to sailing, from canoeing to archery and from surfing to triathlon. The full list can be viewed here and many of these bans still remain.
Controversy ruled at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing with the spectre of COVID looming large meaning severe restrictions for participants and no spectators. No matter how hard the Chinese authorities tried, the occasion could not deliver in the way they had originally planned as a major political spectacle, with the man made snow and mountain ranges seemingly encapsulating the shallow, insincere nature of their objectives. The colours of politics and sports once again ran together in the wash as the competition was overshadowed by major controversies ranging from China’s abhorrent human rights record, particularly in regards to the treatment of the Uyghur ethnic community in Xinjiang, their suppression of freedoms in Hong Kong, ongoing agitation to neighbours including military threats to Taiwan and their handling of the COVID-19 situation. Indeed, many comment it was karma that the very country that irresponsibly gave COVID to the world was ultimately undermined and shackled by it, something that continues to this day.
The biggest event of the year, at time of press, has still to conclude. The 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar has been the strangest edition of the most popular sporting event on the planet since its inception in 1930. Held in the uncustomary time period of December in a country with no football heritage, with no stadiums or infrastructure to accommodate an occasion of its magnitude, controversy has ruled since the decision to award the tournament to the tiny yet natural resource rich state in 2010. Investigations into the selection process has proven that bribery and corruption was rife in FIFA’s hierarchy, something that has loomed large as a distraction ever since. To get a thorough understanding on this, one could do worse than to watch the excellent documentary FIFA Uncovered on Netflix.
Human Rights groups have campaigned for years on the conditions migrant workers lived under in building the shiny new stadiums in the middle of the desert to host a tournament for the rich, claiming up to 6,500 have perished in one way or another. Members of the LGBTQ+ community have not been welcomed in a country where homosexuality is illegal and the captains of several teams were threatened with sanctions if they chose to wear rainbow coloured armbands on the pitch to show their solidarity, which didn’t quite fit with Qatar’s promise of ‘everyone is welcome’.
Still, despite the defeaning noise of controversy, the tournament went ahead regardless and the world champions will be determined on December 18. At time of press, Argentina have made the final and will play either France or Morocco. The romantics want the South Americans to triumph as they posit it will lay to rest arguments that their current captain Lionel Messi is the greatest player to ever play the sport. It seems likely their opponents will be defending champions France although the romantics once again yearn for the North Africans to get through. It would be a major achievement in the narrative of giving representation and a voice to the underdog, arguably a fitting tribute to all those who were so instrumental in creating the showpiece occasion but who were so sadly exploited and overlooked. We have asked before whether sport can have, or should have, a conscience, and the World Cup, sadly, seems to provide the answer. After all is said and done, sport, like life, often isn’t very fair.
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