Five athletes who fought for change in 2020

Five athletes who fought for change in 2020

Afternoon all. As we approach the final week of 2020, it feels like a good time to reflect on what has happened this year. There a any number of adjectives you could use to describe the past 12 months, but for the moment I’m going to go with absolutely f***ing mental.

The pandemic has of course dominated. The lives and livelihoods of everyone in the world, from Alaska to Tokyo, have been turned upside-down by Covid-19. Christmas has effectively been cancelled in Europe, and although vaccination programs have started in developing countries, in the past few weeks a new, more-transmissible strain of the virus has been detected in the UK. Sadly, it feels that we still have a way to go before we break the back of this particular beast.

There have been other issues, too. The brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of a cop on the streets of Minneapolis ignited the Black Lives Matter movement as people of all backgrounds joined marches and protests across the world. With eight days to go before Britain’s transition period for leaving the EU comes to an end, the two parties are still frantically negotiating in the hope of striking a post-Brexit trade deal. The Australian bushfires burnt an estimated 72,000 square miles and 3,500 homes, highlighting the destructive effects of climate change. And there was also the small matter of the US presidential election …

Since returning from lockdown in May, elite professional sport has provided a welcome distraction from all the chaos. Nothing like a few defeats for your football team to get your emotions up and help you forget about a global pandemic. But with so much going on away from the pitch, field, track and court, it feels apt today to look at some of the athletes that have used their platforms to fight for change in wider society in 2020. Lets get into it.

Marcus Rashford

The Manchester United striker’s efforts to provide meals to children in need in the UK have been nothing short of incredible. In March, after schools in the UK were shut down because of Covid, Rashford raised an initial £20 million to provide food for children who would normally have been receiving free school meals. Then in June the UK government, after receiving an open letter from Rashford calling for it to end child poverty, allowed 1.3 million children to claim free school meal vouchers. The 23-year-old then launched a petition, which so far has over half a million signatures, urging the government to expand the free school meal program to help more starving children across the country. He was rightly awarded an MBE by the Queen for his efforts.

Naomi Osaka

So shy and reserved in front of the cameras, the Japanese tennis star has come out of her shell and taken a front seat in the debate surrounding diversity and inclusion in 2020. After attending protests in Minnesota following the Floyd murder, Osaka shocked the tennis world by announcing that she would not play her semifinal at the Cincinnati Masters in order to draw attention to the Black Likes Matter movement that was gathering momentum across the country. “Before I’m an athlete, I’m a black woman,” said the 23-year-old, who grew up in the US with a Japanese mother and a Haitian father. Then at the US Open, during her post-match interviews Osaka donned a mask featuring the name of those who had been killed at the hands of American police. Happily she won the tournament, her third Grand Slam title, thus maximizing the impact of her efforts.

John Kirwan

The New Zealand rugby legend has been raising awareness of mental health issues for more than 10 years, breaking barriers in a game known for its hard men with stiff upper lips. The former All Black winger, who won the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987, has spoken openly about his depression and suicide attempts in two amazingly honest books. In 2018, Kirwan co-founded Mentemia, a digital platform that helps people improve their mental health by offering advice and exercises to identify and tackle potential problem areas. This year, as people around the world struggled to deal with the damaging mental impact of lockdown, the startup launched its mobile app. Meanwhile, Kirwan continues to use his platform to keep the conversation going and encourage more former players to share their stories.

Lewis Hamilton

As the only black driver in Formula One’s history, Hamilton has had to fight racism throughout his career and is a long-term advocate of increased inclusion in the sport.. The Brit, who broke Michael Schumacher’s all-time Grand Prix wins record this year, raised his voice even further this year following the Floyd killing. In a June Instagram post, the seven-time world champion described racism as a “global disease” and provided information on how his 21 million followers can contribute to the Black Lives Matter movement through petitions, peaceful protests and self-education. “There is power in our voices, we can bring about change, and we must continue to fight for racial equality,” he wrote.

Kevin Sinfield

The links between repeated head injuries suffered during professional sport and mental illness have been strengthening this year. In November former England World Cup winning hooker Steve Thompson, who has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia at the age of just 42, announced he is considering legal action against World Rugby for failing to protect him during his career. Then Sinfield, the former rugby league player who made more than 500 appearances for Leeds Rhinos in a glittering 18-year career, ran seven marathons in seven days to raise awareness of Motor Neurone Disease after research found that former professional footballers were four times more likely to develop the condition than the general population Last year, Sinfield’s former teammate at the Yorkshire club, Rob Burrows, was diagnosed with the illness just two years after retiring from the game. Springbok legend Joost van der Westhuizen died from the disease in 2017 aged 45, while former Scotland lock Doddie Weir is also fighting the affliction.

Right, that’s that for today. Hopefully these athletes and their stories can help restore your faith in humanity after what has been a testing year to say the least. I’ll be taking some time off to eat lots of mince pies over the next few days, so have yourselves a Merry Christmas and I’ll be back here with more for you on Monday. Salud!