2020 – The sporting year that almost wasn’t

Every winter around this time, we’ve made a habit of looking back on the sporting year that was.  In order to cover 2020 as in previous years, we’d need to include so many explanations that the Holland Times would need to double its pages!  Better to just point out a few examples and accept the fact that 2020 was different in so many ways.

By now, the clichés about 2020 are widespread and well-documented and sport has not been spared.  It was a year of abbreviations, cancellations and postponements. A Champion’s League final in August and The Masters in November were par for the course.  The football European Championship, the Invictus Games in the Hague, the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo and countless other major and minor events were pushed back and then rescheduled for 2021 in the hope that somehow the great mitigation would come that would allow athletes to compete and spectators to watch.

It was also a year of bubbles, protocols and far fewer or no spectators.  Athletes, teams and organizations scrambled to find ways to play all the while trying to balance health and safety with income and even survival.  Fixtures were moved or consolidated in an effort to avoid the deadly virus.  The NBA managed to finish their season with all teams converging at the Walt Disney park in Florida while Formula One drastically pared their schedule and established strict protocols to keep the Corona bug at bay.  While the highly anticipated return of the Dutch Grand Prix in Zandvoort was shelved, Dutchman Max Verstappen enjoyed a moderately successful season.

Football, the undisputed king of sports in the Netherland, was impacted by Covid-19 in many ways.  Certainly, the most tangible was the men’s Eredivisie competition.  The curtain was dropped abruptly on the 2019/20 season back in March.  At the top of the ladder, Amsterdam’s Ajax and AZ Alkmaar finished on top with Ajax getting the nod from the Dutch FA, the KNVB, for the top European billing based on goal differential.  This did not sit well with AZ as they had taken the chocolates twice in head-to-head matches.  For all the bickering, both teams now head for the winter break with Ajax out of the Champions League and AZ without their success-story trainer Arne Slot.  At the bottom of the ladder, Covid-19 was ironically kind to relegation candidates ADO Den Haag and RKC Waalwijk who were both given a year’s reprieve.  Of the two, RKC has made the most of their stay of execution and have managed to climb to 11th of 19 and can enjoy a Christmas break without the Ghost of Second Division lurking in the shadows.  In the Hague, ADO is very much in the shoes of Ebenezer Scrooge.

The Summer Olympic Games were slated to take place in Tokyo from 24 July to 9 August 2020 but the event was postponed in March 2020 as a result of the pandemic.  The new dates are 23 July to 8 August 2021 and will be an unbelievable test of all that has been learned about sports in a Covid-19 world should they go through.  The developments surrounding a vaccine are probably no more closely followed than in the Japanese capital.

Olympic athletes around the world were forced to not only deal with the postponement but faced with daunting challenges to train, compete and in some cases qualify or even re-qualify for the Tokyo games.  Dutch swimmer Femke Heemskerk was felled by Corona without even contracting the virus herself.  Needing to qualify at an early December tournament in Rotterdam, Heemskerk was forced to quarantine when her partner tested positive.  While testing negative herself, the swimming federation’s protocol meant that her 50 meter freestyle Olympic ticket went to Valerie van Roon.  Chances are the matter will end up in a courtroom.

The summer offered a brief solace as restrictions on contact sports other than football were lifted.   A true summer sport, the Dutch baseball league managed to squeeze in an abbreviated competition only to see it’s final tournament, the Holland Series fall victim to an increased infection rate and a suspension of the sport two games into the best of seven game series.  The Amsterdam Pirates had taken the first two decisions at the expense of nemesis Neptunus Rotterdam and while not officially declared champion by the national federation, would likely feel that their title had been extended by a year.  Non-football sports such as basketball, field hockey handball and korfball saw their seasons extinguished before ever really getting underway.

As the sporting year 2020 winds down we can all breathe a small sigh of relief.  While we lament the sport that was lost we should also be in awe of the incredible job done to pull off as much sport as possible.  In the end, there were surprisingly few infections in professional sport.  Valuable lessons were learned and new innovations will help us ‘build back better’.  We are by no means out of woods – the promise of vaccines is only as bright as the ways and means to distribute them and then we must hope that they will be accepted. And while we will only see the real financial impact of Covid-19 next year, if 2020 taught us one important lesson it is the incredible value of sport in our society and no effort should be spared to preserve it!

Written by John Mahnen