Top ten sporting moments of 2021

Three months after taking her A-levels, Raducanu won a Grand Slam tournament without dropping a set

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Despite the pandemic, or perhaps partly because of it, 2021 has been a vintage sporting year. Here are ten personal highlights, in reverse order.

10. Flora Duffy wins the Olympic triathlon. With a population of just under 64,000, Bermuda is the smallest nation to have won Olympic gold. But to see Duffy’s win as that of a plucky underdog is to do her a disservice. In the 2008 Olympics she didn’t finish; she was 45th in 2012; in 2016 she was eighth. Long roads and hard climbs, improvements eked out like gold from rock: and finally she triumphed.

9. Tom Daley wins Olympic diving gold. “I feel incredibly proud to say that I am a gay man and also an Olympic champion. When I was younger I didn’t think I’d achieve anything because of who I was. There was something about me that was never going to be as good as what society wanted me to be. I hope that any young LGBT person out there can see that no matter how alone you feel right now, you are not alone.”

She shone a light on the intense, unrelenting mental pressure that top sportspeople are under

8. Mark Cavendish wins four stages in the Tour de France. Cavendish had last won a Tour stage in 2016. Since then he’d lost form, contracted Epstein-Barr and suffered depression. He made his team’s Tour squad at the last minute when another rider was injured, and took his chance with a vengeance: all the frustrations, all the doubts, all the critics burned off beneath his wheels of fire. He’s now tied with Eddy Merckx for the most stage wins ever.

7. Simone Biles withdraws from Olympic competition. It takes courage to perform top-level gymnastics, but no less courage to walk away in the heat of competition. Simone Biles did so for her own self-preservation — a gymnast risks serious injury when they have “the twisties” and can no longer sense their position in the air — but in doing so she shone a light on the intense, unrelenting mental pressure that top sportspeople are under. They dedicate their lives to excelling and judge those lives by their success. She proved there’s more to it than that.

6. South Africa beat New Zealand 31-29. It was the 101st match in the most storied rugby rivalry of all, and every bit the equal of any of the previous 100. South Africa had lost their previous three games, but each time they looked down and out they just got up and went again. The lead changed hands four times in the last five minutes and the Springboks won with the very last kick, when the hooter had already gone and the clock was running red. Titanic players, titanic contest, titanic result.

5. Denmark at Euro 2020. The Danes made the semi-finals, but they will be most remembered for what happened when their talisman, Christian Eriksen, collapsed with cardiac arrest in their opening match against Finland. The captain, Simon Kjaer, rushed to Eriksen’s aid, organised the players into a protective circle as the paramedics worked, and comforted Eriksen’s distraught partner Sabrina. We are, as this showed, made human by those who hold us close, who come to our aid, and who circle the wagons around us when we fall.

4. Janja Garnbret wins climbing gold. Climbing made its Olympic debut and was an instant hit. It tests the intelligence to work out the best way of climbing a route, the strength and flexibility to pull that off, and the mental fortitude of keeping going when every muscle is on fire. Slovenia’s Janja Garnbret was a class apart, and made a world-class field look like beginners on the local climbing wall. The lower the total score, the better: she ended up on five, 40 ahead of her nearest rival.

3. The Olympic high jump gold is shared. Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar and Italian Gianmarco Tamberi couldn’t be separated after two hours of competition, and almost wordlessly decided to share the gold. “He’s one of my best friends,” Barshim explained. “We work together. This is a dream come true. It is the true spirit, the sportsman spirit, and we are here delivering this message.” To share the gold was the greatest honouring of their rivalry and the competition itself. This prize was not halved. It was doubled.

2. England reach the final of Euro 2020. The fairytale wasn’t quite to be, with England undone by penalties — sound familiar? — but their march to the final was a tonic for a battered country. This was a team which had won back their connection with the nation, a bunch of conscientious young men on and off the pitch who worked hard for each other and for their manager, Gareth Southgate. Southgate was widely derided when he took the job five years ago, but his combination of decency and hardness is the essence of integrity.

1. Emma Raducanu wins the US Open. Three months after taking her A-levels, Raducanu won a Grand Slam tournament without dropping a set. She’s genuine, unaffected and down-to-earth, devoid of false bombast and false modesty alike: a young woman who knows exactly who she is. She and Canada’s Leylah Fernandez played the final on September 11, 20 years to the day after a hateful misogynistic cult rained down death from cloudless skies onto New York, and that nonpareil city roared on two young women brimming with such talent, such ambition, such fortitude, such dedication, such grace, such joy, such life.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover