2020 – A Year We’ll Remember (no matter how hard we try)
By Sean Fitzpatrick, Chairman of the Laureus World Sports Academy
It was a year that dawned with so much hope.
An Olympic Year, with all the promise that brings: ‘Citius, Altius, Fortius’ – faster, higher, stronger, the Olympic motto.
Inevitably it will be remembered for many bad, distressing things that happened; but we also learned much about ourselves. We learned that when we work together and co-operate we are stronger.
For sport it was an awakening. Certainties were brushed aside. We learned a different way of living – and a different way of playing sport.
It all began so well. The theme of the 20th Anniversary Laureus World Sports Awards in Berlin, held in February when Covid-19 was no more than a distant rumble in the Far East, was ‘Sport Unites Us’.
Within a month Covid-19 had united the world for different reasons: the need to fight a pandemic and trying to find answers.
He is, of course, no longer with us, but the powerful presence of Nelson Mandela could be felt pulsating throughout the event. It was 20 years since the first ever Awards in Monaco and 20 years since President Mandela made that ground-breaking speech telling us that ‘sport has the power to change the world’.
It sparked the creation of Laureus as a Sport for Good powerhouse that now supports more than 250 community programmes in over 40 countries around the world and has helped to improve the lives of more than six million young people. Laureus has never been needed more than today as the world tries to cope with its latest, and possibly greatest pan-global crisis.
The Awards Ceremony celebrates the inspirational power of sport, celebrating the outstanding sportsmen and women of the last year. 2020 saw the greatest Formula One driver of his generation, Lewis Hamilton, and Lionel Messi, the world’s greatest footballer, declared joint winners of the prestigious Laureus World Sportsman of the Year Award - the first ever tie in the 20-year history of Laureus.
Hamilton stood on stage in Berlin to declare “I think it's all of our responsibility to use our platform for pushing for equality, for inclusivity and really just making sure that we are engaging and really trying to represent where the world is today.” No one can doubt his determination is pursuing that goal since then.
Other winners were the ultimate gymnast Simone Biles, snowboarding sensation Chloe Kim, Paralympian Oksana Masters, born with deformities caused by radiation from Chernobyl, basketball legend Dirk Nowitzki, F3 driver Sophia Flörsch who survived a 276 kmph crash in Macau, Egan Bernal winner of the Tour de France and Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar.
The evening ended as it had begun with memories of Nelson Mandela. In 1995 the predominantly white South African Rugby Team had won the Rugby World Cup proudly watched by President Mandela. Now, 24 years later, the Springboks had again won the World Cup with a team of all races, religions and persuasions, united in the cause of a united nation.
They won the Laureus World Team of the Year Award and showed that sport can create a perfect snapshot of how one generation can seamlessly hand on to the next, and for the better.
That was the challenge that sport faced in March 2020, when it was effectively shut down all around the world for many months. The loss of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the UEFA European Championship and Wimbledon captured the headlines, but the pain cascaded down the sporting ladder, as grassroots sport was devastated.
For Laureus Sport for Good, too, whose programmes around the world have been based on using the power of sport as the means to connect with young people, lockdown was shattering.
Children and young adults, for whom Laureus had become a beacon of hope, found they could no longer visit programmes that had proved to be a critical part of their pathway to a better future. It made for a long, slow, worrying time.
There were, however, some magnificent, unlikely moments of hope, before sport was able to resume. Most memorably in April when local cricket matches in the tiny South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, one of the few places in the world to have avoided the Pandemic, were livestreamed around the world. It was about the only live sport taking place anywhere.
Vanuatu’s national broadcaster had never covered a cricket game before, but four rookie cameramen and crew produced a live stream from the island. The match between the cricketers of Mele Village and Port Vila received 350,000 views live and has now reached more than 500,000, twice the population of the country, 3,620 km from Australia.
