After a year of sporting famine, get ready for a high summer feast in 2021

Johnny Watterson looks at the year ahead as sport, like life, tries to get back to normal

The Lions will face world champions South Africa in three Tests on their tour next summer. Photograph:  Duif du Toit/Gallo Images/Getty Images

The Lions will face world champions South Africa in three Tests on their tour next summer. Photograph: Duif du Toit/Gallo Images/Getty Images

 

Ghosting through the year like a slow-moving glacier before calving a sanitised form of soccer, rugby and GAA, sport leaves 2020 for a vaccinated 2021 and very much pulsing like the hyper-energetic teen after a slammer session of Red Bull.

This year’s aspiration for things not to be weirder than last year still has an element of tremulous uncertainty about the when and the how of some events and more promised lockdowns. But the shining star on top of the 12-month decked-out Christmas tree is the July Olympic Games, an event that has set itself as a barometer for the health of the planet and is already positioning to make a global Olympic family statement on humanity’s ability to lick any bug sneezed in its direction.

A rescheduled Olympics but the Grand Magi of the IOC will not let this year pass without reflecting on their brilliance of making it happen in Tokyo. Stay braced for bold mankind-themed claims of strength and unity in a world that politically and bodily has been breaking.

Strike that. The warm-up act has already started. IOC president Thomas Bach has already promised an altered outlook. “Humankind currently finds itself in a dark tunnel. These Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 can be a light at the end of this tunnel,” said Bach. Let the Mind Games begin.

For many sports there is catch-up from the lost year of 2020 and there are themes bursting out as last year’s remaindered events are shoehorned into next year. The Olympics reschedule precipitated the World Athletics Championships, which responded to the news by immediately confirming it planned to move the 2021 event in Eugene, Oregon by a year.

Thomas Bach, International Olympic Committee president: “Humankind currently finds itself in a dark tunnel. These Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 can be a light at the end of this tunnel.” Photograph: Behrouz Mehri-Pool/Getty Images
Thomas Bach, International Olympic Committee president: “Humankind currently finds itself in a dark tunnel. These Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 can be a light at the end of this tunnel.” Photograph: Behrouz Mehri-Pool/Getty Images

Some themes are new, others are old ones gathering momentum and others still annual mini-dramas from Roger Federer and Serena Williams’s re-engagement with their greatest opponent: time, to Rory McIlroy’s quest for the Masters’ green jacket and grand slam of Majors, now inflating with each year towards Holy Grail status. That can only mean calamity or veneration.

No champagne football or mortgage applications to follow the Boys in Green and shoeless John Delaney befriending nations across the continent of Europe.

There is Andy Farrell shaping an Irish rugby team in his image and already looking warily at questioning media coverage and an autumn series to pick through. The carried-over month of European Championships from 2020 to June and July 2021 will be Ireland-free. So, no champagne football or mortgage applications to follow the Boys in Green and shoeless John Delaney befriending nations across the continent of Europe.

In the good old days we always had a sideshow. But 2021 will harbour no demands for an extra Euro place for Ireland. Imagine. With his practiced cry of foul play after the Thierry Henry handball, Delaney could have pressed forward Trump-style, burning down every institution to convince a bewildered Michel Platini that if ‘Swing Players’ Jack Grealish and Declan Rice didn’t stuff their names in the England ballot box we would have MASSIVELY qualified.

Slapstick stuff

The flare of illusion, that has all gone. That will not be part of the 2021 playbook. Pat Hickey too. Remember Rio 2016 and Shane Ross and the tickets and then Hickey and Ross going at it. Alas, Delaney and Ross, unlike Federer and Serena, surrendered to 2020 and time, while Hickey, still waiting for an IOC ethics report to exonerate him, hasn’t resurrected himself after the Rio skirmish. What we lost. Really. Some of the slapstick stuff. Some of it can just never be replaced.

How quickly the failures of 2020 re-emerge as the promise of 2021 and Portugal, Serbia, Luxembourg, and Azerbaijan for the 2022 World Cup qualifiers. With 10 matches, two of them friendlies against hosts Qatar, sweeping from March to November, we might just forget the emptiness in our hearts for the Euros and their constant reminder that we weren’t quite good enough.

