icon bookmark-bicon bookmarkicon cameraicon checkicon chevron downicon chevron lefticon chevron righticon chevron upicon closeicon v-compressicon downloadicon editicon v-expandicon fbicon fileicon filtericon flag ruicon full chevron downicon full chevron lefticon full chevron righticon full chevron upicon gpicon insicon mailicon moveicon-musicicon mutedicon nomutedicon okicon v-pauseicon v-playicon searchicon shareicon sign inicon sign upicon stepbackicon stepforicon swipe downicon tagicon tagsicon tgicon trashicon twicon vkicon yticon wticon fm
25 Dec, 2021 18:38

The biggest sporting shocks and scandals of 2021

The biggest sporting shocks and scandals of 2021

From international incidents and Covid fiascos to outrage at the Olympics and Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, here are some of the most shocking stories in sport in 2021.

A year that started with uncertainty over whether much of the sporting schedule would proceed gave way to a succession of shocking incidents in 2021.

Just when one previously unimaginable headline felt like it was fading from public consciousness, the next seemed to be swiftly rounding the corner. Here are some of the most memorable.

Simone Biles withdraws from Tokyo Olympics events

Gymnastics great Biles was considered the favorite going into several of her events at the Games, only to withdraw from Team USA's participation in the women's team final, the individual all-around final and, later, the vault and uneven bars gymnastics deciders.

It became clear that all was not well for the four-time 2016 gold medalist when Biles scored her lowest Olympic vault score in the opening heat, and she later explained that she had been beset by mental health problems which she wanted to concentrate on resolving.

"I don't trust myself as much anymore," she bluntly admitted, pointing to the pressures of social media comments in a sign of the times for sportspeople.

US Gymnastics said it was "in awe" of Biles for the 24-year-old's "courage and grace", although she received a mixed reaction elsewhere. She continued to support her teammates and rivals from the sidelines and had a redemptive swansong by winning bronze in the balance beam final.

Wembley hooliganism at the Euro 2020 final in London

Despite having a frequently-limited fan presence at a tournament taking place across multiple countries during a pandemic, Euro 2020 largely passed without crowd trouble, although Hungary have since been punished for racism and other charges of discriminatory conduct related to their group games.

A violent wave of unrest across the day of the final in London, though, was a troubling way to end the tournament.

There seemed to be a fine line between high-spirited enthusiasm and a more sinister level of aggression during the day – witness the now-iconic image of a man with a pyrotechnic protruding from his backside – but the balance veered alarmingly as the match neared.

The low point came when thousands of ticketless fans stormed the gates of England's national stadium in a terrifying stampede that an investigation later ruled could have killed people. Police and stewards were attacked, and the hosts, who lost on penalties in the finals were handed a two-match stadium ban and a fine of around $113,000 as a result.

Transgender swimmer Lia Thomas breaks female records

The fierce debate around transgender athletes competing against rivals born as women is one that we can say with certainty will blaze on into 2022 and beyond.

That is arguably the reflection of evolving rules around testosterone requirements which some experts within sports have questioned, leading to issues around fairness and the rights of athletes to compete under the gender they identify with.

There was huge controversy around Laurel Hubbard, the unassuming weightlifter who bowed out at the opening stage when she represented New Zealand at the Olympic Games. Then there have been a string of bills put forward – some of which have been passed – banning transgender participants from competing in female school and college sports in the US.

Now the emergence of Lia Thomas, who was an average swimmer when she was a man named Will before smashing records as a transitioned woman, has inflamed an already incendiary row.

As she heads to national finals, Thomas and some campaigners claim hers is a triumph to be proud of. Others, including athletes, attorneys, politicians and – reportedly – parents say that the situation threatens women's sports by allowing athletes with a considerable biological advantage to compete. Like an elite endurance track runner, this is an argument that is set to run and run.

Lionel Messi joins Paris Saint-Germain from Barcelona

A transfer request in 2020 and his clear frustration with Barcelona's continued collapse never really resembled anything more than transfer talk fodder for a man many had assumed would spend his entire career at the boyhood club for whom he was the all-time top scorer.

