Though it may not be the same as going to the MCG, watching the footy on TV and online offers a welcome distraction and source of hope through lockdown. (Photo: Caspar McLeod)
It’s easy to feel there are no feel-good stories anymore. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is continuing to ravage New South Wales, as states and territories around Australia race to vaccinate enough of their population to hopefully avoid further lockdowns in the future. On top of the pandemic, news from abroad of man-made disasters such as the continued fall out from the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, and natural disasters such as Hurricane Ida and the subsequent flooding in New York, can make the world seem a very bleak place.
And yet, like an oasis in a desert, I have found great comfort from one source. This source has provided people with plenty of feel-good stories over the last few months. This source has been a wonderful way for some to take their mind off the struggles of the world, even if reminders of the pandemic still manage to filter through those rose-coloured glasses. This source I speak of is the world of sport.
Globally, two of the biggest international and multinational sporting events have taken place recently, both producing wonderful feel-good moments. I’m speaking of the Olympics and the Paralympics, both hosted this year in Tokyo. Both were supposed to take place in 2020 before being postponed, and both events didn’t seem like they were happening – even as the Olympics grew closer, the threat of the COVID guillotine never really went away. I’ll be honest, I was surprised the games went ahead – but I am glad they did.
In a moment that perhaps encapsulated not just the spirit of the Games but also the goodness in people, two competing athletes, Gianmarco Tamberi and Mutaz Barshim, decided to share the gold medal in their event. A beautiful moment indeed.
Away from the sporting action, there was a nice moment when Naomi Osaka lit the torch during the opening ceremony. Osaka was put under the international spotlight earlier this year regarding her statement about why she pulled out of the French Open, which resulted in both backlash and support for the star (the organisers of the French Open also attracted backlash following their response to Osaka’s departure). I can imagine it was a profound and powerful moment for the tennis star. It certainly felt profound and powerful watching it unfold, especially in an empty stadium.
As for the Paralympics, there were feel-good stories everywhere you looked. Dylan Alcott once again proved too good on the court. And then there’s the story of Haven Sheppard (Trigger warning: hyperlinked article contains mentions of suicide, attempted infanticide and bombs.) Sheppard, competing at just the age of 18 in Tokyo, has a back story that is sure to bring tears even to those with hearts made of stone. Despite going through that horrible event at only 16 months old, we got to witness Sheppard compete in front of the entire world 17 years later, in a brilliant display of endurance and courage.
We don’t have to look abroad to find feel-good stories in sports. Just before the Olympics in Tokyo kicked off, the IOC announced Brisbane as the host of the 2032 Games. After two attempts to host the games previously fell short, Brisbane will finally get a chance to strut its stuff on the international stage. This will follow Australia and New Zealand hosting the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2023. For me, Brisbane being chosen for the 2032 Olympics brings a smile to my face. Brisbane gets to follow in the footsteps of recent global cities that have included Sydney, Athens, Beijing, London, Rio, and Tokyo, and by the time 2032 comes around will also include Paris and Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the selection of Australia and New Zealand as hosts of the World Cup in 2023 only reaffirms the growing prowess of women’s sport in both countries.
Speaking of women’s sport in Australia, perhaps the news that made me smile the most came from the AFL recently. It came in the form of further expansion to the AFL Women’s competition. The growth of the AFLW, now having been confirmed by the AFL to grow from 14 teams to 18 teams by the 2022/2023 season, is a testament to the dedication those early pioneers of women’s footy showed – and for the warriors who kept pushing and pushing for the right to play footy at the national level as the men do, their dedication is paying off in spades. One such person who deserves a special mention is the “first woman inducted into the Australian Football Hall of Fame”, as AFL Media’s Ashley Browne writes, Debbie Lee.
Without Lee’s efforts, among the efforts of others like her pressing for a national women’s competition, it’s possible the Melbourne v Western Bulldogs exhibition matches that had been played from 2013-2016 wouldn’t have happened. The landscape of the AFLW probably would’ve been completely different had those exhibitions not happened. Instead, by 2022/2023, all 18 AFL teams will have a team in the AFLW. Aside from the excitement of seeing my Bombers and Swans finally play a game of AFLW footy, I’m just so excited to see the women’s game continue to expand. Consider this: In 2018, the AFLW grand final held in Melbourne attracted just over 7,000 people to the game. The 2019 Grand Final, held at the Adelaide Oval, attracted a crowd of over 53,000. 7,000 to 53,000 in one year. Just two years later, during a pandemic and a year after the 2020 season was cancelled with no premiership won, over 22,000 fans showed up again to the Adelaide Oval to watch Brisbane win their first AFLW flag.
And just on Aussie Rules in general – if the COVID situation in Western Australia remains under control, we could get a crowd of 60,000 people at this year’s Grand Final. And yes, as a Victorian it hurts a little that the game will not be in Melbourne again, but the fact that we might have a Grand Final during this seemingly never-ending pandemic, with a crowd of up to 60,000 in attendance? That warms my heart.
And consider this: the Melbourne Football Club, a club that hasn’t won the premiership in 57 years and has endured some awful seasons recently, have just won their way through to a preliminary final. What that means, for those not versed in footy terminology, is that Melbourne needs just two more wins to break the premiership drought. I can imagine that the hearts of everyone in Melbourne, whether they follow the Demons or not, will double in size with pride and joy if the Dees clinch it this year.
Fox Sports pointed out something interesting after Melbourne finished on top of the ladder at the end of the home and away season (also known as winning the minor premiership) for the first time in 57 years. That year, 1964, was the last time Tokyo hosted the Summer Olympics before 2021. After the horrors of World War 2, Tokyo’s 1964 Games was, as Alexander Martin of the Wall Street Journal put it, “a turning point for Japan”.
Here’s hoping that the sporting events of 2021 may prove to be, in hindsight, a turning point for the world. These magnificent moments, amongst many others, are giving me reasons to hope.