Year 2020 was a low-key affair in terms of sporting action, but there were enough feel-good, inspirational stories to take heart from. Here, we take a look at some such stories from the field of play and beyond.
One of the major byproducts of sports is that it inspires. While the year 2020 was understandably a low-key affair in terms of sporting action, there were enough feel-good, inspirational stories to take heart from.
In years to come, 2020 may well be seen as the year when global sporting superstars really made their presence felt in matters of socio-cultural importance. This was not a year of an odd Muhammad Ali raising his voice against the Vietnam War, or Tommie Smith and John Carlos doing a black power salute. From NBA superstars to football heroes to a relatively new kid on the block in Naomi Osaka, athletes decided to use their position to inspire and drive a change.
There were some incredible comebacks too, as was the heartwarming sight of former Netherlands women’s hockey team goalkeeper Joyce Sombroek performing her doctor duties during the peak of COVID-19 outbreak. Here, we take a look at some of the most inspirational sports stories of 2020, from the field of play and beyond.
NBA players joining protestors after George Floyd’s murder
After the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, many of NBA’s top names such as LeBron James, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan raised their voice against the injustice on social media. Floyd, a black man, died in May after Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer, knelt on his neck while he cried out for help. However, many players chose to take to the streets and join protestors. Boston Celtics star Jaylen Brown drove 15 hours to lead a march in Atlanta. His teammate, Enes Kanter, attended a protest at the Massachusetts State House. Trailblazers star, Damian Lillard marched in Portland. New York Knicks’ Dennis Smith Jr and Philadelphia 76ers’ Tobias Harris participated in separate protests in Fayetteville, and Philadelphia. Stephen Jackson, whose NBA career lasted 14 years, led a protest in Minneapolis, where he was joined by Minnesota Timberwolves stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie.
Rikako Ikee makes comeback after leukemia treatment
Swimmer Rikako Ikee was supposed to be one of the faces of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Ikee won six gold medals at the 2018 Asian Games, with her times in the 100-meter butterfly event close to the world record time. But in February 2019, she experienced breathlessness at a training camp in Australia. It turned out to be leukemia. The Japanese record holder later said: “At my lowest point, I wanted to die. I felt I was better off dead if I had to go through this kind of pain. But looking back on it now, I really regret I ever thought that.”
Ikee made her comeback to the pool in March this year and raced in her first competitive event in August, clocking 26.32 seconds in a 50m freestyle heat. Her national record time is 24.21.
Former Dutch hockey goalkeeper Joyce Sombroek on the frontlines of pandemic
On the hockey pitch, hockey goalkeeper Joyce Sombroek has helped the Netherlands team conquer every possible challenge. With her in the squad, the Dutch women’s hockey team became European champions in 2011, Olympic champions in 2012, and world champions in 2014. Sombroek called time on her career after helping the Netherlands to a silver at Rio 2016. Then, when the coronavirus pandemic started, she padded up for another challenge. This time, as a doctor on the frontlines of the pandemic. As a doctor in Aalsmeer, she helped patients with COVID-19 . Elsewhere too, other women’s hockey players did their part. Australian women’s team goalkeeper Rachael Lynch registered as a nurse in Perth to help out during the pandemic.
Bauer Hockey make face shields during pandemic
Ordinarily, Bauer Hockey makes equipment used by elite ice hockey players. But when the pandemic shutdown sport, the company started using hockey visor material to produce full medical face shields for frontline workers. “Right now, we’re all playing for the same team,” Bauer wrote in a statement on its Facebook page. “We’re repurposing our production facilities to make face shields so that medical professionals battling COVID-19 can safely continue to help those most vulnerable.”
Mandeep Singh walks out to bat hours after his father’s death
The worst of life’s hardships reveal the truest nature of an individual. And if that’s true, Mandeep Singh showed the world during this IPL that he is one of the toughest characters out there. His long walk to the cricket pitch for Kings XI Punjab against Sunrisers Hyderabad on 24 October must have been the most emotional one for Mandeep.
After all, it was made just a few hours after the Punjab cricketer lost his father to liver disease. Not being able to say the final goodbye could be the most crushing thing in the world and Mandeep could have opted to return to India from UAE to attend the last rites, but he decided to go out and play, because like his brother Harvinder told various news outlets, “that’s what father would have loved to see”. Mandeep may not be the biggest name in cricket but he showed that he has the strongest of heart.