Suddenly, in August 2021, the most unthinkable move in football became a jolting reality. Barcelona's financial turmoil meant they no longer had the luxurious option of trying to persuade Messi to stay, forced instead to effectively release him as a result of budgetary rules for Spanish clubs.

One of the greatest players of all time was reduced to a sobbing husk as the suited Messi wiped his tears with hankies and tearfully announced his departure during a mournful press conference at Barca's Camp Nou home.

Days later, Messi was a model of pained professionalism as he smiled for the cameras on the pitch at PSG's Parc des Princes, where he arrived to a stunned fanfare worthy of a moment that will go down in sporting history.

Messi went on to win his seventh Ballon d'Or at a ceremony in Paris, and the much more realistic prospect of winning another Champions League title with his new club will surely have given the Copa America winner further solace.

Kristina Timanovskaya flees Belarus via the Tokyo Olympics

When unconfirmed reports emerged that a strange incident was occurring involving a Belarusian athlete at a Tokyo airport, there was little indication of an ensuing diplomatic scandal that would capture attention across the world.

Sprinter Timanovskaya had voiced her frustrations with some fairly run-of-the-mill planning and communication issues she had experienced while preparing to represent her then-country at the Games.

The 24-year-old was then upset to be told that she would be removed from the team immediately, taken to the airport and returned to Belarus, with purported recordings of conversations between Timanovskaya and officials appearing to suggest imminent repercussions for her dissent in faintly threatening fashion.

Timanovskaya received support from groups in Belarus that have helped athletes who have suffered alleged mistreatment at the hands of the government led by Alexander Lukashenko, the president whose son succeeded him as head of the country's National Olympic Committee.

After mounting a social media campaign insisting that she just wanted to be free to run, Timanovskaya eventually chose to accept asylum in Poland. She now lives there with her boyfriend, who fled Belarus, and could even be on a starting line for her new homeland at the Paris 2024 Olympics.

Major League Baseball star Trevor Bauer accused of sexual violence

In mid-February, it was announced that Trevor Bauer had agreed an extraordinarily lucrative new contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers that would make him the highest-paid player in Major League Baseball (MLB) for 2021 and 2022 and potentially earn him $102 million over three years.

Less than five months later, Bauer was accused of sexual violence by a woman who gained a restraining order against him, with medical notes reportedly showing that she had suffered an "acute head injury", "assault by strangulation", two black eyes and severe anal bleeding after their second alleged encounter. 

Bauer did not appeal against the MLB's decision to place him on administrative leave in order to minimize distraction to the team and his teammates. His agents described any allegations that the pair's encounters were not 100 percent consensual as "baseless", "defamatory" and refuted "in the strongest possible terms."

A request for a long-term retraining order by the woman was denied and a judge dissolved the original order, ruling that Bauer posed no threat. The case around the allegations is still with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office, with a possible decision potentially expected in January, according to reports.

Linoy Ashram beats Dina Averina to Olympic gold

There can be little doubt that judging gymnastics is not an easy business. Several elements involved in scoring the sport are subjective: qualities such as grace, composure and expressiveness cannot be precisely measured.

No-one would argue that Israeli Linoy Ashram did not deliver an outstanding performance in becoming the first non-Russian since 1996 to win gold in the individual all-round competition at the Games, building a lead in the rotations with the ball, hoops and clubs.

On the other hand, you could understand why the supernaturally talented Averina was incredulous at being denied gold following a prolonged deliberation between the judges. Averina had produced a near-flawless performance, while Ashram, crucially, dropped the ribbon – surely a fatal blow to her hopes.

Averina was in tears and still wants answers. Legendary coach Irina Viner-Usmanova was less demure, summing up the feelings of many fans and experts when she called the result an injustice that brought the integrity of the sport into question.

The 23-year-old Averina went on to break legendary Russian gymnast Evgeniya Kanaeva's gold medal record at the World Championships in October.

Forgetting the most traumatic day of her career may be less easy than she makes the most challenging of moves look.

