Sports — the finest ode to the determination of the human spirit that can surmount any challenge through equal part physical valour and mental ingenuity.
Yet, there comes a time when even the mighty human spirit has to humble itself and submit to forces greater than it — forces of nature or a grander design. A similar force impacted the world of sports in the year 2020, not just sports but all of humanity: the Covid-19 pandemic.
The virus affected modern civilization as we know it in every imaginable way possible and the sporting world did not escape unscathed. The year 2020 was thus a sombre one for sports in general, though that does not mean there were no achievements and successes which served as examples of hope and resilience amidst such trying times.
Here, Dawn.com looks back at some of the most impactful stories in sports in the year 2020 — the highest of highs, the lowest of lows and the plain strange.
The tragic passing of Kobe Bryant
The year started off on a tragic note as Kobe Bryant, one of NBA’s all-time greatest players whose international stardom transcended basketball, was killed in a tragic accident in January.
He died in a helicopter crash near Los Angeles along with his 13-year-old daughter and seven others on board.
The news came as a jolt to the sporting community and his fans worldwide who mourned his loss. Bryant first shot to fame as an 18-year-old rookie and played 20 years for the Los Angeles Lakers — 18 of them as an all-star — winning five NBA championships.
He was twice named MVP of the NBA Finals and was the All-Star Game MVP four times. Bryant played in 1,346 career games and retired as the third-leading scorer in NBA history with 33,643 points. This and much more comprised his list of laurels and accolades over the years.
Suffice to say, his passing is one which fans and the sporting community will continue to remember and his legacy as the 'Black Mamba' will live on forever.
Tokyo Olympics postponed to 2021
By March of this year, the Covid-19 pandemic was well underway and had "turned the world upside down" with lockdowns or severe restrictions in place in countries around the world.
Concerns had already started about the viability of the Olympics and if they would go ahead as planned this year. Amidst the uncertainty, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) dropped the bombshell and formally postponed the Olympics till the summer of 2021.
This was a historic decision as the Olympics have never before been postponed, and have only ever previously been cancelled in wartime.
The postponement is expected to cost $2.8 billion to the organisers. The extra costs will be shared by the Tokyo 2020 organising committee, Tokyo metropolitan government and the Japanese government.
The Olympics were not the only major sporting event impacted by the trying year that has been 2020. In another first, the prestigious Wimbledon tennis championships were also cancelled for the first time after World War Two. Meanwhile in the world of cricket, the Cricket Asia Cup 2020 was also postponed until next year.
Naomi Osaka defends the US Open
Wimbledon may have been cancelled but that did not stop athletes in the tennis world from making their mark on the sport, or giving it a new shine in the case of Naomi Osaka.
Osaka successfully defended her title at the US Open after losing the final's first set 1-6. But then her fierce competitive nature and conviction, which have won her fans off the court as well, kicked in and she pulled away to a 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 victory for her second US Open championship and third Grand Slam title overall.
With this title, Osaka's meteoric ascent as one of the most talented and leading voices in tennis' new generation continued. In 2020, the grace, composure and moral character she displayed in the face of the now infamous tantrum from Serena Williams during the 2019 US Open final also spilled over outside the court.
Her activism and committed stance for social justice won her the acclaim and respect of many.
During some matches in 2020, Osaka appeared on court with her left thigh strapped and a facemask with the name of a Black American victim of police brutality or racial injustice. For the US Open final, it was Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy shot by police in 2014 while playing with a toy gun in a playgound.
The dramatic disqualification of Novak Djokovic
In sports, victory or loss can often come down to a decision made in a split-second. Sometimes, that holds true outside the match as much as it does inside the match.
Naomi Osaka may have won her third Grand Slam title, but Novak Djokovic lost a chance at his 18th title in a moment of rage.
Djokovic was disqualified from the US Open in a bizarre episode in which he accidentally struck a female line judge with a ball in frustration during his last-16 match, sending shockwaves through the tournament.