WNBA signs deal assuring maternity benefits for players
In January this year, the WNBA became one of the rare — if not the only — women’s league in USA to offer its players maternity benefits, according to the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) negotiated by the league and the Players’ Association. While the CBA also ensured a “53 percent increase in total cash compensation, consisting of base salary, additional performance bonuses” etc the groundbreaking measure was that it ensured that players would receive full salary while on maternity leave (as opposed to players earning as little as half of their base salaries for missing a season due to childbirth or pregnancy). The CBA also ensured that the league would cover up to $60,000 toward the costs of adoption, surrogacy, oocyte cryopreservation or fertility treatments for veteran players. WNBA also agreed to pay players annual childcare stipend of $5,000.
Canadian women’s team defender Quinn comes out as transgender
In September this year, Canadian footballer Quinn came out as transgender in an Instagram post.
“Coming out is HARD (and kinda bs). I know for me it’s something I’ll be doing over again for the rest of my life. As I’ve lived as an openly trans person with the people I love most for many years…” they posted. “I want to be visible to queer folx who don’t see people like them on their feed. I know it saved my life years ago. I want to challenge cis folks ( if you don’t know what cis means, that’s probably you!!!) to be better allies.”
Quinn has 59 caps for Canada, and has scored five times. They were also part of the Canadian team which won bronze at Rio Olympics 2016. Quinn is expected to play at the deferred Tokyo Olympics in July next year.
Michael Holding’s speech in support of BLM
In a never-seen-before event at a cricket ground, in an international match, cricketers from England and West Indies decided to show their support to a social movement called Black Lives Matter which emerged from USA after the death of George Floyd. But even before that, Michael Holding sent a strong message to the millions watching the broadcast, putting light on racism, its effect on black people and why protests like BLM were important. He spoke of how black race was dehumanised from the very start and how the people who do harm have written the history, questioning the notions and thoughts which lead to acts of racism eventually. Midway into the speech, remembering his childhood, Holding broke down. Known for his strong opinions and fiery spell of bowling in his playing years, the world the unseen side of Holding. It was not just an emotional moment for Holding, but also for cricket watchers all around the world. Also, an inspiration for everyone, especially the cricketers, who have been historically silent over matters that concern all.
Paralympian Manasi Joshi recognised by Time Magazine as the Next Generation Leader
In October of 2020, India’s premier para-badminton player Manasi Joshi made it to Time Magazine’s list of Next Generation Leaders. After losing her left leg in a road accident, the 31-year-old world champion, started walking on a prosthetic leg and to gain balance, began playing badminton. Before she knew it, the love for the sport grew on her and soon, she took up badminton professionally. Today, she has not only become a great example for other people with disabilities but has also taken the country to the top in para-badminton. Getting featured on the cover of an international magazine of repute may not be her last ambition, but it has surely made her reach out to many outside India while those ignorant of her achievements must have taken notice now. Manasi’s next target is to qualify for the Paralympics in Tokyo next year and bring a medal for India.
Rahul Tewatia becomes an overnight sensation after guiding RR to miraculous victory over KXIP
In an innings that could very well be described as ‘Comeback of the Year’ Tewatia became a household name when his 31-ball 53 helped Rajasthan Royals chase down a mammoth 224-run target set by Kings XI Punjab in IPL 2020.
Tewatia was having a hard time getting settled at the crease as the asking rate kept climbing, so much so that partner and set batsman Sanju Samson even denied him strike and got dismissed trying to up the ante.
All it took, however, was one magical over. Tewatia showed nerves of steel, smashing Sheldon Cottrell for five sixes in the 18th over. And even though he fell short before the job could be completed, the once-in-a-lifetime knock had laid the foundation for the highest successful run-chase in IPL history.
Kento Momota makes victorious return to badminton court months after suffering serious injuries in car crash
Kento Momota’s path towards cementing himself as a badminton superstar hit a roadblock in January earlier this year when he was involved in a car crash shortly after the Malaysian Masters. While the driver of the vehicle didn’t survive, the Japanese shuttler escaped, albeit with serious, career-threatening injuries, including an injured eye-socket.