The failure of the European Super League

A coup as cataclysmic as the European Super League needed a ruthless, ultra-slick plan of action in order to work. Instead, we witnessed an idea that seemed to have been pencilled on a napkin as part of a liquid lunch.

On a website that could have been created in a couple of hours, the chairman of the proposed league, Real Madrid overlord Florentino Perez, insisted the plot, which involved several clubs with highly dubious claims to be among Europe's best among its 12 founders, said the breakaway would "help football at every level".

The key 'stakeholders' on the pitch – the players and managers at the clubs – did not appear to have been consulted and, in some cases, appeared to have misgivings about the farcically flawed masterplan.

The sham did, at least, have the effect of uniting fans who had long feared that some of the established giants in world football would attempt an even more shameless monopoly than they have long held.

There were furious protests on the streets before Chelsea's home game that week, and there were scary scenes outside Manchester United's Old Trafford home before they were due to entertain fellow founders Liverpool, causing the game to be postponed after livid supporters broke into the stadium and stormed the pitch.

One by one, almost all of the clubs dropped out. Liverpool owner John Henry produced a sorrowful video message. UEFA and the Premier League – both of whom had been kept in the dark about the dastardly discussions – punished the scheming clubs. In one subplot worthy of a soap opera, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin understandably said he felt betrayed by Juventus supremo Andrea Agnelli because he is godfather to the Italian's daughter.

Perez and some of his cohorts still seem to believe the hated venture has only been delayed. The level of delusion required to make that assertion perfectly summarizes the chronic lack of understanding behind the doomed project.

Golf icon Tiger Woods' car crash – and return

Years of injuries and personal problems felt like little more than minor hitches in the story of the most high-profile modern golfing icon after Woods suffered a harrowing car crash in Los Angeles in February.

The five-time Masters winner was travelling at 85mph on his way to a television shoot when his SUV plunged down a hill and flipped over, leading to desperate images of Woods being extricated from the wreckage with a pair of mechanical jaws.

There was enormous relief when it materialized that Woods' life was not at risk, although his shattered right leg required the insertion of rods, screws and pins and it seems unlikely that the 45-year-old hall-of-famer will compete at the top level again.

There was joy, too, in November, when Woods portrayed himself back on the green hitting a shot in a brief clip that swiftly became one of the most viewed of the year.

Even without playing, Woods has got to be the favorite for the PGA Tour's new Player Impact Program (PIP), which offers an $8 million top prize which is essentially based on popularity.

The Biden administration-led diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics

Rumblings about a potential boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics had been going on since March, although they had been considered by some to be little more than posturing as part of tensions between China and the US.

In May, China called US House speaker Nancy Pelosi "full of lies" after she insisted that a boycott was the only option if her country was to retain any credibility in human rights discussions.

That is mainly because of the alleged treatment of Uyghur Muslims in northern China, where as many as a million members of the ethnic minority are widely thought to be subjected to containment and abuses including sterilization – accusations leaders deny.

US president Joe Biden confirmed in December that his country would hold a diplomatic boycott of the showpiece next February, with countries including Canada, Britain, Australia and Japan following suit.

China has hit back with strong words, warning of repercussions and calling the decision a politicization of sport. Other countries, including Russia and Iran, have also condemned the boycotts.

Cristiano Ronaldo signs for Manchester United

Responding to reports that he was about to rejoin Real Madrid or solve Manchester City's striker shortage, Cristiano Ronaldo used the world's most popular Instagram account to complain about "nobody ever being concerned about trying to find out the actual truth" in August, accompanying his words with a stern photo of himself holding his finger to his lips.

Ten days later, the world's most high-profile footballer had abruptly left a Juventus training session, jumped on a private jet and returned to Manchester United in a sequence of events that could be used as a masterclass for journalists wanting to know whether rumors are worth pursuing.

Ronaldo's three years with the Italian giants had been underwhelming on a collective level, given that the club routinely captured domestic honors until his final season without ever threatening to win a hallowed Champions League title.