Replays showed Djokovic appeared to be looking the other way when he pulled the ball from his pocket and smacked it in the direction of the official, the ball hitting her full toss in the throat. The action was an apparent sign of frustration by the player after losing his serve to go 6-5 down in the first set to Spain's 20th seed Pablo Carreno Busta inside Arthur Ashe Stadium.
The world number one apologised right away and went up to the woman after realising what had happened.
But the damage had been done and after 10 minutes of discussion with the tournament referee Soeren Friemel, the umpire declared that Busta had won by default.
Djokovic later posted an apology on Instagram, saying he was “so sorry”.
“This whole situation has left me really sad and empty,” he wrote, adding that “thank God” the woman was okay. “I'm extremely sorry to have caused her such stress. So unintended. So wrong,” Djokovic said
Nadal ties Federer at 20 Slams by winning 13th French Open
Disqualification and censure were not the only bitter pills Novak Djokovic had to swallow in 2020. The year was just not meant to be for his 18th Grand Slam title. Instead, another legend completed his ascent to the very top.
In October, Spain's Rafael Nadal demolished world number one Novak Djokovic 6-0 6-2 7-5 in the French Open final to claim a record-equalling 20th Grand Slam title.
With his record-improving 13th triumph at Roland Garros, world number two Nadal is tied with Swiss Roger Federer as the player with the most men's singles major titles.
Nadal, an example in humility, said that the thought of matching Federer's record had not even come to him.
“To win here means everything. I don’t think today about the 20th and equal Roger on this great number, today is just a Roland Garros victory and that means everything to me,” the world number two said.
Football bids farewell to the 'Hand of God'
Argentine football legend Diego Maradona, widely regarded as one of the game's greatest ever players, died of a heart attack this past November.
One of the most gifted football players in history, Maradona's pinnacle of glory came when he captained Argentina to win the World Cup in 1986. He was largely responsible for Argentina’s victory, scoring two famous goals in one game against England in the quarter-finals.
The first was a notorious goal scored with his fist, and the second, where he dribbled past half the England team, is often called “the goal of the century”. “It was partly by the hand of God and partly with the head of Maradona,” he said of his opener in the 2-1 win.
His death was mourned by football fans across the world and Brazilian football star Pele, the two considered the best football players in the world, mourned him by saying: "Certainly, one day we'll kick a ball together in the sky above."
His death was a sombre moment for sports fans everywhere, akin to saying farewell to a piece of history itself.
Liverpool wins first Premier League after 30 years
A story of redemption and long awaited glory was etched into history books as the year 2020 saw Liverpool end a 30-year wait for the English title, finally crowned as Premier League champions once more.
It was a jubilant, long-time coming moment for the team and its fans alike who celebrated despite the ongoing Covid-19 restrictions.
This win followed Liverpool's Champions League and Club World Cup victories last year, when they finished just a point behind Manchester City in the Premier League.
Hafeez soars to the top
The Pakistan cricket team may have disappointed in its three-match T20I series against New Zealand but Mohammad Hafeez bagged quite an achievement for himself and the nation.
Ending the year with a quick-fire 41 in the third T20 against the Black Caps, Hafeez overtook India's K. L. Rahul to become the highest run-scorer in calendar year 2020 in Twenty20 internationals.
In the same knock, Hafeez also became the joint-highest T20I run-getter for Pakistan ever. He and veteran all-rounder Shoaib Malik have both amassed 2,323 runs to date, but Malik reached the score in 115 matches, while Hafeez reached the same milestone in 99 matches.
Filled with gratitude over his remarkable figures, 40-year-old Hafeez, who is popularly known as ‘Professor’, tweeted: "Alhamdulillah. Allah is the best planner."
This achievement came as vindication for Hafeez after he was assailed by detractors earlier in the years with calls for his retirement from international cricket making the rounds.
What better way to silence critics than to end up as the leading run scorer of the year?
India register embarrassing record
Having defeated the Aussies for the first time ever in a Test series Down Under, much was expected of the Indian side during this visit to Australia.
