In a year in which Covid-19 caused more than 1.7 million deaths worldwide, sports competitions took place amid much debate over their necessity and the wisdom of their proceeding during a global health crisis. Did any good come from them?
As these personal stories from the New York Times staff and contributors attest, in small ways and momentous ones, sports in 2020 offered some perfectly timed reminders of what it means to be human right now.
When LeBron brought the Champagne celebration
It was nearing 11 p.m. on Oct. 11, the final night of the N.B.A.’s extended residence at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla., when I joined a small group of reporters outside the Los Angeles Lakers’ locker room.
The Lakers had just defeated the Miami Heat to win another N.B.A. championship — the franchise’s 17th — but it was their first with LeBron James as the team’s centerpiece, and there was no question that this particular title run was unique for other reasons.
The league had spent about four months playing out the remainder of the 2019-20 season inside its celebrated bubble at the theme park. After four months of isolation, daily coronavirus testing and games in empty arenas, the Lakers emerged triumphant.
Outside the locker room on that final night, we could hear the sounds of celebration coming from within — music and singing and cheers. After a few minutes, James appeared. Wearing goggles to go with his commemorative T-shirt and hat, he brandished a bottle of Champagne that he proceeded to spray on the reporters in his immediate vicinity. Since he could not share his excitement with any fans, it seemed he had to settle for doing it with us.
— SCOTT CACCIOLA
When a wrong turn gave us hope
As a dabbler in the sport of triathlon, I know full well that lots of unexpected things happen on the swim-bike-run course. The waves in the swim choppier than advertised. Hills steeper than what you trained for. Never enough water stations on the run.
And, of course, the wrong turn.
So I could certainly relate to the British triathlete James Teagle, who veered off course in the final moments of the Santander Triathlon in Spain in September.
He was poised to claim third place, and then he wasn’t. The Spanish triathlete Diego Mentrida overtook him. And then he didn’t.
Right at the finish line, true sport happened. Mentrida looked back and paused. In my imagination, he looked back on the whole dreadful year and decided: “Enough. Can we not have a good thing?” And then he did a good thing and let Teagle step past him, for the third-place spot.
Later Mentrida said he was just being a good sport.
“This is something my parents and my club taught me since I was a child,” Mentrida wrote on Instagram. “In my view it should be a normal thing to do.”
But that little bit of normal, in a year full of the abnormal, reminded me and others that, yes humanity, we can and will get back on course.
— RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD
When U.S. Open tennis players became fans
The United States Open Tennis Championships were among the first major international sports events held in the United States after the start of the pandemic. There were no paying spectators, but there were fans.
Whenever a firecracker of a match broke out at Arthur Ashe Stadium, or even on one of the field courts during the first week, other players began to appear in the stands.
Sometimes they cheered on their countrymen. Sometimes Novak Djokovic, or Dominic Thiem, or Sofia Kenin, or Naomi Osaka, would emerge from a luxury suite to catch a few games of Serena Williams grinding once more. Kenin, in particular, seemed to watch for hours and hours, match after match.
— MATTHEW A. FUTTERMAN
When sled dogs raced … home
It was a story about the pandemic. It was a story about an antique airplane. And inevitably, it was a story about dogs.
Thomas Waerner of Norway won the nearly 1,000-mile Iditarod sled dog race in Alaska in March. But his odyssey was just beginning, as travel became increasingly complicated because of the worldwide spread of the coronavirus. Because of border security rules and flight cancellations, especially for cargo planes, Waerner realized: “I can get home, but I can’t get home with my dogs. And I won’t leave them.”
After two months of being stuck in Alaska, he found a novel solution. He learned of an aerospace museum in Norway that hoped to obtain an old plane from an air cargo company based in Alaska. Waerner’s sponsors would chip in to help fund the journey, but only if Waerner and his 16 dogs could hitch a ride in a 1960s-era DC-6B airplane. Their 20-hour flight in the unpressurized, noisy cabin led to a nine-hour drive back home.
“It’s the same as for me and you,” Waerner said of his dogs’ homecoming. “It’s nice for them to be in their own bed.”
— VICTOR MATHER
When Michael Jordan took that personally
The perfectly timed release of “The Last Dance” in late March — right as we entered lockdown — was lifesaving. I watched it more than once and laughed and cried. Being transported to those heady Three-peat days — and that wild-hearted Bulls starting roster — reminded me of my ’90s Chicagoland childhood, and kept the reality of the outside world at bay.
— VALERY UPSON
Dennis Rodman in the MJ doc 🙂
Seeing how Rodman could get up to all his shenanigans — that bender in Vegas — without anyone knowing where he was? Definitely a highlight. And one that would be totally impossible today. Maybe everything but M.J. was my favorite part. He didn’t exactly change anyone’s opinion; he just sort of solidified it.
— NATHAN REESE
When synchronized swimmers trained Covid-free
The U.S.A. Artistic Swimming National Team, which in March will compete for a spot at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, spent 76 days training virtually at the beginning of the pandemic.
The swimmers returned to in-person training on June 17 and have spent the past six months training eight hours a day, six days a week. They do not operate in a bubble, and they train in proximity to one another, both on land and in the water. But they have not had a single coronavirus case in those six months, according to Adam Andrasko of U.S.A. Artistic Swimming.
U.S.A. Artistic Swimming has not qualified to send a team, which does a routine with up to eight swimmers, to the Olympics since 2008. It sent only duets in 2012 and 2016, but hopes to send both a team and a duet to Tokyo next summer.