Almost nobody had foreseen Ronaldo moving to the club where he established himself as one of the world's best players between 2003 and 2009, and he duly scored three times in his first two Premier League appearances of the season.

Like Messi at PSG, Ronaldo has been at his best in the Champions League with his new club so far, scoring in every game he has played in the competition so far this season, including two last-gasp goals for his misfiring side to help them win their group.

His domestic form dipped as United went on a dismal run that put paid to former manager and Ronaldo teammate Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. How the most sensational arrival of the year in England will fare under new boss Ralf Rangnick is likely to be one of the most intriguing stories of the second half of the season.

UFC referee Vyacheslav Kiselev is removed midway through an event

A few tragic events have again raised concerns over fighter safety this year: bare-knuckle fighter Justin Thornton died after beating brutally knocked out in a contest in the US in which he appeared to have been hopelessly outmatched, and there were two reported deaths resulting from boxing matches.

UFC debutant Benoit Saint-Denis survived but suffered horrendous punishment in arguably the most high-profile fight to stoke uproar around protecting participants, with referee and former fighter Vyacheslav Kiselev removed from UFC 267 because of his performance in the preliminary bout.

Opponent Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos appealed to Kiselev to ask what more needed to happen for the beating to be waved off, landing 94 significant strikes in a needlessly prolonged one-sided hammering.

Horrified viewers compared Kiselev's perception to Rocky character Ivan Drago, known for the chilling catchphrase "if he dies, he dies." Others accused the official of shortening the career of Saint-Denis, who reassured fans and was released from hospital days later.

"We've had lots of incidents with referees," rued clearly unimpressed UFC president Dana White. "But this was pretty bad. Horrible."

Conor McGregor breaks his leg against Dustin Poirier at UFC 264

If Conor McGregor would agree that it requires something special to beat him, the former two-weight UFC champion would not have wanted that to involve his leg twisting on the canvas and snapping excruciatingly at the end of the first round in his trilogy fight with Dustin Poirier.

All McGregor could do was slump disconsolately against the cage and await a stretcher to wheel him out of the arena in Nevada, still somehow vowing revenge on Poirier in angriest end to one of his fights since the near-riot after he lost to Khabib Nurmagomedov in October 2018.

At 33, McGregor may now have to adapt his tactics as a result of the metal that was inserted into his leg to deal with the combined fracture of his tibia and fibula that ended his night in front of the likes of former US president Donald Trump.

Predictably, the most marketable active fighter in the UFC has kept fans constantly updated on his rehabilitation in between attention-grabbing, often-indecipherable social media outbursts and unsubtle attempts to plug the business interests that have made him one of the world's richest men.

McGregor's coach, John Kavanagh, has joined White in predicting that the superstar will attempt to improve a run of three defeats in four fights with a potential return in summer 2022.

Christian Eriksen collapses with a cardiac arrest at EURO 2020

The hour or so after Denmark midfielder Christian Eriksen fell to the turf unchallenged during a game against Finland at EURO 2020 was arguably the most grave football has ever seen.

The world waited in desperate hope after the playmaker's teammates crowded around him and his partner, Sabrina, was called to the sideline. Heroic nearby medics attempted to resuscitate Eriksen before he was taken to hospital in Copenhagen. TV programs stopped and there were obvious questions around whether the tournament could continue.

In what felt like a miracle, Eriksen woke up. As the weeks unfolded, the former Tottenham midfielder was pictured in his hospital bed, issued updates and, surprisingly quickly, returned to the company of his club and international teammates.

Eriksen has now mutually agreed to leave Inter Milan because of rules in Italy dictating that players who have had the pacemaker-style device he has had fitted cannot compete. His career is by far a secondary concern now; that he survived is all that really matters.

That was not the only shock of its kind on a football pitch this year: Manchester City legend Sergio Aguero was forced to retire with a heart problem that forced him out of a Barcelona game shortly after he joined the club.

