The Game columnist Andy Murray looks at how the pandemic has shaped how we interact with sport and what 2022 has in store for addicts in perpetual need of their fix.
First, a confession. I’m the sort of sad act who luxuriates in watching reruns of old football matches, Grand Slam tennis finals, Ryder Cup tournaments and legendary boxing bouts. Sure, I know the outcome, but nostalgia is a potent force in my sport-obsessed mind, much to my impossibly patient partner’s latent irritation. The chance to study, analyse and reconsider epic contests unsullied by the emotional investment of who wins has always held greater appeal than sitting down to watch an oversized animatronic doll fire deadly lasers from its eyes at unsuspecting participants of Grandmother’s Footsteps. Sorry, Squid Game fans.
In theory, then, the first lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic, and resultant postponement of all live sport, should have presented no great issue. Hour after hour to be spent devouring Premier League Years on Sky Sports until Out of Control by the Chemical Brothers permanently seared itself into my consciousness or hunched over YouTube until I could perform the epic first round of Tommy Hearns and Marvin Hagler’s April 1985 war for the undisputed world middleweight world title as a form of interpretive dance.
Yet something was missing. Soon I craved live sport’s drama and was delirious at its return from June 2020. It proved a false dawn. Sport’s sterility behind closed doors, a necessary evil to ensure its continued existence while also preventing transmission of the virus, meant even addicts such as myself struggled to actually care. It was better than nothing, but only marginally.
Made possible by the vaccine rollout, the return of crowds last summer reignited my waning interest. From the polite applause of a Wimbledon semi-final to the visceral Wembley noise at Euro 2020, sport finally meant something again in the second half of 2021.
Though a new year brings new challenges from the highly transmissible Omicron variant – albeit, it is hoped, one which produces less serious disease – there is much to look forward to in 2022. We have, of course, already experienced the first seismic moment of the sporting calendar, with one-time tyre fitter Peter Wright winning a second PDC world darts title at a febrile Alexandra Palace in north London, but as this rundown of highlights proves, there’s more where that came from in 2022…
African Cup of Nations
January 9 to February 6
Too often is AFCON disrespected by Premier League fans – or even clubs in Watford’s case, who have effectively refused to allow Emmanuel Dennis to join up with Nigeria – lamenting the loss of their star players to a tournament they perceive an irrelevance. Liverpool should be grateful for the privilege of watching Mo Salah and Sadio Mane at their respective peaks, not whingeing about them representing their countries in the second-biggest international tournament in which they could play. Egypt, Senegal and defending champions Algeria, who count Said Benrahma and Riyad Mahrez among their squad, start as favourites, with hosts Cameroon and Ivory Coast also expected to challenge.
European Men’s Handball Championship
January 13 to January 30
It may barely be but a flicker in the UK, but there’s an argument that handball is one of Europe’s most popular sports, after football. Defending champions Spain will again fancy their chances in the event co-hosted by Hungary and Slovakia, with an exciting Poland side aiming to restore past glories and handball royalty Kiril Lazarov now coaching North Macedonia. Expect strong showings from the ever-consistent Scandinavians Denmark and Sweden, too.
Winter Olympics & Winter Paralympics
February 4 to February 20 & March 4 to March 13
There’s something glorious about watching the world’s best winter sports athletes do battle in sub-zero temperatures while hibernating under a blanket on the sofa with a steaming bowl of tomato soup for company. Whether it’s hurtling face-first down an ice run on little more than a tea tray or downhill skiing at 120kph, the Winter Olympics and Paralympics guarantee thrills, spills and peak human endeavour. Look out for Dutch 35-year-old Sven Kramer looking for a fifth gold medal and compatriot Irene Wust, the country’s most decorated Olympian, in the speed skating, while new mother Natalie Geisenberger will hope Beijing will see her become the most decorated luge athlete of all time.
The NFL showpiece may employ nefarious claims at the biggest worldwide television audience – usually reasoning that anyone who owns one, or knows what one is, has watched it – but there’s little doubting the Superbowl’s global appeal. The half-time show holds a unique place in entertainment history, while the game seldom disappoints. Could a rerun of last year’s game between Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers – featuring up-and-coming quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the bionic Tom Brady – be on the cards?