When sport did come back, erratically and remotely, without spectators but awash with TV cameras, the headlines came thick and fast. But behind the action there has been a new and constant backdrop – the fight against coronavirus.
While Rafael Nadal was winning the French Open and matching Roger Federer’s total of 20 Grand Slam victories, his team at the Rafa Nadal Foundation in Palma and Valencia were continuing to support children and families. Rafa’s Foundation is a Laureus Sport for Good partner programme, and during the Covid-19 lockdown in Spain it was delivering school material kits and tablets to children who did not have access to technological resources.
Also at the Nadal Educational Tennis School in Andrha Pradesh, India, staff have been distributing food packages to the students and their families. “Focusing on helping the children and young in vulnerable situations was the best decision we could have made,” said Rafa.
Talented young footballer Marcus Rashford began the new season with Manchester United and England, but half of his attention was focused on a campaign to tackle child food poverty aimed particularly at providing free school meals during holidays. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed to an extra £170million of funding.
In April, when Italy was suffering badly with the entire country in lockdown, AS Roma football club delivered emergency care packages to its most vulnerable supporters in the city. It even donated via the Armenian embassy to Roma fans in Armenia.
Some of the biggest names in sport made individual donations. Roger Federer, and his wife Mirka, gave one million Swiss francs to vulnerable families. “These are challenging times for everyone and nobody should be left behind,” said four-time Laureus Award Winner Federer. Even before this, Federer had made his aim clear. At Laureus in 2019 he said: “I have a Foundation of my own and I think that inspired very much, and motivated by what [Laureus] do, and maybe one day I’ll be remembered for my philanthropic work, rather than my tennis.” What an aim!
Lionel Messi donated to the Hospital Clinic in Barcelona, which was both treating victims of the pandemic and researching the virus, while Cristiano Ronaldo bought life-saving equipment for Portuguese hospitals in Lisbon and Porto.
In the United States, NBA teams Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers, Sacramento Kings, Philadelphia 76ers and San Antonio Spurs were among many who agreed to compensate hourly workers and stadium staff during the NBA season’s hiatus in the first half of the year. The Golden State Warriors pledged to donate one million dollars to a disaster relief fund.
These are just a few of the examples of Sport for Good in action, across the spectrum, across the sports, across individuals and teams. There to enjoy the good days; there to be responsible in the most difficult times.
Once sport became meaningful again, there have been some remarkable performances. Rafael Nadal has been mentioned. We have also had Lewis Hamilton winning a record-equalling seventh Formula One World Championship, LeBron James leading LA Lakers to a memorable NBA Championship, Robert Lewandowski starring for Bayern Munich in their Champions League victory, Naomi Osaka winning her second US Open tennis crown and Dustin Johnson returning after lockdown to dominate golf, including his first Masters victory.
Whether it was down to the unique conditions, we will never know, but the year also produced some bravura feats by a host of new faces.
Among them Tadej Pogacar who at 21 became the youngest rider in a century to win the Tour de France, Joan Mir, 23-year-old winner of the MotoGP World Championship, and Bryson DeChambeau, the game-changing long-hitting American golfer who won the US Open.
There were first-time champions in three of the tennis Grand Slam events: Austria’s Dominic Thiem won the US Open. American Sofia Kenin took the Australian Open and, at 19, Poland’s Iga Swiatek won the French Open, leading the media to describe the venue as Poland Garros.
Whatever the situation, you can count on sport to unearth a joke!
Despite the hardships, the suffering and anxiety 2020 brought, it was not a total sporting write-off and it is sport itself which has delivered the Comeback of the Year, leaving us with more and better memories than any of us could have expected back in the spring.
Laureus believes that ‘sport can change the world’. Now we are all hoping that next year the world will not change sport any more. Instead we look ahead with excitement and anticipation to full seasons next year.
The devastating postponements of the Olympic and Paralympic Games and the European Football Championship may well serve to turbo-charge 2021 into the most epic year of sport any of us can remember.