The world number one though refused to throw in the towel. Motivated by the love of his family, friends and fans, Momota charted his road to recovery, culminating in a victorious return to the badminton court on 23 December in which he won the opening round of the All-Japan Championships. Momota thus sent out a warning message to his opponents, signalling his intent to wear the gold medal in the postponed home Olympics.
Teenager Iga Swiatek wins French Open without dropping a set
Iga Swiatek thrashed Sofia Kenin 6-4, 6-1 in the final of the French Open 2020, thereby becoming the first player from Poland to claim a Grand Slam title. The 19-year-old’s win was historic in multiple ways as she became the youngest women’s French Open Champion since Monica Seles in 1992, and ranked 54th coming into it, the lowest-ranked woman to win in Paris in the Open Era.
The Pole, who did not drop a set throughout the tournament, was too good for Kenin. She took a 3-0 lead for the loss of only three points before Kenin staged a brief fightback. The American broke back to get to 4-5 but Swiatek held serve and pocketed the opening set. In the second set, with Swiatek leading at 2-1, Kenin received an off-court medical treatment on her left thigh. And once the action resumed, the American could only win three points as a ruthless Swiatek cruised to victory.
“Maybe it just had to be like that, another underdog had to win a Grand Slam,” Swiatek said post her win.
Marcus Rashford’s battle against child hunger
While Marcus Rashford has been involved in activism for years, his work in philanthropy made headlines in 2020 when he used his status as a global star to champion the cause of free school meals in the United Kingdom. In the early weeks of a lockdown in the country, Rashford worked with food waste charity FareShare to provide food to impoverished children, but he stepped up his efforts in June, when he wrote an open letter to the government asking them to end child poverty.
His letter was followed by an extension to the meal plan which ensured that eligible children would receive free meals through the summer holidays, but it was a short-lived victory, as the Parliament renewed a debate on the plan’s extension just months later, in an opposition day debate which resulted in a vote for the plan to be discontinued.
The Manchester United winger took on the British government yet again, launching a petition on the UK Parliament petitions website which received 10,000 signatures in 10 hours and over 2,00,000 signatures by the end of the first day. In the face of overwhelming criticism of their actions, and a charity drive that saw hundreds of local businesses pledge their support for Rashford’s campaign, the government was forced to acquiesce, announcing that they would provide funding of £400m over 12 months to support poor families.
Cindy Parlow Cone becomes US Soccer President
The US Women’s National football team is the best women’s football team in the world, without a shadow of a doubt. While the US men’s team has appeared in just 10 World Cups since 1930, the women’s team has already won four women’s World Cups, a tournament that began just 29 years ago! But in spite of their vastly greater levels of success, US Soccer has often been at loggerheads with women in the sport, most notably having a very public clash with the women’s team over equal pay.
Therefore, it came as a pleasant surprise to many that when US Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro resigned following a dispute with the women’s team, the organisation made the decision to replace him with Cindy Parlow Cone. Parlow Cone, who became the first female president in US Soccer’s 107-year history, is a veteran of the sport, having won a World Cup, two Olympic gold medals and three NCAA titles, and her appointment was met with near universal acclaim.
Upon her appointment, she issued a statement that was critical of the US Soccer Federation’s court filings in the ongoing lawsuit against players of the women’s team, and signalled her intent to move towards equal pay for men and women in the sport.
Naomi Osaka wins on the court and off it in raising awareness for racial discrimination
A Grand Slam title on court and a bigger, effective societal point off it. That would be Naomi Osaka’s second half of the year in a nutshell. She joined the likes of Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe and a host of other sportstars in protesting against racial injustice. As tennis returned at the Western & Southern Open, Osaka made her way into the semi-final match. That’s when she hit the pause button for herself and tennis as a whole. In the wake of Jacob Blake getting shot by the police in Wisconsin, Naomi announced she would not play her last-four contest and the tournament joined in by suspending play. She did go on to play later but pulled out of the final due to a hamstring injury.
At US Open, she picked up where she left off by display seven different names on her face mask in each round as she lifted the title. She declared that her aim was to get the conversation going and she achieved just that.