But for the quick sporting fix, addicts don’t have to grow weary for the first big ticket item of the year and it’s not the World Darts Championship from London minus the October beerfest supporting cast.

Cue a fulminating Barry Hearn wondering why “’iz boy Eddie” could stage a bull’s-eye world title fight in the Wembley Arena two weeks ago with Anthony Joshua and 1,000 fans and he can’t bring anybody in to listen to the arrows thump into treble 20 at the Ally Pally.

The more svelte Australian Open tennis, beginning in February instead of the usual January slot, is still too early to save Federer, having conceded that his recovery from a knee injury is taking longer than expected.

Roger Federer: The 20-times Grand Slam champion, who turns 40 in August, is battling a knee injury and is likely to miss the Australian Open in February. Photograph: Morgan Hancock/Getty Images
Roger Federer: The 20-times Grand Slam champion, who turns 40 in August, is battling a knee injury and is likely to miss the Australian Open in February. Photograph: Morgan Hancock/Getty Images

The 20-times Grand Slam champion, who turns 40 in August, has not played since being injured en route to the semi-finals at Melbourne Park earlier this year. Is this his year to disappear, or can tennis also have a Tom Brady?

Williams continues to chase her 24th Major to equal Margaret Court’s Grand Slam record. But the American has failed to win a Grand Slam title for three consecutive seasons for the first time in her career. With the temperatures steadily rising as Wimbledon in July and her home event at the US Open in August approaching, Australia might be her trump hand.

How sweet would 2021 be for a black woman to equal the record of an ageing white woman stuck in a mindset and condemned for her racist and homophobic remarks. Bah, tennis in February has a weirdness to it as we freeze and they swelter.

Bracing weather at home for the Six Nations Championship and a kind of reckoning for Farrell. Reshaping the team working towards a World Cup but if the results don’t flow in the spring, the court of public opinion will.

The worst Ireland can be is two or three defeats but with a visible sign of progress for a knowledgeable fan base, who have always believed their SCT genetic material had coded enough rugby mRNA for them to know as much about the game as a professional coach. Sure weren’t we all in Leo Cullen’s class.

Wizard pairing

The Lions Tour, a nine-match epic with three Test matches against South Africa spanning June, July and August, is what it says on the pack, the greatest touring rugby team in the world. But let’s pause for a moment.

Does it have the otherness of those early grainy tours of 1971 or the Tom Kiernan-led safari of 1968 and further back, when journeys to Australia or South Africa were almost Shackleton-esque.

By then we’ll know if McIlroy has been anointed. The Masters faithfully returns to its high stimpmeter April slot allowing the golfing elite to fondly reminisce over the receptive Augusta greens and rain falling like stair rods in November, the only heat emanating from the embarrassed faces of millionaire members and Dustin Johnson trashing the course and ballooning out to 20-under with Rory’s team again forgetting to remind him that the first round counts too.

With Shane Lowry defending his British Open title at Royal St George’s, his is also a continuing journey of self-discovery and realisation. One hit wonder. Not. The affable bearded one will also team up with Wee Mac after the Open in a wizard pairing for the Olympics. There is nothing in the 2021 sporting calendar, or any that went before, that is hotter than July.

Shane Lowry: will be looking to repeat his historic victory in Portrush when he defends his British Open crown in July at Royal St George’s in Kent. Photograph: Luke Walker/Getty Images
Shane Lowry: will be looking to repeat his historic victory in Portrush when he defends his British Open crown in July at Royal St George’s in Kent. Photograph: Luke Walker/Getty Images

The totally blinged out high summer month has Wimbledon tennis, two golf Majors, the British Open and women’s Evian Championship , where Stephanie Meadows and Leona Maguire are on a trajectory to play, and not forgetting the Mount Juliet Irish Open, cycling and the Tour de France, two Lions Test matches in rugby, the quarter-finals and London semi-finals and final of the soccer Euros as well as the football and hurling All-Ireland finals in GAA. And the Olympic smorgasbord begins on the 23rd.

