Year in Review 2020: Top 10 sports feats that happened despite COVID-19

Chia Han Keong
·9-min read
Liverpool players and staff celebrate winning the English Premier League trophy.
Liverpool players and staff celebrate winning the English Premier League trophy. (PHOTO: Pool via Reuters/Phil Noble)

SINGAPORE — In a year when the sporting calendar was decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is perhaps surprising that there were still extraordinary sporting feats being achieved in 2020.

From world records being smashed, to titles being won in dominant style, athletes showed that even amid a pandemic that had disrupted their training routines and competition preparations, they still possessed the strength of will and character to pull through.

Here are the top 10 sporting feats that happened despite COVID-19 in 2020:

1. Liverpool win their first-ever English Premier League title

For 30 long years, Liverpool have wanted to win England’s top-flight division league title to maintain their dominance in England. And since 1990, the Merseyside club – as well as their global fan base – suffered heartbreak after heartbreak in missing out on that title and seeing other clubs dominate the English Premier League (EPL) as they faded away.

So when the Reds finally ended that title drought on 22 July, it was an extraordinarily joyful relief for the club and their supporters as captain Jordan Henderson lifted the trophy in a near-empty Anfield stadium. The dream had almost seemed impossible, but Liverpool finally could claim to be among the short list of EPL-winning teams, together with Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Blackburn and Leicester.

And it was a truly spectacular season for the Reds, who went unbeaten for the first 27 league matches, winning 26 of them, to clinch the EPL title with a record-setting seven games to spare. When the league was suspended for almost three months due to the pandemic, Liverpool players maintained their poise and intensity despite losing their fan support when games resumed. It was a title triumph like no other.

2. Bayern Munich dominant in winning Uefa Champions League

Like many football competitions around the world, the Uefa Champions League was suspended in mid-March as COVID-19 raged across the globe, putting the elite competition in jeopardy of not completing in time for the next European season.

Thankfully, the knockout stages resumed in August in Lisbon, and this was when German Bundesliga powerhouses Bayern Munich caught the eye with some magnificent results. A 7-1 aggregate last-16 win over England’s Chelsea was followed by a stunning 8-2 mauling of Lionel Messi’s Barcelona in the quarter-finals, before a emphatic 3-0 victory over fellow German side RB Leipzig sent them into the final.

Against high-spending French giants Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern showed the pedigree of having won the competition five previous times, eking out a 1-0 victory to seal their sixth European Cup. They won all their 11 matches in the competition and scored a staggering 43 goals to clinch Europe’s biggest football prize, along with their German league and Cup victories. The epitome of a dominant season.

3. Lewis Hamilton in record-equalling seventh F1 title

It was a record that many felt would stand the test of time: Michael Schumacher’s seven Formula One drivers’ championship titles was a testament to the German racing great’s skills and tenacity in fending off all his rivals from 1994 to 2004.

Yet, just 16 years later, Lewis Hamilton managed to emulate Schumacher’s record achievement with another dominant season under Mercedes GP. The Briton won 11 out of the 17 races in a season truncated by COVID-19 to clinch his seventh title with three races to spare. Just in time too, as the 35-year-old also came down with the coronavirus infection after confirming his title.

Hamilton, who was already highly rated when he burst onto the F1 scene in 2007, battled the likes of Sebastian Vettel, Nico Rosberg, Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen – and emerged more decorated than all these illustrious names. As he put it, “Not bad for a boy from a council estate.”

Rafael Nadal celebrates after winning his 13th French Open title.
Rafael Nadal celebrates after winning his 13th French Open title. (PHOTO: Reuters/Christian Hartmann)

4. Rafael Nadal winning his 13th French Open title

Many top tennis pros thought they would have a chance at this year’s French Open. Postponed from May to September because of COVID-19, they though that the cooler climate and less-bouncy surface would be disadvantageous to the greatest clay-court player of all time – Rafael Nadal.

Turned out, they had no chance. Nadal – who had already won a barely-believable 12 French Open titles before this year – simply wore his most determined scowl on court, and stormed to title No. 13 at Roland Garros without losing a single set from round one to the final.

In the final, he “bageled” Novak Djokovic – a 6-0 first-set humbling of his great rival – and generally looked as imperious as usual, despite his initial grumbles about the cold weather. Who can beat him on clay in a best-of-five format? Internet memes abounded that Nadal will keep on winning the French Open until he is 70 years old, and it is not even that far-fetched.

5. Los Angeles Lakers clinch first NBA title in 10 years

The year started in deep tragedy for Los Angeles Lakers, with news of their club legend Kobe Bryant being killed in a helicopter crash with his young daughter Gianna and seven others. Bryant, 41, was the linchpin of their last National Basketball Association (NBA) title triumph in 2010 – a reminder of the marquee club’s struggles to regain prominence in the ensuing decade.

