Nominees - Laureus World Sportsman of the Year

Our nominees in the Sportsman of the Year category in The Laureus World Sports Awards are six athletes who have each combined historic achievement in their field with exemplary contributions to their communities.
The prodigious talent of 20-year-old world record holder Armand Duplantis is literally taking pole vaulting to new heights, while Joshua Cheptegei joined the exclusive club of long-distance runners to set new benchmarks at different distances.
LeBron James, Lewis Hamilton, Rafael Nadal and Robert Lewandowski had little to prove in their respective sports at the start of 2020, yet each of them found a way to add a new chapter to his story.
For each of them, that meant more than trophies and records. Our nominees also made their mark on their communities, leading on issues such as social equality, racial justice, environmental protection and female genital mutilation. 
And in a year where coronavirus restrictions have impacted society and sport, they used philanthropy, education and charitable support to aid those affected.
An unscheduled return to his homeland of Uganda provided the inspiration for Joshua Cheptegei’s record-breaking year. In 2020, the long-distance athlete became only the tenth man in history to hold the 5,000m and 10,000m world records at the same time. That he claimed both in a year disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic only added to the greatness of the achievement.
The World 10,000m champion spurned his European training base to return to his home in Kapchorwa, Uganda, to spend lockdown with his family. In a departure from his regular training schedule, Cheptegei – who is also a police inspector – carried out family and community duties. He said: “I did some gardening at my grandparents’ house, but mainly I worked at my school in town. It’s a primary school, and I worked on some renovations there, like painting the walls.”
The relaxation of COVID-19 travel restrictions allowed him to travel to the Monaco Diamond League meet in August, though the trip took him 80 hours, via Kampala and Istanbul. It was worth the effort, however, as Cheptegei broke the men’s 5,000m world record with a time of 12:35.36, taking almost two seconds off the previous world record set by Kenenisa Bekele in 2004.
He said: “It took a lot of mind-setting to keep being motivated this year because so many people are staying home, but you have to stay motivated. I pushed myself, I had the right staff with me, the right coach. I’m also usually based in Europe but being based in Uganda with my family was actually really great.”
Just two months later, Cheptegei set a new 10,000m world record with a time of 26.11.00 at the Valencia World Record Day in October, beating Bekele’s 15-year-old milestone by six seconds.
If Uganda helped to motivate Cheptegei to such extraordinary feats in 2020, then his homeland was also the focus for much of his advocacy work. The track hero is a strong voice in opposition to the practice of female genital mutilation that is widely practised amongst his Kalenjin community and around his home town, in a violation of women’s human rights.
There has been a surge in FGM in eastern Uganda, despite it being criminalised in 2010, statistics that influenced Cheptegei to support efforts to eradicate the tradition.
He said: “FGM is an occurrence that I should talk about. We can come together and end FGM in Kapchorwa and other parts of the country and world.”
In 2020, the athlete also continued his effort to nurture talent and support underprivileged children through the Joshua Cheptegei Development Foundation. The foundation started a kids’ run in Kapchorwa, with races open to children aged 16 and younger. His wife Yeko created a schedule for the couple to visit schools and communities to support education for girls. During these monthly visits, they also distribute sanitary pads to pupils.
Yeko said: “Apart from Cheptegei being a loving husband, he cares and works hard for the welfare of the entire community he lives in. What pleases me more is the fact that he is positively changing many lives through his work as an athlete in Sebei Sub-region and the country at large.”
Armand Duplantis was born five years after Laureus Academy Member Sergey Bubka set the world outdoor record in the pole vault for the final time in his storied career. 2020 was the year that 26-year-old mark finally fell, with the third act of a trilogy that identified Duplantis as Bubka’s heir apparent. 
In February, the American, who represents his heptathlete mother Helena’s homeland Sweden, topped Renaud Lavillenie’s six-year-old world record with a 6.17m jump in the European Indoor Championships in Torun, Poland (the IAFF does not differentiate between indoor and outdoor competition in this event). One week later, he moved the record by a further centimetre, clearing 6.18m in Glasgow.
Then at the Rome Golden Gala Pietro Mennea Diamond League event, he broke Bubka’s 1994 outdoor world best with 6.15m.
He completed a remarkable season with wins in all 16 competitions he entered and was named the youngest ever world athlete of the year.
