Forget the dismal Ashes and Euros heartbreak – 2021 was an epic year for sport & new heroes like Emma Raducanu were born

ON your marks.

At the end of 2020 we’d been in our starting blocks ready for sport to get going again properly for almost a year.

Get set.

Oh, we were set alright. Dead set and bursting to get on with the sports we’d loved all our lives before this wretched plague ruined everything. And then, finally…


The starting gun fired and, like corks out of bottles, greyhounds out of a trap or bats out of hell, sport exploded into life.

What a year of sport it’s been, and what a pleasure it is to look back on it.

But before we go back to the start of the sporting year, let’s get the end of it out the way, shall we?

We got stuffed in The Ashes and Covid’s making a mess of things again.
There, it’s done.

So, where to begin?

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How about the Six Nations rugby? England were nowhere but it all finished rather wonderfully with Scotland beating France in the last minute to see Wales through to the final.

Nicely done, sport mirroring politics with the French ending up thoroughly fed up with all of us across the Channel. Never a bad thing.

Women making history

The true mark of a massive sporting moment is how much attention it commands outside sport.

This doesn’t happen very often, but 2021 has seen it happen not once but three times: in motor racing we had the thrilling winner-takes-all shoot-out in the season’s last Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi.

In tennis, for the first time since they used wooden rackets, a British woman won a grand slam tournament.

And in horse racing, a sport with a less-than-proud record in the misogyny stakes, Rachael Blackmore drove a coach and horses (sorry) right through the record books.

I mean, if I’d just achieved the distinction of being leading jockey at the Cheltenham festival, I’d have been inclined to put my hooves up while I rested on my laurels for a while.

In tennis, for the first time since they used wooden rackets, a British woman won a grand slam tournament

But Rachael, the first woman ever to be accorded that title, had other ideas.

The following month there was the small matter of a ride in the Grand National, a race no female rider had won in its 182-year history.

It wasn’t even close. Having hopped aboard Minella Times, they went off as fourth favourites at 11/1 and passed the post 6½ lengths ahead of the runner-up.

All in all, with the Cheltenham and The National, she hadn’t just found a hole in the glass ceiling to wriggle though – she’d smashed it to pieces.

Not that she saw it in those terms, seeming merely to consider herself a great jockey who happened to be a woman. End of.

As she put it to the media afterwards, having been asked about how it felt to be the first female winner of The National, she said, "I don't feel male or female right now. I don't even feel human…. It's unbelievable." God love her.

Emma Raducanu was another woman who made her way into the record books at, well, a canter in the end.

Most of us first came across her at Wimbledon when this relative unknown, only
competing by virtue of a wildcard entry, proceeded to the fourth round.

At 18, she was the youngest woman to have reached the last 16 in more than half a century.

Sadly, she had to retire from that match after experiencing breathing difficulties and sickness.

Eminent commentators, mainly blokes, opined that it might have got all too much for her, wondering aloud if she could handle the pressure.

Marcus Rashford, not for the first time, showed his elders how it should be done.

He tweeted Emma: “It happened to me playing for the national team in U16s against Wales. I remember it to this day. No explanation for it and it never happened again. You should be very proud of yourself. The country is proud of you. Glad to read you’re feeling better. Onwards and upwards.”

Marcus Rashford, not for the first time, showed his elders how it should be done

Awesome Emma went further onwards and upwards than even Marcus could have imagined, winning the actual US Open without dropping an actual set.

She took the title with an ease that left us feeling almost cheated. This isn’t the British way after all: if we do win something, it rarely happens without us coming through a collective nervous breakdown on the way to victory.

This time we, unlike Emma, barely broke a sweat.

Hamilton's near miss

Lewis Hamilton’s been cruising his way to Formula One titles for many years now.

This time round, he didn’t have it his own way for a change, going bumper to bumper, wing to wing, with Max Verstappen for one whole brilliant season.

Worthy a champion as the Dutchman is, it says something about our man Lewis that no-one watching considered his defeat to be down to anything other than Formula One’s barking mad rules.

Have a re-think lads, will you?

Football highs and lows

And so to the football. Before we get onto the Euros, it was no small thing that we had two of our teams, Chelsea and Man City, in the Champions League final.

Chelsea won, which might be no bad thing for City in that it leaves their fans with something in life left to aim for now they’ve won just about everything apart from the Champions League.

As for the Euros, the Welsh did themselves proud, and the Scottish invasion of London passed off congenially enough with honours shared at Wembley.

England were brilliant until, with staggering unoriginality, they broke our hearts by losing a penalty shoot-out. Again.

But we must not allow that calamity sully the memories of all that had come before.

The wins against Germany and Denmark; the sound of cheers ringing out on every street around the country. The sound of a festival of football in full flow.

Like all great dramas, sporting and otherwise, the best of us and the worst of us were both in evidence. The racist abuse of our black players was revolting, but the backlash against it was something to behold.

The support for the team was otherwise heart-warmingly magnificent. Yet, come the final, the scenes on Wembley Way, and elsewhere, left most of us shaking our heads in shame.

Hard though it is to unsee the sight of a flabby English bottom with a burning flare inserted into it, we must banish that image.

I find the best of doing so is to luxuriate instead in memories of the sublime talent of a floppy-haired Brummie called Jack; the intelligence and decency of Gareth Southgate and the sound of Sweet Caroline being belted out everywhere.

New heroes

We were all emotionally spent, but there was more to come. The Olympics looked like it would be a Covid-hit irrelevance, but from the moment the cauldron was lit in Tokyo our sporting passions caught fire again.

When I was a kid, celebrating Great Britain’s glories at the Olympics wouldn’t have taken very long at all. Now it’s a dubious kind of pleasure to not have enough space to mention all our heroes’ names. I mean, where on earth are you supposed to start?

People we’d never heard of in sports we knew precious little about got us out of our seats. BMX is a great example.

Charlotte Worthington won a brilliant gold in the freestyle. Beth Shriever took gold in the racing and also helped deliver one of the most enduring images of the games when her silver-medal winning teammate Kye Whyte scooped her up in his arms.

Jason Kenny became the first Brit to win seven Olympic gold medals in defending his men's keirin title in an incredible final.

And his no-less-legendary wife Laura Kenny became the first British woman to take home golds from three separate Games.

Sarah Storey became Great Britain's most successful Paralympian of all time by winning her 17th gold medal, this time in the women's C4-5 road race.

It’s a dubious kind of pleasure to not have enough space to mention all our heroes’ names. I mean, where on earth are you supposed to start?

Adam Peaty in the pool, like these cyclists, was a legend already. Three more Olympic golds, generally bagged by a distance, keep him right up there. Another kettle of fish – pardon the pun – was Tom Daley.

Household name though he was, an Olympic gold had always eluded him. Now, in his fourth Olympic games, it came.

With Matty Lee in the synchronised 10m platform his victory reminded us all how much we cared that he should finally get that winner’s medal around his neck.

The list of golds goes on, Wales’s Lauren Price wonderful in the boxing; Max Whitlock on the pommel horse and I loved watching the mixed relays, especially the golds we won in these events in swimming and the triathlon.

Roll on Paris in 2024. Team GB will be ready to rumble again.

Boxing glory

And speaking of a rumble, you almost feel sorry for Tyson Fury.

He lacks for nothing as a boxer, and what an achievement to knock out Deontay Wilder to win the world heavyweight title.

But his timing was poor: in any other year his triumph would have been one of British sport’s crowning moments.

I’m sure he won’t mind sharing the limelight as just one of the stars who’ve shone so brightly in what’s been a glorious year of sport.

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