If 2020 was unlike any other year in the world of sports, the COVID restrictions in 2021 also tested fans and athletes to their limits. And yet, it still managed to produce some outstanding moments.
Japan's memorable games
Held in the midst of a resurging pandemic, stripped of spectators and rejected by many locals due to safety concerns, the Tokyo Olympic Games presented logistical challenges like no other.
Despite that, athletes from all over the world still shone through with Italy's Lamont Marcell Jacobs producing one of the biggest upsets of the Games by claiming gold in the 100m final, while Jamaica’s Elaine Thompson-Herah became the first woman to win gold in both the 100m and 200m races.
In the pool, 18-year-old Ahmed Hafnaoui of Tunisia showed the world of sports that fairy tales do come true after winning the 400m freestyle. The likes of Caeleb Dressel, Emma McKeon, Katie Ledecky and Ariarne Titmus all lived up to expectations in the swimming events.
From Tom Daley’s tears of joy to Simone Biles prioritising her mental health over a shot at history, Tokyo 2020 provided some emotional moments. It also successfully introduced four new sports, giving the Olympic family the opportunity to explore new horizons and connect with the younger generation.
After 17 days of competition, the United States topped the overall standings ahead of China and Japan. Despite the pandemic's shadow over the competition, athletes stuck together and succeeded in uniting the world in times of uncertainty, wrapping up an ambitious gamble, that ultimately paid off.
Italy crowned champions
The Olympics was not the only major sporting event delayed by the pandemic. Euro 2020, which also finally kicked off in 2021, saw fans return and liberate all those pent up emotions caused by months of restrictions and lockdown.
Following a tense group phase, the tournament truly came to life in the last 16. Spain's thrilling 5-3 win over Croatia was a joy to watch for the neutral, while Switzerland stunned world champions France in a dramatic penalty shootout.
Having held their nerve, and with all their key players performing, England went into the showpiece match on a wave of optimism, but it wasn’t to be, as Leonardo Bonucci cancelled out Luke Shaw’s early goal before sealing the win on penalties.
After failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Italy’s impressive mix of youth and experience paid dividends with their sixth major tournament title. Testimony to the work of Roberto Mancini and his players. It was also a very welcome distraction for a country crushed by COVID the previous year.
A year of missed opportunities
The most intense Formula One championship fight for years, Lionel Messi joining PSG, Tadej Pogačar winning his second consecutive Tour de France, or even MotoGP legend Valentino Rossi bidding an emotional farewell to the sport, 2021 was special but could have been so much more.
After asserting his dominance at the Australian and French Opens and Wimbledon, Novak Djokovic had the opportunity to become the first man in over 50 years to win all four tennis majors when he faced Daniil Medvedev in the US Open final.
Often cast as villain rather than hero, the 34-year-old eventually lost the match in straight sets but won over a New York crowd, which had never before taken him to their heart like his big rivals, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
The three heavyweights are currently tied at 20 Grand Slam titles apiece heading into a new year, that could prove to be another thrilling one for sports fans across the world. The FIFA World Cup in Qatar and the winter Olympics in Beijing, part of the many events expected to keep us on the edge of our seats in 2022.