Known as Mondo, Duplantis said: “Since I was four years old, in my whole life in principle, I have wanted to be a world record holder. I really wanted to take over the record from Bubka. I knew I had it in me, I just needed to get all the pieces in place, and today I got it. I definitely think I can jump higher.
“Growing up as a kid in this event you see Bubka as almost this mythological creature. He was not really real in the things that he was doing, they didn’t really seem possible. Any record where you can knock him down a ranking is a pretty special feeling.”
Bubka, who competed against Duplantis’ pole-vaulter father Greg, believes the prodigy can go higher. He said: “6.20m? 6.25m? For me, he is ready for that today.
He's an amazing athlete who is bringing a fresh spirit to pole vaulting.”
Duplantis adapted to Covid restrictions and found new ways to compete. In May 2020, he went head-to-head with two of the two sport’s greats from their own gardens and livestreamed the challenge on social media. Duplantis and 2012 Olympic champion Lavillenie cleared 5m 36 times in half an hour, while world champion Sam Kendricks managed 26 successful attempts.
Duplantis also auctioned his bib from the Torun world record for SEK30,000 (£2,400), with the funds going toward coronavirus relief. He said: “I hope that at least in this modest way I will help in the fight against this pandemic.”
As the only black Formula One driver in history, Lewis Hamilton is an exception. If his race sets him apart within the most homogenous of sports, then his rarefied talents offer him a growing platform to bring about change. Hamilton’s passionate activism has grown in tandem with his success. 
If 2020 was a hugely successful year for him on the track – he claimed his seventh world championship title, equalling Michael Schumacher’s record – then it was matched with boldness in speaking out on racial justice, social and environmental issues, and pushing for greater diversity within motorsport.  
Hamilton’s reputation as one of F1’s all-time greats was sealed with his performances in 2020. The current holder of the Laureus World Sportsman of the Year title jointly with Lionel Messi, he triumphed in 11 races and racked up 347 points – a stunning 124 points ahead of runner-up and teammate Valtteri Bottas – clinching the world title with an emphatic victory at the Turkish GP in November. It took his number of Grand Prix victories to a record 95, four ahead of Schumacher.
The driver for Mercedes-AMG Petronas – a Laureus World Team of the Year Nominee and constructors’ champions – criticised his sport for not speaking out on racial justice after the killing of George Floyd in police custody in the United States in May 2020. He said: “I see those of you who are staying silent, some of you the biggest of stars, yet you stay silent in the midst of injustice.”
At the Tuscan Grand Prix in September, Hamilton wore a T-shirt with the message ‘Arrest The Cops Who Killed Breonna Taylor’, referencing the shooting of the young black woman by police in March 2020. He wore a Black Lives Matter race helmet and black race suit, and took a knee at each event. In addition, both Mercedes cars also sported black livery as a statement of the team’s commitment to diversity. 
Hamilton added: “Everyone here needs to be held accountable and open to educate themselves, open to understanding why the Black Lives Matter movement is happening and why around the world we need to be pushing for equality, because it’s not enough.” 
Hamilton has also been vocal on environmental concerns and urged fans to minimise their carbon footprints. He switched to a vegan diet and stated that he has carbon-offset his F1 work back to 2007.
He said: “Small steps lead to big change, so it’s important we all take a moment to understand our footprint and the small changes we can make in our everyday lives to put our planet first.”
In September, Time magazine declared him one of the world’s 100 most influential people, and he was recognised with a knighthood in the UK New Year Honours.
Hamilton was the first high-profile driver to raise concerns about racing at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and criticised the staging of the Australian GP in March, stating that the reason it was being held was because “cash is king”. 
During 2020, he also created and funded the Hamilton Foundation to engage young black people in STEM subjects and encourage them to enter motor racing and engineering.
“Not only is he the best player, but he has the most powerful voice.” Naomi Osaka, a Laureus World Sportswoman of the Year Award Nominee after winning her second US Open tennis title, said of LeBron James. Now 36, it can seem that the only true opponent left for James is basketball history and his place within it. 
However, that would be to overlook another phenomenal year that strengthened his legacy as a sportsman and as an advocate and agent for societal reform in the United States. 
On the court, James won his fourth NBA Championship and was Finals MVP for the fourth time; he has now achieved both feats with three different teams and is the only player in the history of the sport to have done so. After winning with the Miami Heat and the Cleveland Cavaliers, he gave the Los Angeles Lakers their first title in a decade. For the first time in his career, he led the league in assists during the regular season. 
