By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – When Yoshiro Mori, president of the Tokyo Olympics organising committee, claimed defiantly in February that the greatest show on earth would go ahead in spite of a looming pandemic few realised what wishful thinking that was.
In many ways the announcement on March 24 that the Games was postponed until 2021 came as a relief for the thousands of athletes left in limbo as Tokyo organisers and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) held out for a medical miracle.
It was the first time a modern Olympic Games had been delayed in its 124-year history.
The cancellation of a two-week sporting jamboree, albeit one originally costing $12.6 billion, pales into insignificance compared to the toll of COVID-19 on lives and livelihoods.
The year is ending with vaccines offering hope of containing the virus but more than 1.5 million people have died from the virus and economies around the world are in turmoil.
A bunch of sports men and women forced to put their gold-medal dreams on hold appears trivial by comparison, yet the crisis has emphasised sport’s benefit to society and not just because of its estimated $756 billion annual value.
The Olympic Games, for all its faults, doping scandals and mind-boggling budgets remains, on the whole, a showcase for the human spirit, inspiring the world’s youth.
Sport’s stirring response to the Black Lives Matter protest also displayed its power to advance social justice.
By the time the Olympics succumbed to the inevitable delay an eagerly-awaited sporting year was already unravelling.
A week before the Games were postponed, the European Championship soccer tournament, second only to the World Cup in size, was rescheduled until 2021 as UEFA accepted the futility of staging an event across 12 cities during a pandemic.
“The thought of celebrating a pan-European festival of football in empty stadia, with deserted fan zones, while the continent sits at home in isolation, is a joyless one,” said Aleksander Ceferin, head of the sport’s European governing body.
Every major domestic soccer league ground to a halt while iconic events fell like dominoes.
For the first time since World War II there was no Wimbledon tennis championships. The revamped Fed Cup and Davis Cup finals both bit the dust as did city marathons from London to Boston.
Golf’s Ryder Cup and British Open were cancelled, while the Masters was shunted to a spectator-less Augusta in Autumn, long after the azaleas had bloomed.
The Formula One season stalled on the grid in Australia where cricket’s T20 World Cup was postponed until 2021.
The NBA and NHL seasons were both suspended for more than four months, while MLB clubs cancelled more than 1,500 games, resulting in the shortest regular season on record.
The list of disruptions was endless and the financial implications enormous.
Yet out of the chaos, federations, event organisers and athletes displayed ingenuity and resolve to still provide incredible sporting memories in the darkest of years.
Spanish tennis player Rafa Nadal produced an extraordinary display to thrash Novak Djokovic and win a jaw-dropping 13th French Open title after a gloomy and cold fortnight in Paris at a delayed tournament in October.
It drew Nadal level with Roger Federer on 20 Grand Slams.
That a delayed Tour de France reached Paris without a major COVID-19 outbreak was a triumph in itself. Yet it provided one of the most astonishing finishes ever as Slovenian Primoz Roglic saw the yellow jersey slip from his grasp a couple of kilometres from glory with compatriot Tadej Pogacar winning an epic race.
Europe’s soccer leagues resumed behind closed doors with Liverpool claiming their first English title for 30 years, while the business end of the Champions League from the quarter-final stage was condensed into 11 days in Portugal with Bayern Munich beating Paris St-Germain in the showpiece match.
England won the longest Six Nations rugby championship ever staged — nine months after an opening-day defeat by France.
The Super Bowl, played in front of 62,000 fans just over a month before a pandemic was declared, witnessed a fairytale finish as the Kansas City Chiefs clawed back a 10-point deficit heading into the fourth quarter to beat the San Francisco 49ers and claim their first title for 50 years.
The LA Lakers captured a record-equalling 17th NBA Championship by beating Miami Heat after the season resumed in July in a fan-less Disney World biosecure bubble while the Dodgers snapped a 32-year title drought in the MLB.
The year was book-ended by the death of two sporting icons — NBA great Kobe Bryant who was killed in a helicopter crash in January, and Argentina soccer maestro Diego Maradona who passed away aged 60 in November.
After so much heartache there is hope that 2021 will restore a semblance of normality and that, in the words of the IOC and Tokyo organisers on that sombre day in March, the Olympic flame will become a light at the end of the tunnel.