Before a virus came along to cause unprecedented kind of disruption, sport was hopeful escape and a metaphor for life. Covid-19 changed all that in 2020.
Heck, even the Olympics, that lofty symbol of human spirit and resilience, had to be postponed, and the last time this happened was when the world was at war.
It was also a year when Diego Maradona, the maverick who split defences in his prime and later dodged death despite his reckless lifestyle, bid a sudden final goodbye leaving his devotees crying on the streets.
How could India not feel its share of jolts?
There were deaths that left fans distraught, there was a retirement that was expected but still seemed unacceptable, training across sports shut down for most of the year and athletes coped with one cancelled tournament after another as fear of the virus took precedence over the desire to compete.
They couldn’t be faulted and neither can the misery of not having enough sporting action compare to the economic and emotional devastation that the pandemic has caused and continues to cause.
But as Dale Steyn said in an interview when it all began to unravel, “...If you take sport away, then I don’t know really what we have.”
Men’s cricket recovered
It wasn’t that big a concern for his cricket community though. They found a way to hop from one bio-bubble to another and compete after a few months at home. A 53-day IPL went off without a major hitch in front of empty stands in the UAE and delivered record viewership.
But for the rest, the uncertainty was never-seen-before and although most were relieved that the Olympics did not go ahead amid the health crisis, the underlying fear of precious time slipping away from their hands was hard to miss.
India’s big medal hopes for Tokyo Olympics were mostly restricted to their hostel rooms or homes, racing against time to be battle-ready should the Games go ahead in July-August in 2021. It remains to be seen how it impacts the medal haul.
However, Indian sports was not merely about the disruption, the action was limited but the year had its share of good, bad, ugly and unfortunately, some truly sad events that won’t be forgotten for a long time to come.
Here’s a look at the few bright spots, the many worries, and key moments that made for a year that no one could have seen coming:
Record qualifiers to the Olympics: The number of India’s Olympic-bound athletes surged to an impressive 74 in the year gone by and what makes it better is that some more may join the list when the final round of qualifiers take place in 2021. Qualifying for the Games is no small task and the country can take pride in improving these numbers.
India’s run at ICC Women’s T20 World Cup: A humbling defeat in the final or an unbeaten run to a first-ever final on the back of a collective team effort, there are two ways of looking at the Indian team’s runner-up trophy at the World Cup. That this young team with an average age of under 23 reached the final without significant contributions from the seniors should be an encouraging sign, but the fact that not one player stood out at the big stage consistently – barring Shafali Verma – is a cause for concern. But no matter if you look at it as a positive step forward or a failure to handle pressure on the big stage, this was a crucial experience for India and should bode well for the future.
The IPL went ahead: Scoffed at by purists and loved by the fans, the IPL beat the pandemic blues to pass off smoothly, albeit on foreign shores. The viewership hit an all-time high with BCCI setting an example for others on how to conduct a multi-team event with the dreaded virus shut out.
Football got sports underway in India: Globally, football was first off the blocks when it came to resumption despite the postponement of the European Championships to next year. On Indian soil too, the first sport to hit the restart button was the beautiful game with the Indian Super League behind closed doors in Goa.
India’s fight in Australia tour: They lost the one-dayers, won the T20s, collapsed to their lowest Test score before bouncing back for a year-end win that will be remembered for years to come. Indian cricket fans have been virtually on a rollercoaster ride during the ongoing showdown against Australia. The side will enter 2021, hoping to do an encore of its Test series triumph in 2018.
World Archery lifted suspension on India: Indian archery literally got a new lease of life with the world body’s decision to revoke suspension imposed last year after “free and fair” elections were conducted. The renewed recognition of the national federation revived the archers’ hopes of a smooth build-up to the Olympics.
Bala Devi’s historic rise: She became the first Indian woman footballer to play in a top-flight league in Europe after signing with Rangers Women FC of Glasgow which plays in Scottish Women’s Premier League. She also became the first Indian to score in European football
Magnificent Mary Kom: The 37-year-old qualified for her second and final Olympic Games at the beginning of the year along with a record eight other Indian boxers. The Asian Olympic Qualifiers for boxing in Jordan were among the few events which could be completed before the pandemic threw the world into chaos.
Advent of online chess and shooting: Both the sports found a new avenue and beat the lockdown blues by organising competitions online, ensuring the athletes remained engaged. Its success prompted five-time world champion, Viswanathan Anand, to hope that his sport’s expansion into the online space would not spell the end of the traditional board.
There was a gold medal to celebrate. Koneru Humpy, the world rapid champion, who was part of India’s gold-medal winning team at Fide Chess Olympiad described the triumph as a golden moment for Indian chess and said great teamwork was key for the win.
“Really a special and golden moment for Indian chess. Talented youngsters like Nihal Sarin, R Praggnanandhaa, Vantika.. did well. Great teamwork did it for us. We had an advantage of having a mixed team,” she said
On the final day of the year, Goa’s 14-year-old Leon Mendonca has become India’s 67th chess Grandmaster by winning the third and final norm at a tournament in Italy. Mendonca, who achieved the feat at 14 years, 9 months and 17 days, is the second GM from the coastal state.
Several tournaments cancelled or postponed: Whether it was badminton, football, boxing or athletics, several marquee events stood scrapped or put off for later. The athletes were starved for competition even though training picked up pace towards the last six months with some national camps taking tentative and restricted steps to resumption
Women’s cricket left behind: The same cannot be said for women’s cricket, though. While the likes of Harmanpreet Kaur and Smriti Mandhana welcomed the Women’s T20 Challenge, they signed off wondering when they would play next. They haven’t.
Legends said final goodbyes: Hockey wizard Balbir Singh Sr, footballing geniuses Chuni Goswami and PK Banerjee, and cricket star Chetan Chauhan – Indian sports lost several jewels to illness this year. Their deaths typified the sense of loss that overwhelmed 2020.
A retirement that was coming but wasn’t expected: “From 1929 hrs consider me as Retired,” wrote Mahendra Singh Dhoni in an August 15 Instagram post, an announcement that was long speculated about but none quite knew when exactly it would drop. Despite the last phase of his international career not even close to being his best, Dhoni left a country devastated with that announcement. The CSK talisman is, however, still there in the IPL, some consolation for the fans who trended “Definitely Not” after his confirmation during the 2020 season.
The several administrative wranglings: Years come and years go but a constant in Indian sports is the administrative feuds. 2020 was no different. So there were the legal wranglings that led to de-recognition of almost all major National Sports Federations. Some of these NSFs were also “forced” to postpone their elections because of the pandemic
And lastly, hope. That with the arrival of vaccines things would go back to the old normal instead of the world being forced to adapt to the new one in which fans are being asked to either stay away from live-action or being allowed in limited numbers, taking the soul out of the spectacle that is sport. Safety first, of course, but for fans and athletes around the world, 2021 will hopefully be closer to how we have known it all our lives.
With PTI inputs