Sports in 2021 Tried to Return to Normal


Leave it to a couple of old guys to remind us that sports can not only be a thing of beauty but also be enjoyed guilt-free and outside spectator-less bubbles. We needed some relief from the pandemic this year, and that’s exactly what Tom Brady and Phil Mickelson offered as the calendar flipped to 2021.

In February there was the 43-year-old Brady at the Super Bowl — again — but with a new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, bullying the Kansas City Chiefs with pinpoint passing and outsize swagger. Sixty minutes of football later: Bucs 31, Chiefs 9, and Brady had earned his seventh championship ring.

It was a home game. Sort of.

But instead of a stadium packed with the Bucs’ faithful, it was played before a scaled-down crowd of around 25,000 — a third of them health care workers, which was both a fitting tribute to their heroics as well as a reminder that sports were being played very much in the shadow of the coronavirus.

Three months later, on a late May afternoon in South Carolina, Mickelson, 50, defied Father Time while hundreds of fans joyously marched alongside him on the final fairway of the P.G.A. Championship. So much for social distancing.

Two putts later, Lefty, as Mickelson is known, became the oldest golfer to win one of golf’s four major tournaments.

“I’ve never had something like that,” said Mickelson of the rolling mosh pit that escorted him to the final hole. “It was a little bit unnerving but it was exceptionally awesome, too.”

We all could relate as sports lurched back to life through 2021 after games in 2020 were played in “bubbles” or canceled altogether. In February, the Australian Open took place under an extreme lockdown. By late August, the United States Open unspooled before packed houses.

The Covid-19 vaccination wars raged throughout the year. Depending on your point of view, superstars like Kyrie Irving (N.B.A.), Aaron Rodgers (N.F.L.) and Novak Djokovic (ATP) were either iconoclasts for refusing to get vaccinated or dire threats to public health.

Leave it to a pair of young women, however, to bring the importance of athletes’ mental health off the sidelines and into center court and onto the Olympic mats.

Naomi Osaka, 24, withdrew from the French Open after being fined $15,000 for skipping the news conference after her first-round victory. She was then threatened with the possibility of disqualification or suspension by all four Grand Slam tournaments if she continued to avoid the media.

Instead, she pushed back.

“I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one,” she wrote in an Instagram post.

She earned the support of Serena Williams.

“Girl, do you. Your life is yours to live!” wrote Williams, who has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles.

So, Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam champion, skipped Wimbledon altogether. Her loss in the third round of the U.S. Open ended her chances to defend her 2020 title.

Now what?

“Basically, I feel like I’m at this point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do, and I honestly don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match,” a tearful Osaka said after the match.

At the Tokyo Olympic Games, Simone Biles, 24, withdrew from the team final and the all-around competition after admitting to a mental block that gymnasts call “the twisties.” Considered one of the greatest gymnasts of all time, Biles performed a watered-down vault during the team competition.

“Literally cannot tell up from down,” she wrote in an Instagram story. “It’s the craziest feeling ever. Not having an inch of control over your body.”

Before the Games, Biles, a seven-time Olympic medalist, including four golds, acknowledged that she was feeling the pressure to succeed. She later explained that she drew strength from Osaka’s choice to take care of herself rather than chase medals.

Biles did stay alongside her teammates and offered full-throated support as the Americans earned a silver medal behind the Russian Olympic Committee team. She was on hand, too, when Sunisa Lee won gold in the women’s all-around competition.

Lee, 18, arrived in Tokyo wanting to win a gold medal for her father, who is her biggest fan, and for all the Hmong Americans who she feels are unseen in the United States. She said publicly, however, that a silver to Biles was more realistic.

But with her teammate out, Lee showed she was up for the challenge.

Biles, too, left Tokyo with an achievement. She returned to competition in time for the balance beam, earning a bronze with a scaled-down routine to tie Shannon Miller for most Olympic medals by an American gymnast.

The fact that the Tokyo Olympics happened at all was a milestone. It was delayed a year and international spectators were not allowed to attend. The stadiums and arenas were largely television studios.