Whether the current Lakers team used the tragedy as motivation for the rest of the NBA season, only LeBron James, Anthony Davis and gang would know for sure. What was definite was that they swept to their 17th NBA title amid the COVID-19 “bubble” set up by the league in Orlando’s Disney World to complete the season.

James and Davis were by far the best duo in the league, an unstoppable one-two punch complemented by their teammates’ tough defence. James, who won his fourth NBA ring, further cemented himself as the greatest basketball player of this generation – and even at 35, he does not seem like he is done with winning yet.

6. Argentina stun the New Zealand All Blacks

The name “All Blacks” is synonymous with rugby excellence – with the New Zealand national team winning the Rugby World Cup three times and the southern-hemisphere Rugby Championship 16 times in its 23-year history. They have a winning record against every national team they faced, and – before this year – 11 of the 19 nations they faced in test rugby have never won a game against them.

Then on 26 August, the number became 10, as Argentina served up one of the biggest upsets in rugby history by beating the All Blacks 25-15 – their first win over mighty New Zealand in 30 attempts going back 30 years.

Even more unbelievably, it was the Pumas’ first competitive match in more than a year, due to the uncertainties brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. It made household names out of the Argentina players – not just in their own country, but also among the global rugby fans, and briefly plunged the All Blacks into a mini-crisis of confidence.

Armand Duplantis sets the new world record in the men's outdoor pole vault event during the IAAF Diamond League meet in Rome.
Armand Duplantis sets the new world record in the men's outdoor pole vault event during the IAAF Diamond League meet in Rome. (PHOTO: Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)

7. Armand Duplantis breaks 26-year-old pole vault world record

The men’s outdoor pole vault record has stayed at 6.14m since 1994, set by Ukraine’s Sergey Bubka, who was light years ahead of the competition then.

Few pole vaulters have come close to that awesome mark – until Sweden’s Armand Duplantis burst into the scene in 2019. The 21-year-old had been dominating pole vault in European and World junior meets, and many had touted him to be in with a chance at breaking Bubka’s record.

They did not count on Duplantis breaking it so soon. On 19 September, in perfect warm and windless conditions at the Diamond League meet in Rome, Duplantis soared in his second attempt at 6.15m – and cleared the bar. The 26-year-old record was finally broken.

8. Los Angeles Dodgers win World Series

For three straight Major League Baseball seasons, the Los Angeles Dodgers suffered heartbreaks. They lost the 2017 and 2018 World Series, then suffered a shock defeat in 2019 to eventual champions Washington Nationals.

Could the Dodgers and their expensively-assembled team ever make the breakthrough and win their first World Series since 1988? In a COVID-19 disrupted 2020 season, they proved that they could. The masterstroke was signing Mookie Betts from Boston Red Sox, igniting their offence amid the shortened 60-game season.

The Dodgers maintained their all-around brilliance into the playoffs, and finally reached the promised land when they beat the Tampa Bay Rays 4-2 to clinch their seventh World Series title. Los Angeles had just celebrated the Lakers’ NBA title a few weeks earlier, and the Dodgers gave the City of Angels another joyous sporting occasion.

9. Khabib Nurmagomedov retires from UFC with unbeaten record

When Khabib Nurmagomedov defeated top contender Justin Gaethje in their Ultimate Fight Championship (UFC) lightweight title bout on 24 October, the Russian seemed unbeatable – 29 UFC bouts since he arrived in 2011, 29 wins, no losses.

Then he dropped the bombshell that he was retiring from UFC in his post-match interview. He explained that he had promised his mother that he would not continue to fight without his late father, who had died of complications arising from COVID-19. And he kept his word.

Nurmagomedov retires as the UFC lightweight champion, a title he had held since 2018, and will be remembered as one of the greatest fighters in mixed martial arts history.

10. England win Six Nations title after losing first match

With only five matches to decide the winning team of the annual Six Nations rugby championship, it is always tough when a team lose its opening match.

And so when England lost 17-24 to France in their Six Nations opener on 2 February, few counted on Eddie Jones’ side to regain the title they last won in 2017. But as the Rugby World Cup runners-up won their next three matches while other nations stumbled, they suddenly found themselves in with a chance – beat Italy in their final match, and hope France can beat Ireland.

That chance almost never came – COVID-19 forced the competition to be suspended before the final round, before it finally resumed in October. England duly defeated Italy 34-5 – and France stunned Ireland 35-27 to allow England to become the first side since Wales in 2013 to win the Six Nations after losing their first match.

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