The year in sport: A fond farewell for some, a glimpse of the future for others
An athlete, former jockey AP McCoy said earlier this year, is the only person who dies twice, such is the pain of walking away from the intoxicating, all-consuming nature of professional sport.
McCoy retired from his long, decorated racing career in 2015, and since then has had to learn, in his own words, how to “start again and have another life.”
Based on the past 12 months, there are some notable sports stars who might have been listening extra closely to McCoy’s experience of retirement – or indeed to anyone else who has spoken candidly about the difficulty of ending a successful sporting career.
Among them is Roger Federer, who called time on his trophy-laden tennis career at the Laver Cup in September after years spent trying to recover from two knee surgeries.
In the letter announcing his retirement, Federer, like McCoy, alluded to the heightened emotions of being a professional athlete and how they make saying goodbye so hard.
“I have laughed and cried, felt joy and pain, and most of all I have felt incredibly alive,” Federer wrote. “To the game of tennis,” he signed off the letter, “I love you and will never leave you.”
Those final words were reassuring for fans who have admired Federer’s career for so many years, but also spoke to another issue: namely, of how hard it can be to walk away entirely from professional sport after retirement.
It remains to be seen exactly how Federer will remain involved in tennis moving forward, and the same can be said of Serena Williams, who announced she would “evolve away from tennis” ahead of this year’s US Open – but refused to say she was retiring.
On several occasions over the past three months, the 23-time grand slam champion has even teased fans about a potential return to tennis.
While Federer and Williams have stepped away from their careers as two of the greatest athletes of all time, other sports stars can’t seem to decide when, or how, to walk away.
Heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury has yo-yoed in and out of retirement this year, saying in October that he’s finding it “really hard to let this thing go.”
And earlier this year, Tom Brady announced he would be retiring from the NFL, leaving the sport as a seven-time Super Bowl champion and arguably the greatest quarterback of all time. the 45-year-old then reversed that decision and is still breaking records with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during his 23rd season in the NFL.
However in September, Brady and Gisele Bündchen announced they were to divorce after 13 years of marriage.
“I think there is a lot of professionals in life that go through things that they deal with at work and they deal with at home,” the Bucs quarterback said on his weekly podcast a few days the couple’s divorce announcement.
“Obviously, the good news is it’s a very amicable situation, and I’m really focused on two things: taking care of my family, and certainly my children, and secondly doing the best job I can to win football games. That’s what professionals do.”
Brady has redefined what most believed to be the average shelf-life of an athlete, and he’s not the only person refusing to let the light dim on his career.
LeBron James is about to turn 38 but is still setting records in the NBA – in February passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the most combined regular season and postseason points in NBA history.
Federer’s rivals Rafael Nadal, 36, and Novak Djokovic, 35, meanwhile, have added to their grand slam tallies this year – the Mallorcan at the Australian Open and French Open, where he became the oldest men’s singles champion, and the Serbian at Wimbledon. Djokovic’s Wimbledon triumph moved him to within one grand slam title of Nadal’s men’s record of 22.
Having been deported from Australia over his vaccination status at the start of the year, Djokovic is set to compete at the Australian Open at the start of 2023 – a tournament he has won on nine previous occasions and is favorite to win again next year off the back of his recent ATP Finals victory.
For Nadal, his future in the sport rests on the amount of strain his injury-ravaged body can continue to withstand.
In golf, Tiger Woods faces similar questions. The 15-time major champion completed a stunning return from serious leg injuries suffered in a car crash at this year’s Masters, scoring a remarkable one-under 71 at Augusta National before making the cut the following day.
Then there’s sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who turns 36 later this month but has shown no signs of slowing down. The Jamaican produced a string of consistently fast performances this year, running under 10.7 seconds for the 100 meters a record seven times and claiming her fifth world championship title over the distance in July.
And it’s not just athletes who have defied the call of retirement this year. In November, 73-year-old Dusty Baker became the oldest ever manager to win the World Series when he guided the Houston Astros to a 4-2 victory against the Philadelphia Phillies.
Many of the athletes who stole the headlines in 2022 have been doing so for years.
