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Allan Massie

The Sporting Year

Victor Moussa / Shutterstock.com

From the Olympics to the Open, 2020 is set to be a vintage year for sport…

It’s a truism that time contracts as you get older - the gap between, for instance, one Olympic Games and the next shrinking, so that the four years pass in what seems little more than the blink of an eye. Conversely the past may quickly come to seem strangely remote. Is it really less than eight years since Boris Johnson as Mayor of London was welcoming the world to the London Olympics?

This year the games return to Tokyo where they were previously held in 1964. They were then declared open by the Emperor Hirohito, still a controversial figure as Japan’s Head of State in World War II. They were the first games held in Asia and the first to be telecast live in the USA and Europe, also the last in which a cinder track was used for athletics. The games were held in October to avoid Japan’s midsummer heat and the September typhoon season which came close to disrupting last year’s Rugby World Cup. This year the Olympics will run from 24 July to 9 August. Let’s hope it’s not too hot.

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In 1964, there were 163 events in 19 sports across 25 disciplines. This year there will be 339 events in 33 sports, encompassing 52 disciplines. Inflation is not only monetary. Still, one can’t get away from money when it comes to sport today. Several events will be held at times less convenient for athletes and ticket-holders than for American television. The swimming finals, for instance, will take place in the morning to please NBC, though this decision is unpopular with the host country’s broadcasters, swimming being very popular in Japan. British viewers: take heed. These will be the last Olympics for which primary rights are owned by the BBC.

There will be controversies because there always are. The suspicion of drug assistance casts a dark shadow over several sports, notably and sadly athletics and cycling. Not even the fear of discovery and disgrace will deter some coaches from seeking to gain a chemical advantage for their athletes who will naively obey instructions. It seems likely that Russia will be barred from fielding a team. Athletes trained by Mo Farah’s former coach Alberto Salazar at the Nike Oregon Project may be equally unwelcome. The International Olympic Committee has asked the World Anti-Doping Agency to investigate all connected with Salazar and the NOP.

British Cycling, its reputation tarnished by scandal, may contribute less to Britain’s medal haul than at the London and Rio games. Sadly, there will be competitors across the whole spectrum of sports who will fail drugs tests, some because they have been ill-advised (to put it mildly) by their coaches. The quest for glory may often invite corruption.

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Nevertheless, nobody can reasonably doubt that the Olympics will not only be the great sporting event of 2020, but also a huge success. It is true that the games have become bloated, now including sports like tennis and golf which, one thinks, don’t really belong there because winning an Olympic Gold carries less prestige than winning Wimbledon or Roland-Garros, the Masters at Augusta or the Open Championship. Even so, the huge popularity of golf in Japan and the rising popularity of tennis there mean that these events will attract big crowds.

We can be sure that these Olympics will be staged with exemplary efficiency (which has not always been the case) and for the millions of television viewers there is the added pleasure of suddenly becoming knowledgeable about sports that one previously knew nothing about and others one hadn’t watched since the last Olympics. In an Olympic year sports that usually attract very little public notice have their days in the limelight and hitherto unknown competitors have their hour not only of glory but of an unusually wide-spread fame. Though for many people athletics continue to hold centre-stage, the attention given to what are usually considered minor sports is surely one of the merits of the whole endeavour.

But what else can one look for this coming year?

First there is the UEFA European Championships - Euro 2020 – to be held over a month from June 12th. It’s the sixtieth anniversary of the competition and unusually there isn’t a single host nation. Instead, in what the former UEFA President - and one-time great player - Michel Platini, whose reputation is now sadly somewhat tarnished, described endearingly as “a romantic gesture,” the Championship will be spread around with matches played in twelve cities in twelve countries before the semi-finals and final are staged at Wembley. Romantic or not, this seems rather a good idea, worth repeating; it spreads the interest and offers more opportunities for fans.