But the beginning of the Test series turned out to be quite anti-climatic after the Indian side was run over by a high-class Aussie pace attack that dismissed the visitors for a paltry 36 – India's lowest ever innings total in 88 years of Test cricket — on the third day of the Adelaide Test.
India's previous Test low was 42 against England at Lord's in 1974. The Adelaide debacle also became the joint fourth lowest total of all time, with New Zealand's 26 facing England in 1955 at Auckland the worst ever.
The usually articulate Kohli was at a loss for words to describe the feeling after the demoralising eight-wicket defeat in the series opener.
“It's very hard to find words to express how everyone's feeling in the change room,” Kohli, who will miss the last three tests to attend the birth of his first child in India, said at the presentation ceremony.
“When you work hard for two days, you play some good cricket to get yourself in a good position, and then literally in an hour you put yourself in a position where it's impossible to win.
Karachi Kings win it all at PSL 2020
It's been five years to the inauguration of the Pakistan Super League (PSL) and each time, fans of Karachi Kings waited with bated breath, hoping that this year their team will bring the trophy home.
They say third time's the charm but in this case, the mantra of try and try again proved true as Karachi Kings were crowned the 2020 Pakistan Super League winners after beating Lahore Qalandars by five wickets — their first-ever title of the country's premier Twenty20 tournament.
The final — one of the most anticipated in PSL's short history given the friendly rivalry between the country's two biggest cities — was played after a gap of eight months after the PSL's fifth edition came to a halt due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The 'city of lights' was abuzz with celebration and cheer following news of the win with congratulatory messages coming in from all parts of the country.
President Arif Alvi too joined in, congratulating Karachi Kings on winning the title.
In a year that has brought all plans to a halt owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, the fact that PSL 2020 was successfully completed is a huge win for Pakistan.
As with seemingly everything in 2020 however, even the good was tinged with a tragic note. Former Australia batsman Dean Jones, who was also the head coach of Karachi Kings, died of a cardiac arrest in September, weeks before his team won the title.
The team gave him a tribute upon their victory and captain Babar Azam also paid homage to Jones.
A mother's request and a dutiful son
But perhaps there is one story from the world of sports this year that overshadowed every other. It is the story of the complete domination of one man over a sport, it is a story of humility, of family, of love, of principles.
MMA professional wrestler Khabib Nurmagomedov extended his glorious unbeaten run at UFC 254 after choking out Justin Gaethje in October. But in a shocking announcement during his post-fight interview, the 32-year-old world champion from Dagestan, Russia, announced in tears that he was retiring from the sport.
Some context here. This was much more than just a retirement match, this was Khabib's first match after his father, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, passed away in July from a heart problem exacerbated by Covid-19.
Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov was not just Khabib's father, he was his confidante, coach and closest friend. He was right there beside his son in every match, always in his corner to support him. His passing weighed heavily on Khabib and his mother urged him to reconsider his fight with Gaethje.
In an exemplary show of dutifulness and filial piety, Khabib promised his mother this would be his last match.
With the memory of his missing father and his promise to his mother on his mind, he stepped into the ring with his usual conviction and determination. He fulfilled his promise early into the second round after stopping Justin Gaethje with a triangle choke.
The undefeated Dagestani champion collapsed in the centre of the octagon and sobbed following his victory over Gaethje. On getting up, he took off his gloves and said: “This is my last fight in the UFC."
“There’s no way I’m going to be back without my father. I spoke to my mother. She don’t know how I fight without father, but I promised it’s going to be my last fight, and if I give my word, I have to follow it.”
This is his signature humility, grace and strength of character that has won him legions of adoring fans, particularly in the Muslim world.
Gaethje shared a moment of mutual respect with the dominant Russian champion after he regained consciousness.
“I know he was in a bad spot, but whether he was or not, he did what he needed to do,” Gaethje said. “I know his father is so proud.”
Khabib retired as one of the most dominant MMA fighters of all time with an unblemished 29-0 record.
Most would agree, he walked away with everything, and so much more.
Compiled by Syed Talal Ahsan.
Header illustration by Mushba Said.