The year 2021 was marked by some key international sporting events, including many postponed from 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Among the highlights were the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, the Euro football tournament and Lionel Messi’s arrival at Paris Saint-Germain. We take a look back at some of the notable sporting events of the year.
Skier Alexis Pinturault realises his childhood dream
As he turned 30 on March 20, Alexis Pinturault gave France its first World Cup victory in Alpine skiing in more than 20 years. The skier from Savoie claimed the Overall Crystal Globe, awarded to the best skier of the season, after having won the Giant Slalom in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.
Pinturault became the fourth French skier to win the title after Jean-Claude Killy (1967 and 1968), Michèle Jacot (1970) and Luc Alphand, who won in 1997.
Mathieu Van der Poel’s tribute and Tadej Pogacar’s second Tour de France title
As he crossed the finish line on June 27, he raised his finger high in tribute to his grandfather, cycling champion Raymond Poulidor, who died in 2019. But Dutch rider Mathieu van der Poel did what his grandfather could never do: claim the yellow jersey by winning the second stage of the Tour de France in Mûr-de-Bretagne. The 26-year-old made a brilliant debut by winning this stage ahead of Slovenian Tour favourites Tadej Pogacar and last year’s runner-up Primoz Roglic by six seconds.
The Dutch rider kept the leader’s jersey for six days before giving it up on the first Alpine stage to Pogacar, who won the Tour for the second year in a row. Van Der Poel did not finish the Tour so he could prepare for the mountain bike race at the Tokyo Olympics, but he later pulled out due to a fall.
Italy deny England a home title at the Euro; France disappoint
Italy denied England a major trophy that has eluded them since they won the 1966 World Cup. Playing in front of the English crowd on July 11, the Italians came back after conceding an early goal and went on to win the final on penalties (1-1, 3-2 shootout). Just three years earlier, Italy failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup – a first in 60 years.
Roberto Mancini, who had taken over the reins as Italy’s manager for the first time, built a winning and successful squad. “It was a great way to get back into the game,” he said.
After a breathless and indecisive match (3-3) France lost on penalties (5-4) to Switzerland in the round of 16.
Simone Biles steps aside at Olympics, calling attention to athletes’ mental health
The expected superstar of the gymnastics events at the Tokyo Olympics, Simone Biles, withdrew on July 28 from the individual all-around and later from the vault, uneven bars and floor finals. The 24-year-old American, who was competing in her second Olympics, said she was weakened by a loss of confidence and a loss of spatial awareness.
Placed in foster care from a young age, she went on to come under enormous pressure as a gymnastics champion. In 2018, after years of silence, she also revealed that she was one of the victims of former US national team doctor Larry Nassar, who was convicted of sexually abusing more than 100 women.
Despite these difficulties, Biles finally competed in the beam event and won the bronze medal. At the same Olympics, Japanese tennis champion Naomi Osaka, a favourite in the competition who had also reported mental health issues during the French Open, exited the tournament prematurely after being eliminated in the third round.
Threats to Belarusian athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya
Belarusian athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya was threatened with forcible repatriation to Belarus on August 1 after she criticised her country’s sporting authorities during the Games.
Fearing that she would be jailed if she returned to her country, she obtained help from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and police protection while at Tokyo Haneda airport.
The sprinter has since fled to Poland, which granted her a humanitarian visa and where she hopes to continue her sporting career. The IOC also announced that it had withdrawn the accreditations of two coaches from the Belarusian delegation.
French team sports on top of the world
In just 70 minutes on August 7, France became Olympic champions in handball and volleyball. Despite their eventual defeat in the basketball final to the Americans, it was a glorious day for France.
With two Olympic titles, a silver medal (men’s basketball) and a bronze medal (women’s basketball) in the space of 12 hours, as well as the silver medal won in women’s rugby sevens and the gold medal won by the women’s handball team, French team sports made a spectacular showing.
With 33 medals in total (10 gold, 12 silver and 11 bronze), the French delegation did less well than at the Rio (42) and London (35) Games, but were still ranked eighth in the overall medal ranking.
‘King Messi’ arrives in Paris
Two days after announcing his departure from Barcelona, where he had spent his entire career, Lionel Messi signed a two-year contract with Paris Saint-Germain on August 10 with an option for an additional season. The 34-year-old Argentinian star has now joined his former teammate Neymar in the French capital.
Considered one of the best footballers of all time, “La Pulga” is still struggling to find his feet at his new club. He has so far scored only one goal and made four assists in 11 domestic league matches. But thanks in part to his first Copa America success this summer, he won his seventh Ballon d’Or on November 29, beating Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski and Chelsea’s Italian-Brazilian Jorginho.
Afghan athletes exfiltrated in extremis for the Paralympics
This year’s Paralympic Games coincided with the Taliban takeover of Kabul in Afghanistan and the emergency evacuation of thousands of Afghans.
Exfiltrated in extremis by several states, including France, after having launched an appeal for help, two young Afghan athletes were able to reach Tokyo on August 28. Taekwondo player Zakia Khudadadi was able to compete while sprinter Hossain Rasouli arrived too late for the 100m heats but competed in the long jump.
Neither won any medals, but they were able to realise part of their dreams. They marched in the closing ceremony of the Paralympic Games carrying the Afghan flag.
Medal haul for France at the Paralympics
The Tokyo Paralympic Games were a great success. The French ended the competition with 54 medals, including 11 gold, 15 silver and 28 bronze.
