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Roger Alton

The year sport and politics became inseparable

The year sport and politics became inseparable
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Sport and politics have always been intertwined, but this was the year they became joined at the hip. Yorkshire racism; the growing protests about China’s sportwashing at the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022; anger about the Saudi takeover of Newcastle United; and the long-simmering anxiety about the Qatar World Cup. And with it, growing and very welcome, activism from sports-people: Lewis Hamilton’s rainbow helmet for gay rights in Saudi Arabia, Marcus Rashford’s indefatigable campaigning over child deprivation, and Michael Holding’s powerful interventions over everyday racism.

But the gutless performance of the year should go to men’s professional tennis, which has resolutely failed to join the Women’s Tennis Association in boycotting China over the plight of the Grand Slam doubles champion Peng Shuai, who disappeared from public life after accusing a Communist party boss of sexual assault. She has recently only been seen in the company of government goons, making anodyne comments about being fine. There have been no tournaments in China recently because of Covid, but a gesture carries a weight of meaning.

In the meantime, pressure is growing on China over its human-rights record and treatment of Muslim minorities. But should there be a boycott of February’s Winter Games? The problem with a boycott is that the ones who suffer are the athletes, who have spent their lives preparing for this. And would a boycott change the Chinese mindset? I rather doubt it.

Is there a compromise, such as the athletes wearing the Aids ribbon, or some badge or symbol indicating support for the Uighurs? The Americans have said they will stage a diplomatic boycott, and the British may well follow suit. At the very least we should make things difficult for China by prevaricating until the last moment. But it is hard to see that a vacillating British government will cause many furrowed brows in the political halls of Beijing.

Meanwhile this will be the year of the long countdown, with the final of the 2022 World Cup taking place on 18 December. The whole year will be full of stories about the competition, and personally I can’t wait. But giving the tournament to Qatar was unquestionably a decision taken by a corrupt Fifa regime, and the finals should have been moved long ago.

A special award for making every-body feel a damn sight better must go to Bromley’s finest, Emma Raducanu, who waltzed off with her first Grand Slam at the first time of asking, cruising the US Open without dropping a set, smiling all the while. I have slight — very slight — doubts that she will do it again. There are a lot of hungry, unsmiling eastern Europeans who are going to make life as difficult for her as they can, and know all about her game now.

Full respect to West Ham’s David Moyes, whose victory over Chelsea reinforced his position as the only homegrown manager to duke it out with the European über--coaches of the Big Three title contenders. The Big Three might be playing sublime football, but I can’t be the only person longing for someone to do a Leicester. Over to you, Mr Moyes.

Indian cricket should always win a special award for bare-faced cheek when they prepare their pitches. It was difficult to be over-critical at the beginning of the year when England were being trashed by India’s spinners for three Tests on the trot, because it would have sounded like a Pommy whinge. But even the amenable Kiwis have just been rolled over a couple of times, most recently in Mumbai when India waived an obvious follow-on to spin the match out and make it look more competitive than it actually was.

At least they made it briefly past the third day, India winning by a colossal 372 runs on the fourth morning. And prepare for a quiz question: who is one of only three bowlers in Test history to take ten wickets in one innings but still finish on the wrong end of a hammering? Answer: New Zealand’s Ajaz Patel, whose first-innings figures were an astounding 10-119 in 47 overs.

The rugby moment of the year, once you moved beyond Quins’ sensational victories from behind in the premiership play-offs, was England scraping a brilliant victory over South Africa. Beauty over brawn. Marcus Smith should be able to steer the best of English rugby for years, while Freddie Steward — whisper it softly — has something of Le Guv’nor of full-backs, Monsieur Blanco.