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Yearender 2021: Covid-19 outbreak in IPL, Djokovic’s stance on vaccines, uncertainty during Tokyo Games, the Omicron variant


In sport, as in life, there are events within events. Moments that shape the moment of glory or moments that stay in the mind beyond the runs, wickets, goals and trophies. Moments that are more imperishable than numbers. As a breathless year of sport ends, with another restless sporting year to unfold, The Indian Express looks back at 2021.

Covid-19 breaches IPL’s water-tight bio-bubble

The BCCI was forced to postpone the IPL after multiple cases of Covid-19 among players and support staff emerged from Ahmedabad and New Delhi in what turned out to be the first leg of the tournament. Only 24 days of cricket was possible with 29 completed games before the virus halted proceedings. The second leg was moved to the UAE.

Season 14 had been held with India in the grip of a vicious second wave of the pandemic, with six host cities – New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru and Ahmedabad.

Sunrisers Hyderabad cricketer Wriddhiman Saha, Delhi Capitals’ Amit Mishra, Kolkata Knight Riders’ Varun Chakravarthy and Sandeep Warrier tested positive during the first leg. Chennai Super Kings bowling coach L Balaji and batting coach David Hussey also contracted the virus.

Rajasthan Royals’ Liam Livingstone and Andrew Tye, Royal Challengers’ Adam Zampa and Kane Richardson returned to their respective homes – in England and Australia – before the tournament got cancelled. Delhi Capitals’ Ravichandran Ashwin left the IPL to be with his family, many of whom had tested positive for Covid-19. Indian umpire Nitin Menon also returned home to Indore to attend to his parents, who had positive.

Djokovic’s rigid stance on vaccine

Long before the season could end, the suspense had started to build about Novak Djokovic’s participation at the year’s first Slam in 2022.

The World No 1 has so far declined to disclose whether he is vaccinated – a requirement for him to be allowed to enter Melbourne to defend his Australian Open crown.

Novak Djokovic, Davis Cup Final (Reuters)

Djokovic has won nine Grand Slam titles at the Rod Laver Arena, and shares the men’s singles record of 20 Major titles with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. The Australian Open in 2021 was delayed to February due to the pandemic.

Next year it starts on January 17, but if Djokovic does not agree to take the jab and reveal his status to authorities, he may be barred from defending his title next month.

However, tournament director Craig Tiley confirmed that a small number of players would receive medical exemptions, appearing to hint that Djokovic could be one.

“If Novak shows up at the Australian Open, he’ll either be vaccinated or he’ll have a medical exemption,” the Tennis Australia boss said.

Wimbledon returns

Amidst the raging pandemic, one of the biggest global sporting events to have been cancelled was the 2020 Wimbledon. The All England Club announced on April 1, 2020, that Wimbledon would be cancelled for the season making it the first time the event would not take place since the Second World War.

(Twitter/Wimbledon)

The oldest Grand Slam returned in 2021 with 50 percent capacity attendance at the outset and a full Centre Court of 15,000 allowed for the singles finals.

It was an event that saw Djokovic level Federer and Nadal’s men’s singles tally of 20 Majors after a 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 win over Matteo Berrettini. This was the Serbian’s third consecutive All England crown, and sixth Wimbledon title.

Australia’s Ash Barty won the women’s singles title, adding to her 2019 French Open title.

Uncertainties during the Tokyo Olympics

The stands and arenas in Tokyo were remarkably empty while lifelong dreams of gold unfolded, as athletes created history in the Olympics and the Paralympics earlier this year. The events – originally slated for 2020 – had been postponed by a year owing to the pandemic.

(Reuters)

But even as the events kicked off in July, the uncertainty stayed as over 300 cases linked to the Olympics were reported since July 1. The Games eventually went off smoothly, but Japan, the host nation, witness a large number of positive cases. Not just athletes, but Japanese nationals – contractors, workers, employees who served during the mega event.

According to the Ministry of Health, more than 12,000 new cases were recorded in the first week of August.

Brazil hosting Copa America amid raging pandemic

Brazil’s Supreme Court sparked outrage after approving plans to host Copa America in the Covid-stricken country. The marquee continental tournament was originally due to be co-hosted by Colombia and Argentina, but their struggles with deadly street protests and coronavirus ended those plans.

(AP Photo/Bruna Prado)

In a virtual session, 11 justices in Brazil decided against the complainants who argued that the South American Championship presented an unacceptable health risk.

Different countries, different restrictions during Euro 2020

Euro 2020 was spread from Bilbao to St Petersburg, Dublin to Baku, binding diverse cultures and climates, ideals and ideologies. For the first time in sporting history, a multi-team international event would be hosted in more than three countries – the 11 host nations traversed the length and breadth of Europe.

Protocols and restrictions regarding crowd capacity however, were different in every country. The Puskas Arena in Budapest witnessed nearly 60,000 fans for the opener between Portugal and hosts Hungary. The logic of allowing full capacity was Hungary’s rapid rollout of the vaccine. In conversation with AFP, epidemiologist Antoine Flahault said, “If we want to spread the Delta variant around Europe then this is the way to do it.”

The games scheduled in London and Saint Petersburg were specifically worrying because of the outbreak of the Delta variant over there. Flahault said that the matches at Wembley Stadium in London should have been moved elsewhere, but his advice was ignored.

On July 1, WHO claimed that across Europe, the new coronavirus cases had risen by 10 percent after a week of steady decline.

Neeraj Chopra’s great escape to glory

Neeraj Chopra’s javelin gave the country its first-ever track and field medal at the Olympics, a gold. But to win that medal, he had his shares of troubles.

He had a restless wait at the national camp in Patiala as the clock ticked down to the Olympics. With countries not allowing flights from India during the second wave of the pandemic, Chopra could only watch as competitions began in parts of Europe. Being stuck in a constant cycle of training during peak summer at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala eventually got to the youngster.

Neeraj Chopra (Neeraj Chopra/Instagram)

In mid-May during an online press interaction, Chopra expressed his frustration.

“It is very difficult to train in such heat. Even if you just stand on the ground for five minutes, it is next to impossible (to train). Now it is hot and in June, it is going to get much hotter. It is going to be very hard to train,” Chopra said.

“It is getting difficult because along with training, I need competition. Most of 2019, I missed because of injury and in 2020 and 2021, nothing has happened because of Covid. How long will one be patient? Now in 2021, the other athletes abroad are competing but we have not been able to.”

After weeks and months of trying, Neeraj Chopra finally got the visa to France, where he trained before the Olympics.

Omicron — the new variant

As 2021 ends, a new Covid variant has been sweeping through countries disrupting the calendars of major sporting events.

As a part of the English Premier League’s Boxing Day program, Leeds was due to travel to Liverpool and Watford was to play at Wolverhampton. However, both matches were cancelled and the league has now called off 12 matches because of the fresh coronavirus cases being reported. In addition, six of the 10 matches on Sunday in the second-tier Championship were also postponed.

In Britain, the Omicron variant has become dominant and the country has seen a 60% surge in new cases in barely a week. The Leeds training ground has been closed to contain the spread of coronavirus. Five new positive cases were reported among the staff and the squad on December 23.





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