Irish input for Tokyo has yet to be decided across sports including boxing where just one Irish athlete, Brendan Irvine, has qualified. They are way, way behind. A resumption of this year’s abandoned midstream qualifiers will return to the scene of the original crime in April in London, where lightweight Kellie Harrington will eye a lightweight spot.

Rhys McClenaghan: the gymnast is one of Ireland’s brightest prospects for a medal in the Olympics in Tokyo. (Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Rhys McClenaghan: the gymnast is one of Ireland’s brightest prospects for a medal in the Olympics in Tokyo. (Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Annalise Murphy in sailing, rowing’s Sanita Puspure and Skibbereen’s flying columns, particularly their lightweight rowing pair, Rhys McClenahan a whirligig on the Pommel Horse, taekwondo and the latex-limbed rubber man Jack Woolley, a full blown Irish equestrian team and the first ever Irish women’s hockey team are pre-tournament favourites to capture attention and maybe medals.

But the theme of last year in boxing, where Katie Taylor defended her undisputed world champion lightweight titles triumphantly carries into 2021. There are half a dozen trilling voices promising to curb her 17-0 run of wins and with an improving Covid climate doubling last year’s two fights to four this year isn’t an unreasonable expectation. There’s a lot of running in Katie yet.

Radio silence

Running too into the new year is the conversation surrounding Daniel Kinahan and MTK Global. Boxing has always been questioned about the nature of the sport and those who run it. But it has often been in the abstract.

Dubliner Kinahan, whose influence reaches to the highest level, is not a cartoon villain like Don King was but a more tangible individual and with a street level familiarity with Irish fans. The damage done to people in Dublin is personal. It lives with them and is a point of separation.

How that evolves in the coming months with heavyweight champion Tyson Fury, a vocal Kinahan fan and prone to say what comes into his mind, makes for a compelling running narrative.

It’s not a level playing field and I would say it’s the number one problem in Irish racing

So too and in a different way entirely, Irish horseracing. Surreptitious, reticent? Not Jim Bolger, who will depart the year having bequeathed the sport and 2021 with a question on drug abuse needing an urgent answer. But so far nothing but radio silence.

Irish racing so cool as to be refrigerated about his claims, a heavy suspicion is that the Irish Horse Racing Board (IRHB) are using the Queen’s Gambit, or is it the Argentinean Pablo Matera defence. Racist tweets, doping horses? Heads down. Eyes down. Lock down.

The 36 words from one of the world’s top trainers – “It’s not a level playing field and I would say it’s the number one problem in Irish racing. I have knowledge of problems and I would like to see the IHRB stepping up to the plate” – should, like Matera, decant into 2021.

Without action, and the signs are not promising, the first of the Group One races at the Curragh in May, the Irish 1,000 and 2,000 Guineas and the Tattersalls Gold Cup, could end up being tarnished.

Sam Bennett wearing the best sprinter’s green jersey in Paris last September. He will be looking to win more stage victories in the major tours in 2021. Photograph: Thibault Camus/AFP/Getty
Sam Bennett wearing the best sprinter’s green jersey in Paris last September. He will be looking to win more stage victories in the major tours in 2021. Photograph: Thibault Camus/AFP/Getty

For the GAA, next year will be like this one and full of urgent nimble thinking and decisive action. The historians can parse the calendar curiosity that says Dublin’s six-in-a-row win over Mayo in the football and Limerick’s dominant display in the win over Waterford in the hurling will be, give or take, be just seven months from the next senior finals in July.

Dublin’s drive for seven-in-a-row should coax out the conquer by divide theorists who want to split the county on the basis they are winning too often. But the regrouping of the challenging counties for a fresh cut at the Dubs in such a short time frame will be unique to 2021, Dessie Farrell included.

The GAA season is on course to open in late February with the return of the intercounty leagues, decisions which still need to be approved by the management committee and Central Council. The drive towards GAA normality and making up the €35 million lost to this year is the financial exposure storyline running though almost every sport.

Green ripple

If 2021 volunteers to be anything, it’s about stability and renewal. It’s about breaking out again and the springing of hope and ambition between the white lines or in the water or Sam Bennett on his bike in another of the Classics.