Max Verstappen snatches controversial F1 title to deny Lewis Hamilton

Red Bull's Verstappen and reigning champion Hamilton were neck-and-neck going into the final race in Abu Dhabi, when every fan would have hoped for a clean race with no controversies following a season that had been tarnished at times by crashes and incidents between the runaway leaders.

That almost happened until a late safety car call – deemed a fiasco by most viewers – went a significant way towards helping Verstappen, who was on fresh tyres, overhaul first-placed Hamilton on the final lap.

While Verstappen's victory should not be overshadowed after an outstanding season for both men, the baffling finale has led to accusations from some that the race was rigged. Even the most reserved critics have questioned the integrity of governing body the FIA.

Hamilton and the principal of his Mercedes team, Toto Wolff, shunned the subsequent end-of-season gala. Wolff could not offer assurances that the Brit will return to the sport next season, and former Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone has predicted that the seven-time champion will retire. Whatever Hamilton's future, changes in F1 seem certain under the weight of public demand.

Jon Jones arrested after joining UFC hall of fame

As immediate falls from grace go, former long-standing light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones's descent was an astonishing one.

Hours after being inducted into the UFC hall of fame for his fight with Alexander Gustafsson in 2012 – the year in which he had his first public brush with the law over charges of driving under the influence – Jones was arrested on suspicion of battery domestic violence and injuring and tampering with a vehicle. 

"You can't even get him into Las Vegas for less than 12 hours to induct him into the Hall of Fame," said a frustrated White, calling Jones's shame "almost expected". "This guy has a lot of demons, man. A lot of demons."

Jones subsequently posted a photo of himself with girlfriend Jessie Moses, said he had stopped drinking alcohol "forever" and moved to a new gym after being banned from previous training facility Jackson Wink. He plans to return at heavyweight in 2022.

Tennis starlet Emma Raducanu wins the US Open 2021

Then 18, little-known Raducanu had reportedly booked a flight back from the US Open ahead of the start of the tournament proper at the end of August, playing it careful in case she did not make it through qualifying.

Anyone attempting a bet on Raducanu would probably have had to explain to bookmakers who she was, yet the prodigy swept through the field with such ease that she became the first female winner not to drop a set in New York since Serena Williams in 2014.

Among the litany of other records to fall, Raducanu became the first qualifier in the Open era to win a Slam, the youngest women's Slam queen since Russian legend Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon in 2004 and the first British female winner at Flushing Meadows since 1968.

A word too for her fellow finalist, whose story is also one of the most improbable of the year: unheralded Leylah Fernandez turned 19 days before the final and ousted seeds Naomi Osaka, Elina Svitolina and Aryna Sabalenka on her way there.

NFL star Henry Ruggs involved in car crash that killed woman

The first wide receiver to be drafted in the NFL in 2020, Henry Ruggs was little more than a year into a four-year contract worth almost $17 million when he hit a car in his Chevrolet in Las Vegas, killing the female driver of the other vehicle.

The Raiders immediately released Ruggs, and the details to have emerged since the smash are harrowing.

Police said the 22-year-old had been driving at 156mph and had been traveling at 120mph when the crash took place.

The 23-year-old woman burned to death in the inferno with her dog, with pictures appearing to show the burned-out shell of her car left on the street.

Footballer dies falling from plane as women fear for their lives in Afghanistan

The resumption of power by the Taliban in Afghanistan had dire consequences for sportspeople.

"They are just crying… they are sad," revealed Khalida Popal, one of the exiled founders of the first Afghanistan women's international team, describing how "desperate" women in the country had gone into hiding and sent her footage of the troubling scenes outside of their shelters.

Some women reportedly fled through gunfire to reach flights leaving the country. FIFA co-ordinated one plane, carrying 57 sportspeople including footballers and basketball players, in an evacuation to Doha.

The most tragic story to emerge in the news was of youth international footballer Zaki Anwari who reportedly clung to a plane as it took off, only to be crushed by its wheels. The 17-year-old's brother said Anwari's family found his body two days later.