The home team was rewarded mightily when Japan beat the U.S. team, 2-0, in women’s softball, which back in the Olympics for the first time since 2008. Yukiko Ueno, 39, was just as dominating on the pitcher’s mounds as she was in Beijing when Japan prevailed over the United States in that gold medal game.

The U.S. women’s soccer team, ranked No. 1 in the world, was expected to follow up their 2019 World Cup title with an Olympic gold medal. Instead, they were defeated by Canada, 1-0, in the semifinals and later settled for bronze. Even one of the team’s most celebrated stars acknowledged it was an end of an era.

“I was just gutted,” said Carli Lloyd, 39, a two-time gold medalist and the oldest player on the team. “We wake up early. We train late. We sacrifice. We give up so much, and you want to win. Sometimes you win, and sometimes you don’t. It’s just heartbreaking, really.”

There were a couple of other notable losses during the sports year. Daniil Medvedev upset Djokovic in final of the U.S. Open, ending the Serbian’s quest to sweep tennis’ Grand Slam — a feat accomplished only by Rod Laver.

Hank Aaron, who faced down racism as he eclipsed Babe Ruth as baseball’s home run king, hitting 755 home runs and holding the most celebrated record in sports for more than 30 years, died. He was 86.

Then, there’s a victory that might turn into a loss.

The trainer Bob Baffert appeared to win a record seventh Kentucky Derby when Medina Spirit crossed the finish line first. A week later, it was revealed that the colt had tested positive for a prohibited corticosteroid. Medina Spirit died on Dec. 5 after an apparent heart attack following a workout at the Santa Anita Park racetrack in California.

Baffert has been barred from Churchill Downs and Derby for the next two years. That result has been contested in state and federal courts and will be for perhaps years to come. If the failed test is upheld, Medina Spirit will be disqualified and the second-place finisher Mandaloun will be declared the winner.

For the first time in its 61-year history, the European soccer championship was played on a continentwide basis. It, too, was delayed by a year. Big players competed before small crowds in 11 cities — some as far apart as Seville, Spain, near the southwest tip of the Iberian Peninsula, and Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, nestled on the Caspian Sea.

Italy beat England in a penalty shootout to win the championship, dashing England’s hopes of winning its first major title since the 1966 World Cup. The shootout was a dramatic conclusion to a gripping day at London’s Wembley Stadium. It was redemption for an Italian team that was humiliated four years ago when it failed to qualify for the World Cup.

International athletes captured some significant American titles. Hideki Matsuyama won the Masters, becoming the first Asian-born man to do so. When asked if he was now the greatest in Japanese history, Matsuyama demurred.

“I cannot say that I am the greatest,” he answered through an interpreter. “However, I’m the first to win a major, and if that’s the bar, then I set it.”

Jon Rahm of Spain won the U.S. Open and his first major tournament at Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego, sinking two birdies on the final two holes. He dedicated his win to a fellow countryman, Seve Ballesteros, who died in 2011. His victory came two weeks after he was forced to withdraw from the Memorial Tournament because of a positive Covid-19 test. At the time, he was in the clubhouse after the third round with a six-shot lead.

Rahm was philosophical about finding some good in the tenuous position the pandemic has put many of us in.

“I was never resentful for anything for any second, and I don’t blame anybody,” he said. “Unfortunately, Covid is a reality. We have lost a lot of people. People said it wasn’t fair, but it was what had to be done. And all of it led to this moment.”

And Giannis Antetokounmpo, nicknamed the Greek Freak, whose gentle ways have made him a folk hero in Milwaukee, led the Milwaukee Bucks to a N.B.A. championship. The 26-year-old Antetokounmpo was a jubilant winner who put his team’s victory into a hopeful perspective fitting for a world that has been disrupted by the pandemic.

“This should make every person, every kid, anybody around the world to believe in their dreams,” said a jubilant Antetokounmpo, who is also of Nigerian descent. “I hope I give people around the world from Africa, from Europe, give them hope that it can be done. Eight and a half years ago, before I came into the league, I didn’t know where my next meal would come from. My mom was selling stuff in the street.”