Amir Kahn vs Kell Brook
Yes, this fight is (at least) five years too late. Yes, there’s a distinct lack of silverware. No, neither of these things matter in the most eagerly anticipated British fight already scheduled for 2022. Kahn and Brook have never got on and though both are on the decline, this should prove a fascinating contest. Josh Taylor defends his undisputed world super-lightweight titles later in February against Jack Catterall, while Tyson Fury vs Dillian Whyte and the Oleksandr Usyk-Anthony Joshua rematch should all happen by the summer. And what price pound-for-pound king Canelo Alvarez becoming a five-weight world champion if he can successfully move up two weight divisions and beat WBC cruiserweight champion Ilunga Makabu? Boxing is back.
Tour de France & Tour de France Femmes
July 1 to July 24 & July 24 to July 31
Still the ultimate test of cycling endurance, the Tour begins in Denmark and will have Tadej Pogacar going for a third-straight yellow jersey, with 2018 winner Geraint Thomas the Slovenian’s main competition. Back for the first time since Emma Pooley won the 2009 event, the women’s race will begin at the Eiffel Tower in Paris, when the men’s race finishes on the Champs-d’Elyses.
Women’s Euro 2022
July 6 to July 31
Another casualty of 2021, the rescheduled Women’s Euros promises to be the most-watched in history, as England plays host to arguably one of the world’s blossoming sports. The Lionesses are now under the charge of Sarina Wiegman, who won this tournament last time out with the Netherlands, and will be desperate to go one better than their male counterparts in the Wembley showpiece. Expect fierce competition from Spain, who count on much of Women’s Champions League winners Barcelona’s players in their side.
World Athletics Championships
July 15 to July 24
Delayed for a year because of the virus, the World Athletics Championships is the first of two big meets this summer. Hosted in the United States for the first time – somewhat controversially in Eugene, Oregon, the site of Nike’s Oregon Project headed by Alberto Salazar, which has been dogged by doping scandals – the faster, further, higher mantra of elite athletics makes for supreme viewing. Look out for Norway’s new-found pedigree, with the Ingebrigtsen brothers – especially Jakob, a dead ringer for A-ha lead singer Morten Harket – ruling the middle-distance roost and Karsten Warholm breaking the world 400m hurdles record at Tokyo 2020. The Commonwealth Games follows from July 28 for 10 days and includes women’s cricket T20 for the first time.
June 27 to July 10
One of the first sporting events to feature crowds in 2021 remains arguably the crown in the UK calendar. Novak Djokovic and Ash Bartey return as defending champions, but the unrelenting home focus on the state of Andy Murray’s hips (not me, the other guy) and how Emma Raducanu will cope after her fairy tale US Open triumph last year.
World Gymnastics Championships
October 26 to November 6
Liverpool hosts nine days of artistic beauty mixed with stunning strength as the World Gymnastics Championship comes to Merseyside. Home hopes will again fall on double Olympic pommel horse champion Max Whitlock, while Tokyo 2020 gold medallist Daiki Hashimoto should feature prominently in the men’s all-around competition. In the women’s all-around, Olympic champion Sunisa Lee is the new US star after Simone Biles won more than just balance beam bronze in Tokyo last year by bravely dealing with her mental health struggles in full public view.
Formula One Abu Dhabi
Motor racing fans have barely recovered from the denouement to the 2021 F1 season, when Max Verstappen overtook Lewis Hamilton on the final lap in Abu Dhabi to win the world title amid much controversy. Surely a repeat couldn’t happen, could it?
The World Cup
November 21 to December 18
Controversy may still abound at the men’s football World Cup being held in the winter because of the health risk posed by Qatar hosting a summer tournament, but much of that – along with the country’s human rights record – will be forgotten by the time the football starts next November. France are as talented as they are combustible, England vibrant yet brittle, Spain have no forwards, Argentina have an ageing Lionel Messi and little else, Brazil swing into catastrophe at will and Italy have been miserable since winning Euro 2020. And we haven’t even mentioned tournament specialists Germany. It could be the most open tournament yet…