The last one was won by Lucas Mazur on September 5 in badminton (category SL4). Cyclist Kevin Le Cunff won gold in the road race (category C4-5). In men’s tennis doubles, Stephane Houdet and Nicolas Peifer retained their title as did table tennis players Fabien Lamirault and Stephane Molliens.
France surpassed its record at the 2008 Beijing Games but finished in only 14th place in the general ranking of nations due to a deficit of gold medals.
Djokovic fails in his quest for a calendar Grand Slam
Novak Djokovic came close to achieving the greatest feat of the Open Era. The Serb, who was defeated in the US Open final by Russian Daniil Medvedev on September 12, failed to join the elite club of champions that have won the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open in a calendar year. Rod Laver was the last man to do so in 1969.
Laver first achieved a calendar Slam in 1962 after American Don Budge in 1938. On the women’s side, the players to achieve this rare feat are Steffi Graf (1988), Margaret Court (1970) and Maureen Connolly (1953).
The Serbian champion also missed out on a medal at the Tokyo Games by finishing fourth in singles and forfeiting the semi-final in mixed doubles. But he can take comfort in the many records he has set this year: he won his 20th Grand Slam title at Wimbledon, matching Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. He also became the record-holder for the most weeks spent at the top of the ATP rankings, surpassing his Swiss rival. And he was named player of the year for the seventh time by the International Tennis Federation.
Julian Alaphilippe still in the rainbow
Julian Alaphilippe was crowned world road cycling champion for the second time in a row on September 26 in Leuven, Belgium. The 29-year-old Frenchman won after a decisive attack with 17km to go.
He is the first Frenchman to win two world titles since the first world championship in 1927. A rare feat: Only seven riders have won a world championship title two years in a row. Winner of the first stage and yellow jersey of the Tour de France at the beginning of the summer, Alaphilippe registered his fourth victory of the season at Leuven, one year after his first world triumph in Imola.
Tunisian Ons Jabeur makes women’s tennis history
Ons Jabeur of Tunisia became the first female tennis player from an Arab country to enter the world’s top 10 after qualifying for the quarter-finals of the Indian Wells tournament (WTA). Her rise in the world rankings in recent years was already remarkable, but by joining the world’s best players she has moved to the next level.
She was already the first player from an Arab country to reach the quarter-finals of one of the four major tournaments, first at the Australian Open in 2020 and then at Wimbledon in 2021. She was also the first player from an Arab country to win a WTA title last June at the Birmingham tournament.
Fabio Quartararo becomes the first French MotoGP champion
Fabio Quartararo, 22, made history on October 24 by giving France its first world championship title in MotoGP, the premier class of motorbike racing.
Fifteenth on the grid at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix in Misano, Italy, Quartararo made an impressive comeback to fourth place. He benefited from the crash of his title rival, Italian Francesco “Pecco” Bagnaia (Ducati), who crashed out with four laps to go while leading.
With a 65-point lead over the latter, “El Diablo” could not be joined in the riders’ standings before the last two rounds of the season. The title win comes in his third season in MotoGP, the first with the factory Yamaha team, after two years with the satellite Yamaha-SRT team. Out of 16 races in 2021, Quartararo took 10 podiums, including five wins.
Peng Shuai case puts China in the crosshairs of the sporting community
On November 2, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai posted a long text on the social network Weibo in which she accused former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli, who was one of China’s most powerful politicians from 2013 to 2018, of having forced her into a sexual relationship and then making her his mistress.
The message was promptly deleted by Chinese censors. The former world No. 1 doubles player then made no further public appearances for several weeks, prompting concern from the sports world, the UN and several countries including the US and France. As international pressure mounted on China, Chinese journalists tried to reassure by publishing Shuai’s images but the WTA, the world association of women’s professional tennis, remained sceptical about the authenticity of the documents.
On December 19, Shuai backtracked, saying she had never accused anyone of sexually assaulting her and that her social media post had been misinterpreted. Despite her statement, the WTA, which suspended its tournaments in China because of concerns for Shuai’s safety, reiterated its fears for the player’s well-being and again called for an investigation.
Antoine Dupont named best player in the world
French scrum-half Antoine Dupont, 25, was crowned the world’s best rugby player on December 10. With his 35 caps, he is the third Frenchman to add his name to the prestigious list, launched in 2001. Former scrum-half and current Les Bleus coach Fabien Galthie and Thierry Dusautoir won the honours in 2002 and 2011, respectively.
This international recognition is the reward for a year punctuated by two titles with Stade Toulousain in the European Cup and in the championship, and a prestigious victory for France against New Zealand in November. The only downside was the disappointment of the French team in the Six Nations tournament. Beaten 23-27 by Scotland on March 26, Les Bleus finished second in the final standings behind Wales.
A winning final round for Max Verstappen
After years of unchallenged domination by Lewis Hamilton, Dutchman Max Verstappen, 24, became Formula One world champion for the first time on December 12 by winning the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix ahead of his British rival thanks to a last-lap overtake.
It was only the second time in the history of the sport, after the 1974 championship, that two drivers went into the final race of the season on equal points: 369.5. Verstappen started with the advantage of the pole position. However, it was Hamilton who got the best start and took the lead at the first corner. But with six laps to go, a crash by Nicholas Latifi (Williams) changed the situation: Until the Canadian driver’s car was cleared, the race was suspended. This allowed Verstappen to put on new tyres and catch up with Hamilton’s Mercedes before finally winning on the final lap.
This article was translated from the original in French.
Originally published on France24