In 2020, athletes around the world refused to shut up and just play

Normally when we reflect on a year in sports, athletes hoisting shiny trophies are the lasting memories — overtime goals, buzzer-beaters and breathtaking photo finishes.

Sometimes etched in our minds, too, are images of heartbreak. 

Sports is for many an anchor, a place where unscripted joy and disappointment play out and fans collectively revel in it. A sweet escape. A distraction. 

But 2020 was anything but normal. 

The notion that athletes should just shut up and stick to sports and leave politics out of it has for too long seemed outdated. But the show does always have to go on and often, athletes do in fact just have to shut up. Because money. 

This year, though, in the uncertainty of the chaos and the tedium of the pandemic, the pendulum swung and sporting heroes found their voices and used their platform in an unparalleled way.

WATCH | Devin Heroux on the year that was:

Athletes around the world raised a collective voice in an unprecedented show of power. 5:03

It has changed the games forever. 

Halting the Olympics

It began during those turbulent 48 hours in mid-March, when, almost simultaneously, the world and sports shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The seriousness of what was unfolding was clearly articulated in March by Canadian hockey superstar Hayley Wickenheiser, who sent out a post on social media that was heard around the world.

With the Summer Olympics looming in Tokyo in July, Wickenheiser provided the reality check the sports world so badly needed.

“I think the IOC insisting this will move ahead, with such conviction, is insensitive and irresponsible given the state of humanity. We don’t know what’s happening in the next 24 hours, let alone the next three months,” she wrote. 

The IOC wasn’t happy with Wickenheiser. But not long after, in an unforgettable move, the Canadian Olympic Committee said it would not be attending Tokyo if the Games went on.

Shortly after, the Olympics were postponed. 

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, wearing a face mask, visits an empty National Stadium, main venue for the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, in November. (Getty Images)

Anti-racism statements

In those waiting and wondering months of April and May, words like “bubble” and “hub city” became part of everyday sports lingo. But in the background, leagues were plotting their triumphant return. And many did. 

The pandemic put sports on pause and athletes at all levels were suddenly in the same place as everyone else. 

But the atmosphere became charged in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police in the first half of the year. Protests rose up across North America night after night in the spring, and many sports superstars showed they had had enough. 

In August, in another unforgettable 48 hours, the NBA again shut down, this time after players refused to play in continued protest, while WNBA players walked onto the court wearing T-shirts with bullet holes in them — and then left. 

Benfica supporters wear face masks and keep a social distance before a UEFA Europa League match in October in one of the few sporting events around the world that even permitted fans. (AFP via Getty Images)

A united front for a social cause like never before.

Coaches and players cried at podiums, their pain spilling over in a way we’ve never seen.

“We’re the ones getting killed. We’re the ones getting shot. We’re the ones … denied to live in certain communities. We’ve been hung. We’ve been shot. And all you do is keep hearing about fear,” L.A. Clippers coach Doc Rivers said, tears rolling from his eyes in late August. 

In the same way the pandemic swiftly and simultaneously halted sports, athletes shut down the game together. 

It made sports commentators and casual fans pause. Reflect. And, in a lot of cases, sit in the discomfort of challenging social issue conversations

The concern going into all of these bubbles and resuming play for many athletes was that their voices would get lost in nightly game highlights. And on many nights, they did. And so they stopped. 

It forced powerful, mostly white sport owners to have conversations that for too long just weren’t being had. 

Stadiums and arenas became voting stations. Players put pressure on politicians. 

Doc Rivers, centre, then head coach of the L.A. Clippers, gave a heart-felt plea for social justice in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake. (Getty Images)

Ademola Lookman of Fulham takes a knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement prior to his team’s Premier League match in October. (Getty Images)

2020 triumphs

But even in our mourning, sports found a way to make us smile.

The Houston Dash of the National Women’s Soccer League captured the first championship in a bubble setting. 

Soccer prodigy Alphonso Davies became the first Canadian men’s player to win a Champions League title. 

Lightning struck in the form of a Stanley Cup win in a hockey bubble. And a Zamboni driver helped lead the Hurricanes to a victory over the Leafs. 

The Lakers and LeBron added another title. The Dodgers are baseball champions.

Canadian tennis continues to surge, with Denis Shapovalov, Leylah Annie Fernandez, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Vasek Pospisil leading the way — all while Bianca Andreescu works in the background, plotting her return. 

Bayern Munich’s Canadian midfielder Alphonso Davies celebrates with Champions League trophy after his team defeated Paris Saint-Germain in August. Davies is the first Canadian to play on a UEFA championship team. (Getty Images)

We the North went south, and took the lead on social issues, rolling up to the Florida bubble in buses with Black Lives Matter plastered on the side

The Blue Jays flew south, too — a young and exciting team that surprised many by making the playoffs, even if it was a short-lived run. 

Fledgling sports leagues Canadian Elite Basketball League and the Canadian Premier League successfully took to the court and pitch and cemented themselves in the country’s sporting landscape. 

The Canadian Football League did not play — and the Grey Cup was not awarded for the first time since 1919. 

A Masters in November without fans making for majestic views. And The Last Dance, a documentary series about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, that, for a week weeks at least, entertained us. 

Canada’s Christine Sinclair, front left, celebrates with teammates after scoring against St. Kitts and Nevis during a CONCACAF women’s Olympic qualifying game on Jan. 29, 2020, setting the international record for goals scored. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Before the shutdown, Canadian soccer star Christine Sinclair broke the record for the most international goals scored by any player ever to take to the pitch. 

Curlers Kerri Einarson and Brad Gushue won the Scotties and Brier, respectively, only to have their opportunity to represent Canada at the world championships taken away due to the pandemic. 

The world and sports will discover its new normal. And the Olympic Games will eventually go on.

We endure. But 2020 has changed us. 

Too much and too many lost.

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