Looking back, looking ahead
If I’m really being honest about the last year in sport, I would have to put procuring tickets to Taylor Swift’s upcoming “Eras” tour at the top of the pile. From failed verified fan registration links to a complete meltdown by Ticketmaster that took you out of the virtual line just as you thought you were stepping up to the window, the rodeo to get those seats had as much drama, tension, corruption, and excitement as anything FIFA could ever hallucinate.
That said, FIFA brought us a men’s World Cup unlike any other, besieged by the controversies of its geopolitical context, perhaps especially the body count of the workers who built Qatar into a global soccer hub, but also providing the single greatest title game in the history of soccer – and I would dare say any sport. Whether you watched as a soccer fanatic or not, the showdown between France and Argentina, Mbappé and Messi, demonstrated how a tie game that descends into a penalty shootout victory can push through all the noise, as justified as it may be.
Indeed, the highs of 2022 in sport were high and the lows were low. In tennis, we said goodbye to Roger and Serena, generational athletes who need no last name, but said hello to Carlos Alcarez and Iga Swiatek. We saw the failure of the kings of baseball’s steroid era, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, fail to get a ride to Cooperstown on the last possible train while Aaron Judge kept Yankees’ fans (and many others – not me – but others) on the edges of their seats.
One of the worst moments in sport in 2022 also led to one of the best: the detainment of basketball superstar Brittney Griner by Russian officials last February, and then her return stateside just a few weeks ago.
Griner’s imprisonment by the Russian government came as its tanks assembled on Ukraine’s borders and the Beijing Winter Olympic Games wrapped up, ensuring that sport stayed center stage within the broader contexts of politics and culture. Indeed, just as Qatar proved to be a controversial host for a mega-event like the World Cup, Beijing, too, drew fire as Olympic host, particularly around the plight of its Uighur Muslim minority.
While there were controversies within the Olympic Games, too, perhaps especially the rise and fast fall of Russian figure skating phenom Kamila Valieva, whose positive drug test remains on the IOC’s “to do” list, the glory sport, as in Qatar, broke through. While Mikaela Shiffrin finished 2022 tearing up the slopes in Europe by winning World Cup races on three consecutive days (she is now just two wins away from Lindsey Vonn’s record), I cannot shake the image of her sitting on Olympic course, shattered at yet again skiing out of the course, unable to lock in a medal.
If Shiffrin had to wait for the Olympics to end to find her redemption, figure skater Nathan Chen got his done with a gold medal, his five quads in the free skate ensuring that the mistakes of four years ago can be put away for good. And while there are so many moments in sport to reflect upon from the last year, Chen’s historic performance to the tune of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” might be the best one to keep close as we look ahead to 2023, as his victory in Beijing serves as a vivid reminder of what sport can teach the rest of us, even those of us taking it all in from the comfort (and safety) of our couch. Whether competition ends in a blowout or a shootout, with a home run record or a fall on the snow, it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game, with the opportunity to transcend a loss and find a new path. Happy New Year.
Amy Bass is professor of sport studies and chair of the division of social science and communication at Manhattanville College. Bass is the author of ONE GOAL: A COACH, A TEAM, AND THE GAME THAT BROUGHT A DIVDED TOWN TOGETHER, among other titles. In 2012, she won an Emmy for her work with NBC Olympic Sports on the London Olympic Games.
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