No one is sure where an aging Cristiano Ronaldo will play his club football in January after ending his second spell at Manchester United in ignominious fashion, but the 37-year-old still appears to be set on extending his playing career after Portugal’s quarterfinal exit from the World Cup.
His rival Lionel Messi, meanwhile, ended the year on a sensational high, guiding Argentina to a third World Cup trophy. The 35-year-old Messi scored twice in an absorbing final against France and finally got his hands on the World Cup at the fifth time of asking, further staking his claim as the game’s greatest ever player.
That hasn’t been the only recent instance of an established superstar winning silverware. In last season’s NBA Finals, Steph Curry guided the Golden State Warriors to a fourth championship title in eight seasons – in the process picking up his first Finals MVP award as the Warriors beat the Boston Celtics.
In baseball, meanwhile, Aaron Judge enjoyed a season for the ages. The 30-year-old outfielder, who has reportedly just signed a nine-year, $360 million deal with the New York Yankees, hit 62 home runs last season, breaking Roger Maris’ single-season American League (AL) home run record from 1961.
On Wednesday, the Yankees named Judge, the reigning AL MVP, as the 16th captain in the franchise’s history.
But even as familiar faces have continued to shine, the past year has also seen future stars emerge.
The 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz ends the year as the youngest No. 1 in the history of the men’s tennis having triumphed at the US Open, and in the women’s game, Iga Swiatek, who rose to No. 1 in the world following Ashleigh Barty’s decision to retire after winning the Australian Open, looks set to dominate for years to come.
This year, the 21-year-old Swiatek won her second grand slam title at the French Open – which came in the middle of a 37-match winning streak – and her third at the US Open.
In Formula One, Max Verstappen has cemented his position as the best driver in the sport, comfortably defending his world title with four races to spare, while Erling Haaland, regarded as one of the best strikers in European football, has been scoring goals at a record-breaking rate during his first season at Manchester City.
At the Winter Olympics in Beijing, then-18-year-old freestyle skier Eileen Gu stole the headlines, winning two gold medals and a silver for the host nation; she also became the first freestyle skier to earn three medals at a single Olympics.
Another teenager, figure skater Kamila Valieva, had a memorable Games for different reasons. The 16-year-old tested positive for trimetazidine, a heart medication, in December 2021, but the result didn’t come to light until Valieva was already in Beijing and had won gold in the figure skating team event.
In that competition, she became the first woman to land a quadruple jump – which involves four spins in the air – at the Winter Olympics.
The outcome from the positive test remains unresolved, and in November, the World Anti-Doping Agency referred Valieva’s case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport after deeming the Russian Anti-Doping Agency had made no progress.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has cast a shadow over much of this year’s sporting calendar.
Athletes and teams from Russia and Belarus were banned from competitions across various sports, including qualification games for this year’s World Cup and participation at Wimbledon.
The decision from Wimbledon was perhaps the strongest stance taken by a sports organization, resulting in the ATP and WTA Tours removing ranking points from this year’s tournament.
At the start of the war, many Ukrainian athletes – like skeleton racer Vladyslav Heraskevych and MMA fighter Yaroslav Amosov – opted to put their careers on hold and support the country’s military efforts.
Boxer Oleksandr Usyk has also spoken passionately about serving his country, and in the ring has extended his undefeated record, beating Anthony Joshua in August to retain his WBA (Super), IBF, WBO, and IBO heavyweight titles.
Throughout 2022, sport and geopolitics have been closely entwined. This month, WNBA star Brittney Griner returned home to the US having been detained in Russia for nearly 10 months on drug smuggling charges.
Despite her testimony that she had inadvertently packed the cannabis oil that was found in her luggage, Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison in early August and was moved to a penal colony in the Mordovia republic in mid-November after losing her appeal.
The 32-year-old’s arrest in Russia sparked diplomatic drama between the US and the Kremlin which played out alongside Russia’s war in Ukraine.
She was released in a prisoner swap that involved Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. The exchange, however, did not include another American that the State Department has declared wrongfully detained, Paul Whelan.
Perhaps no sport has been as gripped by internal politics this year as much as golf, which was rocked by the launch of the Saudi-backed LIV Golf series in June.
