Welcome 2021, a year of sport like no other

Numbers game: There are 4 billion soccer fans worldwide, and 2.5 billion cricket fans.

Is sport the world’s most important language? After the cancellation of so many popular events in 2020, organisers believe that this year will be one of unparalleled sporting thrills.

As the captain of the winning soccer team held the cup aloft, the sound of tens of thousands of voices filled the air. “Walk on, walk o-o-on,” they sang, “with hope in your heart, and you’ll ne-ver walk alone!” At the end of the anthem, the supporters broke into jubilant cheers. They were as happy as is humanly possible.

To be part of the crowd in a stadium like Anfield, the home of Liverpool FC, is an experience like no other – particularly when the team is winning. People forget their day-to-day worries and become completely absorbed in the action on the pitch. No longer individuals, they feel the joy of being part of a great community united by the same hopes and fears, triumphs and disappointments.

Many such communities have felt cheated by the pandemic. When Liverpool won the English Premiership last year, their fans could only watch them on television, and were only allowed to celebrate at home on their own. But as vaccination programmes start across the world, there is hope that people will be allowed to crowd into stadiums once more. And 2021 promises what could be the greatest feast of sporting events the world has ever seen.

This is because, in addition to the events which were already scheduled, organisers are hoping to stage those they had to postpone last year. Chief among these are the Olympic Games, the Euro 2020 championship and cricket’s T20 World Cup. The fact that fans have been starved of such events means that they are likely to relish them more than ever.

Rugby’s Six Nations tournament, which last year was thrown into confusion by the arrival of the pandemic, resumes in February. Horse-racing enthusiasts are looking forward to the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March, and the Grand National in April – with the possibility of an extraordinary third victory in succession for the Irish horse Tiger Roll.

Euro 2020 runs for a month, with matches in 11 cities, culminating in the final at Wembley Stadium on 11 July (the same day as the men’s singles final at Wimbledon, which was cancelled last year). England, Belgium and France are equal favourites to win, followed by Spain and the Netherlands.

July also sees the Tour de France, with the Ineos Grenadiers being touted as perhaps the most high-powered cycling team of all time. It will be a bumper month for golf with the British Open, for rugby with the start of the Lions’ tour of South Africa – and for sport of all kinds with the opening of the Tokyo Olympics. The Paralympics follow in August.

The autumn, too, promises to be full of excitement, with the Ryder Cup in September, the Rugby League World Cup in October and the final of the T20 World Cup in November.

For all these events, fans who might otherwise never meet will congregate from across the globe. In the words of Kofi Annan: “Sport is a universal language. At its best it can bring people together, no matter what their origin, background, religious beliefs or economic status.”

Is sport the world’s most important language?

Pitch perfect?

Some say, no: sport caters to one of our most primitive emotions – the desire to see the team or person we support inflict crushing defeats on their opponents. If we want to build bridges with other countries and cultures, we should do it through more creative pursuits, such as music and the visual arts, which are of much greater value and endure far longer.

Others argue that sport is a wonderful thing because it channels our instinct for battle into something harmless. At Christmas 1914, during World War One, British and German troops stopped shooting at each other and played football instead. Two people from completely different countries can enjoy watching a match together even if they do not understand a word each other says.

You Decide

  1. Which of this year’s sporting events would you most like to attend, and why?
  2. Is it fair that many sports stars earn far more than top politicians?

Activities

  1. Write an anthem for your favourite team using the tune of a hit song.
  2. Imagine that you are the coach of a team or sports star about to compete in a crucial event. Write a speech encouraging them to do their best, and deliver it to your class or family.

Some People Say...

“We’re tribal by nature… It isn't just religious tribes or ethnic tribes now: it's sports fans, it's communities, it's geography.”

Peter Guber (1942 - ), American entrepreneur

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that sports clubs and stars have a role in the community that goes far beyond staging matches. Many clubs run programmes which offer encouragement to young people. After the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the local team, Queens Park Rangers, distributed emergency supplies to the affected families, put on activities for children and organised a charity match which raised £450,000. More recently, Marcus Rashford has successfully campaigned for free meals for deprived children.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether there is any place for politics in sport. Russia’s hosting of the 2018 World Cup concerned many because of the country’s poor record on gay rights. Some argued that awarding the 2008 Olympics to Beijing would encourage China to have more respect for human rights – instead, it seems to have gone in the opposite direction. Many countries boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics because of Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan.

Word Watch

Walk on
You’ll Never Walk Alone has been Liverpool’s anthem since the 1960s, when the song was a hit for a local band, Gerry and the Pacemakers. Gerry Marsden, who sang it, died last weekend.
Cheltenham Gold Cup
A three-mile race over 22 jumps, with a first prize of £350,000. Its greatest champion, Golden Miller, won it five years running, from 1932 to 1936.
Grand National
The most challenging event in British racing, run at Aintree, near Liverpool. In 1928, 41 of the 42 horses fell, leaving the 100-1 outsider Tipperary Tim to win.
Wimbledon
The oldest tennis tournament in the world, dating from 1877. It is one of tennis’s four Grand Slam competitions – the others being the French, Australian and US Opens – and the only one played on grass courts.
Tour de France
The world’s most prestigious bicycle race, in which competitors cover around 100 miles a day for 21 days. The course changes every year, and despite its name, some of its stages take place in neighbouring countries.
Lions
The British and Irish Lions are a team made up of the best players from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. They go on tour every four years to either Australia, New Zealand or South Africa.
Ryder Cup
An international golf competition which takes place every other year, with a team from Europe playing a team from the US.
Congregate
Come together. The verb derives from the Latin word for a flock.
Kofi Annan
A Ghanaian diplomat who was Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1997 to 2006, and won the Nobel Peace Prize.

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