Ukraine unveils football shirt containing nationalist slogans and Crimea map

Days before the start of EURO 2020, the decision by Ukraine to triumphantly parade a new shirt containing contentious symbolism to be worn at the tournament did not seem the smartest idea.

Assuming that bosses at the Ukrainian Association of Football are not completely oblivious of the political connotations involved, stitching "glory to the heroes" and "glory to Ukraine" was, as several politicians and onlookers put it, inevitably viewed as a provocation.

A map of the Crimean Peninsula, which was made part of Russia following a referendum held on the territory and the signing of the accession treaty in 2014 in the midst of the Ukrainian revolution, was also included.

Vladimir Konstantinov, the Chairman of the Parliament of the Republic of Crimea, described the move as a desecration of around 200,000 people killed in the Great Patriotic War.

UEFA swiftly outlawed the wearing of the slogans ahead of the finals. They were later reportedly mandated for clubs by the Ukrainian Premier League, leading a Jewish leader to point out their links to World War II.

Tennis star Peng Shuai's 'disappearance' in China

After popular former doubles champion published a long and worrying message making allegations of sexual abuse against an ex-chief of the Chinese Communist Party, the post disappeared within minutes – as did Peng, it seemed, for weeks.

The 35-year-old's public reappearances have made matters even more concerning for many. She appeared to have been coerced into several strangely awkward outings on film, issued by state-affiliated accounts and including suspicious appeals for people to stop trying to make contact with her amid a scandal spreading around the world.

The WTA voiced deep concerns about Peng's welfare and pulled events from China – one of its most lucrative growing markets – as it pushed for convincing evidence that she was well and acting under her own free will. Men's number one Novak Djokovic backed that move.

Most recently, in an interview with a Chinese-language publication under a Singaporean state-controlled group, Peng insisted she wanted to make it "very clear" that she had "never claimed or written about anyone having sexually assaulted me" – baffling many who had read her detailed original post about the country's former vice-premier.

Chinese officials have sought to discredit "malicious hyping" of the saga. Rights campaigners are likely to be intent on ensuring that attention on Peng's purported plight does not ease in 2022.

NBA star Kyrie Irving refuses to receive Covid vaccine

A row over rights and freedoms erupted in October when seven-time NBA All-Star Irving was ruled out by his own team, the Brooklyn Nets, because he had not been vaccinated.

Franchise general manager Sean Marks emphasized that the team respected Irving's personal choice but could not consider him for selection because of a vaccination mandate in New York which would prevent him from playing in home games.

A report claimed that Irving had started following and liking Instagram posts by a conspiracy theorist linking the supposed implant of vaccines in black people to a master computer for a 'plan of Satan'.

The player himself, though, said that he was taking a stand on behalf of all workers who had been affected by the mandate rules imposed in the city.

The Nets announced in December that Irving would be considered for selection again despite not being vaccinated, which is likely to allow him to play in games in states where legislation around vaccination is less strict.

Top footballers hit back in row over kneeling for Black Lives Matter

The taking of the knee for Black Lives Matter before matches and sporting events remained a predictably divisive issue in 2021, with several fiercely-debated flashpoints along the way.

In February, Wilfried Zaha became the first Premier League star to voice his opposition to the gesture when he announced that he would 'stand tall' rather than kneel, calling the ritual "degrading" and calling for action rather than what he evidently sees as empty symbolism.

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban called kneeling before matches a "provocation" in June, suggesting that it showed a lack of understanding of his country's culture from visiting teams who performed it while adding that it had "no place on the pitch".

England men's manager Gareth Southgate vowed that his team would continue to kneel, but some politicians and fans pledged to stop watching Three Lions games as a mark of their disgust at what they view as meaningless virtue signaling.

Defender Tyrone Mings was furious with home secretary Priti Patel after she offered support to a trio of players who suffered racist abuse after England were beaten in the final of EURO 2020.

A number of politicians have tweeted support for England players Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, who faced a torrent of racism on social media after England’s defeat in the Euro 2020 final.

“You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labeling our anti-racism message as ‘gesture politics’ and then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against happens," the Aston Villa center-back told Patel.