Writing about sport in 2018 is quite the task. The World Cup alone offers a plethora of ideas and illuminations about cultures and personalities, driven by media coverage and national communion.
Yet, there was something very different about sport in 2018. The headlines didn’t merely offer reportage on scoreboards and achievements. Instead, we saw the voice of sport reach out to speak up on problems we face as a society, from mental health and sexual abuse, to racism and gender inequality.
The BBC’s annual Sports Personality of the Year Awards are great at reminding us of the huge sporting achievements of the last year. 2018 was no different – Billie Jean King took home the award for Lifetime Achievement, and Geraint Thomas, the incredible cyclist who became the third Brit to win the Tour de France, won the prestigious Sports Personality of the Year Award.
Yet, some of the most fascinating moments were those that edged us away from pre-match hyperbole and post-match scrutiny. In the most macho of sports, heavyweight boxer Tyson Fury used his pre-fight interviews to share his challenges with mental health, his journey and the importance for men to speak up about their problems. Days before flying with the England squad to the Russia World Cup, left-back Danny Rose opened up about his illness with depression. These two episodes alone felt like a watershed moment in the battle against mental health.
In response to their double-win (Team of the Year and Sporting Moment of the Year), the GB Netball Team were shocked. Captain Ama Agbeze proudly declared that the team were standing on the shoulders of giants, admitting that it felt like Netball was ‘coming home’ for the first time, raising the profile of the sport.
Gareth Southgate’s incredibly modest acceptance speech for Coach of the Year reminded the audience how the 2018 World Cup offered unity, optimism, and a renewed lust for life this summer. But what’s more important to remember is how he empowered a group of young professionals to embrace new heights while simultaneously taking responsibility for their shortcomings.
The long-running saga of whether NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick will ever take to the field again continues, but the iconic Nike advert ‘Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything’ illuminated the powerful role athletes have in standing up for their beliefs, even if it means losing everything they have worked for.
At the end of December, Nike unveiled Manchester City and England footballer Raheem Sterling as the latest face in this campaign, arriving weeks after he took to Instagram to highlight racism in British media.
Serena Williams was banned from wearing her black catsuit at the French Open - a garment designed specifically to prevent life-threatening blood clots after her difficult pregnancy and labour. Subjected to allegations that she wasn’t ‘respecting the game’, Williams used the opportunity to amplify why she was empowering pregnant women.
2018 also saw the acceleration of the global Me Too Movement by USA Gymnastics. Dozens of gymnasts - including all five members of the 2012 Olympic team and four of the five members of the 2016 team - came forward as victims of sexual abuse by the former team doctor, Larry Nassar. Gymnast Aly Raisman stood up in court at Nassar’s trial, and Simone Biles, who left the 2016 Olympics as best in the world, also came forward as a victim.
It would be amiss to mention the revolution as it were on our TV screens, with the first foray during the FIFA World Cup, and then into our living rooms each Sunday. Of course, we’re not talking about VAR, but female football pundits like Alex Scott who, shock horror, offer insights and opinions to rival their established male counterparts.
The voice of sport in 2018 moved beyond leaderboards, cup finals and breaking records. We saw a real watershed moment; rather than behaving as a detached and compartmentalized entity, sport offered a voice on issues that intersect at all levels of society.
One reason perhaps is our established sports stars now have such large social media followings, often rivaling traditional media outlets for audience share, they are themselves empowered to speak up on the issues which they deeply believe in.
In 2018 it was hard to reach consensus on anything. But in a year of turmoil and uncertainty, sport offered a voice on issues where other areas failed.