For England, there is the prospect of at last winning a major competition for the first time since Bobby Moore lifted the World Cup in 1966. Euro 2016 was unhappy for England, embarrassing and scarcely short of humiliating as they struggled against Iceland. But there will be no shortage of expectation this time, and not only because of the chance of playing the last two matches at Wembley. Gareth Southgate has been quietly forging an England team that plays in a style which is both coherent and attractive. There’s an air of calmness about the England manager and an absence of entitlement in his manner and preparations. England have so often flattered only to deceive that even the tabloid press may hesitate to proclaim them winners in advance, only to turn savagely on manager and players when they fail to oblige. But I think England may do it this time if Southgate can get his best team on the field and if his players don’t come to the tournament exhausted by the demands of the Premiership and Champions League.

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England have so often flattered only to deceive that even the tabloid press may hesitate to proclaim them winners of Euro 2020 in advance, only to turn savagely on manager and players when they fail to oblige. But I think England may do it this time if Southgate can get his best team on the field.

In Rugby Union, England, having been deprived of the World Cup by South Africa’s excellence in the final, will surely start as favourites for the Six Nations, partly on account of their demolition of New Zealand in the semi-final in Japan. Their rivals may hope that the troubles afflicting Saracens, the leading English club which contributed eight players to Eddie Jones’s World Cup squad, may disrupt their preparation, but the hope is likely to be a vain one. Ireland and Wales have better Six Nations records in recent years, but both have new coaches this season and both have ageing teams in need of refreshment.

Wales, coming close to beating South Africa in the semi-final, had a very good World Cup, Ireland a disappointing one. Yet the vitality of the Irish provinces, very evident in the first two rounds of the European Rugby Champions Cup, suggests that Ireland have a strength in depth that Wales lack, and are therefore more capable of regenerating their squad quickly. Then, for the first time in too long, France look on the point of resurgence, with young players coming through from the team that won the World Rugby Under-20 Championship a couple of years ago. They too have a new coach, the former French scrum-half and captain Fabien Galthie and, perhaps more significantly, have recruited Shaun Edwards as defence coach. The French defence has been porous for years, but Edwards master-minded the Welsh defence that secured them a Grand Slam last Spring. Sadly, neither Scotland nor Italy is likely to challenge for the title, but England may not relish having to travel north for their match at Murrayfield.

In golf, it’s a Ryder Cup year with the USA hoping, and quite probably expecting, to regain the trophy at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin. (I confess to knowing nothing about the course but the name sounds daunting.) Europe won convincingly at Le Golf National in 2018, but a third of that team are now a year or two either side of 40. It is therefore somewhat likely to be a less experienced European team this time, and playing the Ryder Cup in the USA is demanding for players without previous cup experience as, for instance, Danny Willett and Matt Fitzpatrick discovered in 2016. On the American side it’s likely to be the first Ryder Cup team for ages without Phil Mickelson and perhaps Tiger Woods. Neither, one might add, distinguished himself at Le Golf National. It’s tough to win in America and the home team are usually favourites, though over the past twenty years Europe has had more success in the USA than the Americans in Europe.

Before then The Open returns to Royal St George’s, the only course in the south of England where it is played, also the first at which it was held outside Scotland, way back in 1894 when it was won by J. H. Taylor, one of the famous Victorian and Edwardian triumvirate: Taylor, James Braid and Harry Vardon. Vardon also won there, twice, in 1899 and 1911, as have other great champions: Walter Hagen, Henry Cotton, Bobby Locke, Sandy Lyle and Greg Norman, as well as less well-remembered ones, Bill Rogers and Ben Curtis. The last winner there was Darren Clarke in 2011. No Englishman has won The Open anywhere since Nick Faldo in 1992. Time surely for another?

