The Race Against Time: Laureus World Sportsman of the Year Nominees are Building Legacies That Will

To be the best, you have to beat the best. That could be the motto for the Nominees for the Laureus World Sportsman of the Year Award – one of the most competitive categories in the 23-year history of the event. But it also applies to each athlete individually, whether they spent 2021 engaged in a sporting rivalry for the ages, or they were chasing down the shadows of former champions.
This group are among the most talented athletes in the world today, and each of them delivered elite performance on the biggest stage in their sport in a year filled with challenges far beyond those for which they have trained all their lives.
To Ali-Frazier, Borg-McEnroe and Prost-Senna, we can add a new sporting rivalry with the potential to match those great storylines for drama, longevity and even the razor-sharp edge that makes the best of those duels unmissable. Max Verstappen won his first Formula One drivers’ championship in unforgettable fashion, ending a slug-fest of a season with a victory that could not have been scripted – overtaking his arch-rival and the reigning champion, Lewis Hamilton, at turn five on the final lap after a safety car had allowed him to close what had appeared to be a fatal gap between them. So narrow was the difference between the two that every achievement in a thrilling season came into focus: the record 18 podium finishes accumulated by Verstappen, for example, or his incredible race at the Russian Grand Prix, which began at the back of the grid and ended with a second-place finish – behind Hamilton. The sequel in 2022 is appointment viewing.

I think you can improve on everything, you're never perfect.

Max Verstappen
If F1’s popularity is enjoying a fresh surge behind Verstappen and Hamilton’s showdowns, tennis has enjoyed a generation of unmatched excellence served up by the Big Three: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and our second Nominee, Novak Djokovic. The four-time winner of this award closed out the year level with his two great rivals on 20 Grand Slam titles after wins at the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon. In Paris, he defeated Nadal – the King of Clay – in an epic semi-final before coming back from two sets down to defeat Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final and become the first man in the Open Era to win each of the four Grand Slam events at least twice. Only defeat by Daniil Medvedev – a Nominee for the Laureus World Breakthrough of the Year Award – in New York denied Djokovic a calendar Grand Slam.
At this stage in the career of Robert Lewandowski, his opponents are not only the defenders usually left scratching their heads as he celebrates another goal, but the two men who have long stood in his way for football’s individual honours: Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. As yet more records fell to Bayern Munich and Poland’s striker, he made a case that he may be the greatest pure goalscorer the game has seen. In the final minute of the final game of the Bundesliga season, he scored his 41st goal in that competition, beating a record that had stood since 1972. That belonged to Gerd Muller, the Bayern forward whose records he has spent a career chasing down and who died in 2021, three months after seeing Lewandowski lead his former club to a ninth successive Bundesliga crown and win the European Golden Shoe as the continent’s top goalscorer – the first time he had claimed that title.
In his final full year in the NFL, Tom Brady ended any debate about his place at the head of the table when it comes to the pantheon of American football quarterbacks. At Super Bowl LV he wrote a new chapter in the game’s history: he won a record seventh Super Bowl; aged 43, he became the oldest starting quarterback to lift the Vince Lombardi trophy and the oldest to be named the game’s Most Valuable Player (his fifth such award); and he did it all having left the New England Patriots and the NFL dynasty he built with head coach Bill Belichick for a new challenge in Tampa Bay. Brady truly did win it all, rising above not only every opponent he faced on the field, but the legacies of the hall-of-fame talents who played the game before him.
Eliud Kipchoge is running toward a similar position in his sport. The Kenyan – already in possession of both the official world record and the only recorded sub-two-hour marathon – became just the third athlete to successfully defend the men’s Olympic marathon gold medal, overcoming challenging conditions in Tokyo to win a race in which 31 of 105 starters did not finish. He struck out at the 30km mark, after which his lead was unchallenged and he won by 80 seconds. At the age of 37 he became the oldest Olympic champion since Carlos Lopes in 1984.

Only the disciplined ones are free in life. If you aren’t disciplined, you are a slave to your moods. You are a slave to your passions. That’s a fact.

Eliud Kipchoge
Closer to Verstappen’s stage of development than those of our other Nominees is Caeleb Dressel and, like all of them, Dressel was competing against a legendary champion in 2021. The American swimmer won his first Olympic gold in 2016, in the 4 x 100 metres freestyle relay. In the final in Rio he handed over to the great Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of them all. In Tokyo, there was a sense that a baton had been passed the other way. With Phelps retired, Dressel emerged as the dominant men’s performer in the pool, winning five gold medals. Dressel set an Olympic record in winning the 100 metre freestyle and another over 50 metres. Between those events, he won the 100m butterfly with a world-record time of 49.45 seconds in one of the Games’ most memorable performances.
Our six Nominees have not just given us some of the greatest sporting moments of 2021, they have been actors in stories that have captivated us for far longer. For one night only, they will appear on the same bill – order to be revealed.

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