Away from the court, James continued the activism that has come to define the second half of his career almost as much as what he does with the ball in his hands. 
James built the I Promise School in his native Akron, Ohio, primarily to provide a better launch pad for children from that city who had a disadvantaged upbringing, as did James himself. During the pandemic, he ensured care packages filled with food, toothpaste and toilet paper were sent to students and their families. 
James was the architect of the More Than A Vote campaign, with the goal of fighting the suppression of the vote among predominantly black communities during the US election. He played a vital role in ensuring 23 NBA teams used their home arenas or practice facilities as voting sites.
James said: “More than a Vote is not only about trying to get people in our community to actually go out and vote; it is also giving them the knowledge and the power and the mechanisms to know that they can create change.”
His advocacy and activism were recognised by Time magazine, who named him Athlete of the Year; he was Associated Press’s Male Athlete of the Year and one of Sports Illustrated’s Sportspersons of the Year. 
James said: “I want to continue to inspire people with the way I play the game of basketball. But there’s so many more things that I can do off the floor to help cultivate people, inspire people, bring people together, empower them.”
As Bayern Munich produced what was – even by their standards – a gigantic season, winning the Bundesliga, DFB-Pokal and Champions League titles, one name rose above all others on this breath-taking team: their No 9, Robert Lewandowski. 
The Polish international finished season 2019-20 – his 10th in the Bundesliga – with his highest-ever goals total. Across all competitions, he scored 55 goals in 47 games, 12 more than he managed in his previous best season. In European competition, he averaged 1.5 goals per game. 
To crown a stunning season, he was also named FIFA Best Men’s Player and he won the UEFA Men’s Player of the Year Award. In December, he joined Gerd Muller and Klaus Fischer as only the third player to score 250 Bundesliga goals.
Lewandowski’s coach, Hansi Flick, said: “He is one of the most complete strikers around, if not the best No 9 in the world.” 
Lewandowski is a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and has long used his position as one of the world’s most famous footballers to support and fundraise for good causes. When the pandemic struck and two of his teammates, Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka, founded the We Kick Corona charity, Lewandowski and his wife Anna donated €1million to the fund which supports charitable and welfare organisations which have been hindered by COVID-19.
Lewandowski also joined his Bayern teammates in the club’s Reds Against Racism campaign, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. 
If sporting greatness is not only about reaching the top but staying there, then Rafael Nadal’s credentials are beyond dispute. Fifteen years after he won his first French Open, the Spaniard claimed his 13th title at Roland Garros in October 2020 – his 20th Grand Slam victory overall, drawing him level with his friend Roger Federer. 
It was an even more remarkable achievement given the many injury issues he has faced throughout his career. For many years, the Spaniard has been written off by critics as fighting a losing battle against his body but, at 34, he continued to excel. In November 2020, he broke Jimmy Connors’ record for the most consecutive weeks – 790 – in the top ten rankings.
And it was the manner of his latest Roland Garros victory which resonated. Nadal completely dominated Novak Djokovic en route to a 6–0, 6–2, 7–5 victory. A stunning first set of tennis from Nadal deprived Djokovic of a single game for the first time in any of the Serb’s Grand Slam finals.
That Nadal’s moment of history occurred during a Paris autumn – and not under the usual sunkissed skies of the French capital – was due to the tournament’s rescheduling due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 
The Spaniard was actively involved in the fight against the virus throughout 2020 and in June the Rafa Nadal Foundation Centre in Palma announced collaboration with Laureus Sport for Good, focused on helping children and their families who had been severely impacted by the health crisis.
Nadal’s wife Maria Francisca Perello, the foundation’s director, said: “That an entity like Laureus Sport for Good, with extensive experience and recognition in this field at the international level, has opted to collaborate with the Rafa Nadal Foundation is excellent news. For us as an organisation, and for the hundreds of children and families who they will benefit, it is a very big thing.” Among other aid, the foundation also provided support to poor children in India during the pandemic.
Laureus Academy Member and winner of 59 Grand Slam titles Martina Navratilova, said: “Rafa has been an inspiration to us all for his phenomenal efforts on and off the court.”
Nadal also launched COVID-19 fundraising initiative Neustra Major Victoria (Our Best Victory) in March with his friend, the NBA star Pau Gasol, which raised €14million. Nadal saluted the Spanish sports stars who contributed, saying: “Between all of us we have achieved something important and also beautiful, not only for the collection, but for the camaraderie and solidarity that you have shown us.”

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