In tennis, Serena Williams, the greatest female player of the century, will be seeking her 24th singles title in the Grand Slam tournaments. This is already more than anyone has won in this era and would put her level with Margaret Smith Court whose career spanned the amateur and open years. Serena last won one of these titles, the Australian Open, in 2017. Since then she has lost the Wimbledon final twice and the US Open final twice also, in all four matches without winning a set. Nevertheless, if you are still reaching finals, you can still win a final - so perhaps…

There comes a time in all sports when champions hear a new generation knocking at the door. We’ve been waiting for this in men’s tennis for a few years now. But the knocking has been little louder than a gentle tap and the triumvirate of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic has continued to rule. Apart from them, only Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka have won more than a single slam title this century. Afflicted by injuries and having undergone surgery neither Murray nor Wawrinka seems likely to challenge again. Meanwhile, Federer next summer will enter his fortieth year, and though Nadal and Djokovic between them won all four Slams this year, the knocking on the door sounds for the first time threatening. Dominic Thiem, Daniil Medvedev and the twenty-one year old Stefanos Tsitsipas are ranked fourth, fifth and sixth. Thiem has reached slam finals in Paris and New York, and Tsitsipas in winning the tour finals in London beat Federer, Djokovic and Nadal. Time for a changing of the guard? Perhaps. But you’d be rash to bet against Djokovic in Melbourne or at Wimbledon and more than rash to bet against Nadal winning at Roland-Garros once again, unless you believe that going for a thirteenth title there is sure to be unlucky.

It will be a quieter summer in English cricket after this year’s World Cup and Ashes, no matter how engaging test series against West Indies and Pakistan prove to be. It will however see the first coming of the ECB’s darling child, The Hundred, which many of the most loyal and devoted, even obsessed, cricket fans pray will be a dreadful flop. Sadly there is so much money invested that the ECB will pronounce it a great success. As usual while giving lip service to the primacy of test cricket, the ECB will pursue its policy of pushing the County Championship to the margins. Meanwhile at the turn of the year England will be in South Africa seeking a rare series victory away from home. They may have a better chance than usual, South Africa being in the process of re-building and having themselves just suffered a heavy defeat in India. There’s nothing remarkable about that of course. It is now at least as hard for a visiting team to win in India as it is in Australia.

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It won’t be long before the stars of women’s football, cricket and rugby are as well-known and as much admired as their male counterparts. This is the most remarkable development of recent years and it’s gathering pace.

One of the surprising features of this century so far has been the revival of interest in boxing, greatly helped by the proliferation of TV channels devoted to sport. This proliferation is mirrored by that of self-styled world title fights, promoted by the different boxing boards and made more numerous by the division and sub-division of weight categories. Where once there were eight weights and usually only eight recognised champions, there are now more champions than most of us can remember or even count. That said, the heavyweight division is more interesting than it has been for years, and, extraordinarily for anyone old enough to remember the days when British fighters in the top division were derided in the USA as “horizontal heavyweights,” Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua have both held versions of the heavyweight crown and may do so again.

Still, the more things change, the more the best remains what it has always been, and this is true, not only in the lower leagues of football and rugby and in amateur sports in which players outnumber spectators but also in those sports where tradition is still respected, horse-racing being a notable example. Yet the most remarkable feature of recent years has been the growth of women’s sport, notably in games once regarded as almost exclusively male, at least as far as public attention is concerned. Tennis, golf and athletics have long been exceptions to this generalisation but they have now been joined by women’s football, rugby and cricket, all featured in the press and promoted on TV - boxing too, even though some of us oldies still dislike the idea – let alone the sight - of girls and women thumping each other.

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Still, if one was to make any confident prediction, it would be that the advance of women’s sport will continue and indeed accelerate. Equality of esteem is still some way off in football, rugby and cricket, but it is coming, and it will not be long before the girls and women who star in these sports are as much household names as tennis players like Serena Williams and athletes like Laura Muir are now. Hitherto for the most part women who attained sporting stardom have done so in individual sports – and indeed this goes back a very long way now to, for instance, Suzanne Lenglen in tennis after the First World War and the “Flying Dutchwoman” Fanny Blankers-Koen, the star of the 1948 London Olympics - but now we can see the same thing happening in team sports. It won’t be long before the stars of women’s football, cricket and rugby are as well-known and as much admired as their male counterparts. This is the most remarkable development of recent years and it’s gathering pace.