LIV Golf has been criticized by some of the game’s leading players – including Woods and Rory McIlroy – while others – major champions Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson – have abandoned the PGA Tour in favor of the lucrative, breakaway series.
It has left the sport divided. Earlier this year, LIV Golf joined an antitrust lawsuit alongside some of its players, alleging that the PGA Tour threatened to place lifetime bans on players who participate in the LIV Golf series.
The suit also alleges that the PGA Tour has threatened sponsors, vendors, and agents to coerce players into abandoning opportunities to play in LIV Golf events.
The PGA Tour filed a countersuit in late September, claiming “tortious interference with the Tour’s contracts with its members.”
The LIV Golf series is backed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) – a sovereign wealth fund chaired by Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia and the man who a US intelligence report named as responsible for approving the operation that led to the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Bin Salman has denied involvement in Khashoggi’s murder.
LIV Golf’s launch is part of Saudi Arabia’s wider ambition to host and invest in global sports events. This year, it staged the rematch between Usyk and Joshua and even won a bid to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games.
But unquestionably, the most prominent sporting event held in the Gulf region this year has been the World Cup in Qatar.
The four-week-long tournament came to a thrilling conclusion on Sunday as Argentina lifted the trophy, bringing down the curtain on what FIFA president Gianni Infantino argued was the greatest World Cup of all time.
There were upsets, high-scoring games, and brilliant goals throughout – right up to Sunday’s showpiece when Messi reigned supreme and Kylian Mbappé scored a stunning hat-trick in a losing cause.
It was the first time a country in the Middle East had hosted the World Cup, and Qatar, which has a population of just three million people, invested billions of dollars in building seven new stadiums, as well as new hotels and expansions to the country’s airport, rail networks and highways.
The tournament was also fraught with controversy, particularly when it came to allegations surrounding the country’s poor human rights record and treatment of migrant workers.
Since 2010, many migrant workers in Qatar have faced delayed or unpaid wages, forced labor, long hours in hot weather, employer intimidation, and an inability to leave their jobs because of the country’s sponsorship system, human rights organizations have found.
In the face of such criticism, Qatar has maintained it is an open, tolerant country and has seen the World Cup as a vehicle to accelerate labor reforms.
Elsewhere in international football, England won the Women’s European Championships for the first time in front of a record crowd on home soil, while Senegal claimed the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) title in February, also for the first time.
Outside international competitions, Real Madrid won its 14th European crown by defeating Liverpool in the Champions League final – a game that was marred by security issues.
The match itself was delayed by more than 35 minutes after Liverpool fans struggled to enter the Stade de France and tear gas was used by French police towards supporters held in tightly packed areas.
Paris police chief Didier Lallement admitted in June that the chaos was “obviously a failure” and said he takes “full responsibility for police management” of the event.
Tragically, football has witnessed multiple serious stadium disasters this year. In October, more than 130 people were killed in a stampede in the Indonesian city of Malang – one of the world’s deadliest stadium disasters of all time.
Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo later said the country would demolish and rebuild the stadium, vowing to “thoroughly transform” the sport in the football-mad nation.
A stadium crush in the Cameroonian capital of Yaoundé during this year’s AFCON also saw at least eight people killed and 38 injured during the game between Cameroon and Comoros.
Looking ahead to 2023, Australia and New Zealand is scheduled to host the Women’s World Cup in July and August.
The US Women’s National Team (USWNT) could become the first team to win the tournament three times in a row.
This year, the United States Soccer Federation (USSF), the USWNT’s Players Association (USWNTPA) and the United States National Soccer Team Players Association (USNSTPA) forged a landmark equal pay deal – the first federation in the world to equalize prize money awarded to the teams for participating in World Cups.
Next year will be the first time the USWNT has played a major tournament under such a deal.
Among the other major sporting events being held next year are the World Athletics Championshps in Budapest, Hungary, and the Rugby World Cup in France.
In the NFL, Super Bowl LVII in Glendale, Arizona is only weeks away, while the NBA Playoffs begin two months later in April.
With the men’s World Cup over, club football resumes in Europe and tennis’ first grand slam of the year, the Australian Open, begins on January 16.
For sports fans, that will hopefully serve as tonic to stave off the January blues.