Bennett can again be the shimmering green ripple in the Belgian Quick-Step team and among the professional ranks with more stage wins in the Grand Tours something of a promise. Also requiring attention are Nicolas Roche and Dan Martin and the less-trumpeted former Wesley College student Lara Gillespie. The Dubliner has become a real bundle of teenage talent and first in this year’s European Junior Track Championships. Already catching eyes.

With cycling too there has had to be some shuffling of the deck. With the Olympics being held from July 23rd to August 8th, the dates of several events have been adapted. To avoid an overlapping of the Olympic road cycling races (July 24th-28th) with the Tour de France (initially envisaged for July 2nd-25th), the Tour will finish on July 18th, the weekend before the first weekend of the Olympics.

Like many sports they have thrown down the jumpers where they can or on what they have been given and it’s play away lads. Spain’s Vuelta will be held a week earlier than its usual dates, to allow for a better transition between it and the European Championships (announced for the weekend of September 11th-12th) and the UCI Road World Championships.

Ireland fans in Lille, France in 2016. The European Championships will be without followers of the Boys in Green this time around. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Ireland fans in Lille, France in 2016. The European Championships will be without followers of the Boys in Green this time around. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

In all things wheels, there is no real Irish input in the driving side of F1, although the sound of Mick Schumacher might do it for some. The 21-year-old son of seven-time world champion Michael senior, has signed with the American Haas team on a multi-year deal.

You have got to believe that the DNA is in there while also knowing F1 is all about the car. Either way it kicks off in Australia on March 18th reaching a European track near you on May 6th in Spain. World champion Lewis Hamilton and his Mercedes, who equalled Schumacher’s record, are again expected to be the 2021 driver sucking diesel. Respect, Hamilton is not averse to taking a knee on the grid as the Black Lives Matter continues to stay relevant.

Golf’s new pathway is through the doglegs, over the trees and driving the greens

In golf they will look to Bryson DeChambeau and 2021 as a year of decision, or not, for taking the muscle out of his mileage. Okay yardage, although 428 of them in one drive at the Travelers Championship is about a quarter of a mile. Golf’s new pathway is through the doglegs, over the trees and driving the greens. In the business of making courses obsolete, next year’s question is whether DeChambeau is leading golf up the garden path.

The lack of crowds especially in the opening months will remove home advantages and a seasonal change is expected to take place as spring becomes summer then autumn. Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s prediction is that it will be the autumn at least before sporting events can be held again in Ireland with crowds in attendance.

Head injury

But Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin says he is optimistic that the Euro 2020 finals can be played with fans in stadiums across Europe in June. Maybe too the Champions League final to be played at the Atatürk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul at the end of May. Public health and politics colliding. If Liverpool hang in they might allow themselves dream of a swollen Kop in the latter stages of the competition.

Promoter Eddie Hearn has shown how to outsmart the pandemic with his back garden in Essex a safe place for all except perhaps the two boxers in the ring. Innovation, a buzz word while the world adjusts, will also become more central as 2021 and legal wrangles over concussion move in rugby with London -based Ryland’s Law promising Irish names to follow from their base of over 100 former players. Watch soccer take heed as nasty head injury claims turn nastier.

Sport for the next 12 months may struggle and adjust but also track and reaffirm what people need to hear about a healing process of which nobody dreamed they would be part. Sport in 2021 will be the canary in the coal mine. When it’s singing loudly people know they are on a safe track and moving in the right direction.

Where there are crowds, people will take encouragement. That is sport’s embrace. That’s the arm around the shoulder saying everything is okay again from Paul O’Donovan rowing a gut buster on his own on the Ilen river in west Cork to a packed Wembley for the Euro finals to the IOC hipsters – break dancing for France 2024 – who will use the Olympics to preen like a micro-thonged Schwarzenegger in a Mr Universe pose down. Next year allow them that.

All of those things are sport, the medals, the cheating, the disappointments, the characters, the politics, the fans and lack of fans, the athletes and the issues. In 2020 we needed them. In 2021 even more.

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