— GILLIAN A. BRASSIL
When the N.F.L. almost went full Vegas
I was in awe of the potential for chaos from the moment I heard about it: The 2020 N.F.L. draft would be set in the fountain of a Las Vegas hotel. Drafted players would be shuttled to a huge, water-locked stage in boats. What could go wrong?
A lot of things.
Moments of drama like these help me, a person who doesn’t watch sports, understand what draws others to the spectacle. Beyond the extreme violence, spectacle has always been a part of the N.F.L. — an element of professional sports that those of us who don’t know what those yellow football flags mean can latch on to. Here is to a lost cultural flash point for those of us who look at sports culture from afar, occasionally peeking in when the noise is loud enough.
And here is to the many, many lost memes, perhaps the biggest casualty of them all.
— JAMAL JORDAN
When Oskar Lindblom returned to the ice
The roar of the crowd was artificial, but the emotion was real when Philadelphia Flyers forward Oskar Lindblom returned to the ice in September after nearly a year spent battling a rare cancer.
Lindblom, 24, learned in November 2019 that he had Ewing’s sarcoma and was ruled out for the season. But the pause across sports, due to the coronavirus pandemic, allowed him to return for the final portion of the season. He had completed his treatments during the suspension of play.
While noise was piped into the fan-less arena in Toronto during the N.H.L. postseason, the officials on the ice applauded and the players — including the opposing Islanders — tapped their sticks in appreciation of Lindblom’s journey back for Game 6 of the second round.
“He’s a true warrior. I know our team supported him every step along the way,” Philadelphia center Kevin Hayes said. “Just to see him in the locker room before we went on the ice was something special.”
— ANDREW KNOLL
When Hayley Wickenheiser challenged the I.O.C.
Hayley Wickenheiser, a four-time Olympic gold medalist in hockey for Canada, was an emergency-room physician in training last March. She could see the distress on doctors’ and nurses’ faces doing her rotation through hospitals. As a member of the International Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission, Wickhenheiser had to make a choice: Sit in silence as plans for the Summer Olympics continued or speak up about the pandemic’s ravages in order to protect athletes.
The country’s most decorated hockey player opted to discourage Team Canada from going through with Olympic participation as planned.
“This crisis is bigger than even the Olympics,” Wickenheiser wrote on Twitter on March 17. “I think the IOC insisting this will move ahead, with such conviction, is insensitive and irresponsible given the state of humanity.”
Wickenheiser had several conversations with the Canadian Olympic Committee, which announced five days after her post that it would not send the country’s athletes to Tokyo in 2020 and pressed the I.O.C. toward its eventual decision: postponing the Games to the following summer.
— CURTIS RUSH
When Clayton Kershaw (finally) went all the way
For years, October haunted the greatest pitcher of this generation. Nine times, Clayton Kershaw had poured himself into the effort of taking his team all the way. Nine times, he had come up short.
That changed in 2020. Six years after his third and most recent Cy Young Award, Kershaw led the Los Angeles Dodgers to their first World Series title since 1988, the year he was born. In his 10th postseason, everything finally came together with a six-game triumph over the Tampa Bay Rays.
Kershaw now has a winning record in the postseason (13-12), plus a winning record in the World Series (3-2) — and, in a twist, he got to clinch the title in his hometown. The pandemic shifted the World Series to a neutral site for the first time ever: Arlington, Texas, just 20 miles or so from Kershaw’s high school in Dallas. After the final out, he beamed as he spotted his family and friends among the limited fans in attendance.
“It’s just overwhelming to see how much people care about you,” Kershaw said, “and how they want you to have success and reach your dreams.”
— TYLER KEPNER
When a soccer bubble burst
My 9-year-old daughter can tell you her best sports moment of 2020, and it happens to be mine, too: One Saturday morning in mid-October, she played team soccer for the first time in seven months.
The pandemic had kept her from playing with her travel team since its winter season ended in March. Although she had tried to hide it, we could tell that she was sick of backyard drills and juggling the ball in our living room. She was sick of meeting with her coaches on Zoom and sending them videos of the moves she was practicing.
When in-person school was canceled this fall, some risk on the soccer field became risk that was worthwhile, particularly for our sporty, gregarious little girl with no siblings. We crossed our fingers and signed her up for a tryout with a team that was getting together for drills, but not to play matches.
It took only a few minutes for me to know that our decision had been the right one. I saw her eyes squint and knew she was smiling. And then I heard her laugh. It was the sound of happiness.
— JULIET MACUR
When Tommie Smith passed the torch
Tommie Smith, the Olympic gold medalist who was all but banned from track and field after his protest of racial injustice at the Mexico City Games in 1968, doesn’t often speak publicly these days. Now 76, he seems more content to work behind the scenes with the next generation fighting to end police brutality and institutional racism.
But in June, not long after the death of George Floyd set off nationwide protests, Smith felt compelled to address the country’s latest wake-up call. Speaking from his home outside Atlanta, Smith offered much-needed context. He was heartened that so many people — including prominent athletes like LeBron James and Patrick Mahomes — were speaking out.
The key, he said, is assuring that when the news media moves on and the protesters leave the streets, the harder work of getting people to vote and lobbying for new laws continues. “Getting young folks involved and voting will change the course of what America is,” he said.
— KEN BELSON