Sania Mirza returns to tennis after two years and wins title in Hobart
Gosh that felt good 🏆🏆🏆 Title town after more than 2 years 🙃 what an amazing week in Hobart 😌 what a journey it’s been 🙌🏽 #@nadiakichenok @hobart_tennis #titlenumber42 #mummahustles 😉 #Allhamdulillah pic.twitter.com/jWNkBvAvll
— Sania Mirza (@MirzaSania) January 18, 2020
Sania Mirza returned to the tennis court at the start of the year after a two year gap having become a mother. And she returned in glorious fashion by partnering Nadiia Kichenok of Ukraine to win the Hobart title. It was her 42nd title. “As a woman, with such great athletes being mothers and coming back, I just feel that women can really have it all, and I hope this inspires a few women out there, especially in my side of the world,” she said upon returning to tennis for the first time since 2017 China Open. Since then she gave birth to her son Izhaan who was with her in Australia. (NOTE: Click here for a more comprehensive understanding of the terminology used for gender and sexuality spectrums)
Bala Devi creates history, breaks ceiling by signing for Rangers
Recently in an interview, Indian footballer Bala Devi spoke about how she used to be criticised for playing with boys in her initial days. Disheartening as it sounds, there’s hardly any surprise in what Bala revealed. The road to the top of any female athlete has never been easy. Apart from the obvious challenges that sportsperson faces, female athletes also have to fight against the preconceived notion that sports are for men/boys. Yet, Bala never let any of the criticism dissuade her from her ultimate goal. Not only had she been an Indian regular for many years, but she also created history in January this year when she became the first Indian woman to earn a professional football contract abroad.
Earlier this month, she also scored her first goal for Rangers FC against Motherwell FC in the Scottish Women’s Premier League. It’s a cliché but Bala has shown that with determination and hard work everything is possible. Her odds-defying footballing journey would fetch a hefty dividend to Indian football in the future is something that goes without saying.
Bishan Singh Bedi writes to get his name removed from Kotla stand
Righteousness and Indian sports do not always go hand in hand, but legendary left-arm spinner Bishan Singh Bedi has been a noble exception. Bedi’s outspoken candour is nothing new, and recently, the 74-year-old created a storm in Delhi cricket circles by asking his name removed from one of the stands that had been named after him in Feroz Shah Kotla ground.
Bedi was upset over DDCA’s decision to install a statue of its late former President Arun Jaitley, whose tenure was riddled with corruption. Jaitley’s son Rohan is the current president of DDCA. In a strongly-worded letter, Bedi wrote, “I pride myself as a man of immense tolerance and patience…but all that I’m afraid, is running out. DDCA has truly tested me and forced me to take this drastic action.
“So, Mr President I request you to remove my name from the stand named after me with immediate effect. Also, I hereby renounce my DDCA membership.”
Forever known for his forthrightness, Bedi’s decision – in times of stifling authoritarianism in public life – was hailed by a number of cricket lovers, and also brought the focus back on how politicians and administrators put their interests above players’.
Athletes come forward to provide support to farmers protesting at Delhi border
Sportspersons in India, unlike their western counterparts, are known to keep politics at arm’s length. An eerie silence from the sporting fraternity over even the most burning topics is a usual practice, mostly due to the fear of vendetta politics from sporting federations. However, the ongoing farmer’s protest against the farm bills which they have dubbed as kaala kanoon has witnessed strong support from the fraternity. From Padma Shri winners to Asian Games gold winners, a number of former sportspersons announced returning their respective awards in solidarity with farm protests.
The support has not only come from retired athletes but also from active sportspersons including India cricketer Mandeep Singh and Khel Ratna winner Vijender Singh. Wrestling stars Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat have also posted messages in support on Twitter. The active involvement of the sporting fraternity hints towards a future where they could be the agent of change in society. Sportspersons are role models and influencers. When they speak, government, people sit back and listen. They have the potential to inspire, on the field and off it as well.
Kim Ng becomes first female GM in MLB history
Last month, Major League Baseball (MLB) side Miami Marlins hired Kim Ng as their General Manager. It was not a run-of-the-mill corporate announcement though, for it meant that Kim Ng is now the first woman GM and first Asian American GM in league’s history.
It says something about gender parity in sports when in 2020, an announcement such as this makes major news. According to CNN, Ng is now the highest-ranking woman in MLB team operations and is believed to be the first woman hired as a GM to lead a professional men’s sports team in any North American major league.
It took Ng 30 years at MLB alone to rise up the ranks. Now that the glass ceiling is finally broken, here’s hoping for more inclusiveness in global sports.
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