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Year in review: Unprecedented 2020 creates heroes and highlights importance of fans

Sport's vital role in our communities was highlighted like never before.

The highlights DVD of 2020 may not be a best seller, but it has nevertheless been a landmark year for sport.

In first its total absence, and then its return amid the coronavirus pandemic, we learned what sport meant to all of us, and sport was forced to acknowledge what all of us mean to it.

We missed the social aspect of playing sport, from Monday night five-a-side to a round of golf.

A padlock and bolt secure the mesh fencing to a five-a-side pitch in Bristol to prevent access as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus
A padlock and bolt secure the mesh fencing to a five-a-side pitch in Bristol to prevent access as the UK was locked down to help curb the spread of coronavirus (Ben Birchall/PA)

We missed watching our children developing their own love of sport.

We missed the shared experience of celebrating our team scoring a goal, hitting the winning run, or of Team GB and ParalympicsGB lighting up our summer with medals in Tokyo.

You could be cynical and say sport only missed our money through the turnstiles.

But months of watching sport behind closed doors only served to confirm that the atmosphere created by fans is a key ingredient in the spectacle.

It's no coincidence that so many broadcasters, even deep into the pandemic, would use trailers featuring the roar of the crowd.

We await the 'great reset' in the relationship between sports and their paying public with great interest in the years ahead.

Bike sales soared during the first national lockdown
Bike sales soared during the first national lockdown (Jonathan Brady/PA)

We missed a lot, but we also learned a lot too.

Many of us learned anew the importance of exercise – both as a physical protection against the virus itself, and also the mental health benefits of it as we coped with the isolation from friends and family.

This 'revolution' meant bike sales rocketed during the spring lockdown, and parks and footpaths teemed with people taking advantage of the chance to escape their four walls.

But let's not kid ourselves that this was the case for everyone. Sport England's Active Lives study highlighted for those who already found it hardest to be active – the disabled, people with health conditions and the young – the lockdown exacerbated access issues. Tackling those inequalities must be a priority.

We learned too that in a time of crisis, many of those working in sport not only met their social responsibilities, but in some cases far exceeded them.

Sport's 2020 heroes will by and large not be remembered for goals scored, wickets taken, records set or points gained.

Early on in the pandemic, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he thought footballers should "take a pay cut and play their part" as the country stared into the financial abyss.

Eight months on, we can look back on an impressive roll of honour.

A group of male and female footballers formed the #PlayersTogether collective to contribute to NHS Charities. When asked about the generosity of those concerned, the NHS Charities Together chief executive Ellie Orton told PA: "This is what footballers have always been like."

Yorkshire's director of cricket Martyn Moxon would brighten the days of elderly fans, in some cases isolated by the virus or shielding from it, by ringing them up during the spring lockdown.

"By and large, it's just checking they're OK and getting food and there's nothing that they're short of," he said, although he admitted it was also a chance to share sporting memories too.

Preston striker Louis Moult helped raise £100,000 for a charity helping homeless people, while players at Grimsby rugby club donated their boot bags to NHS frontline staff so that they had something to keep their personal respirators in.

The goodwill from sports to the communities they serve was abundant.

And arguably no one made a greater contribution than Marcus Rashford.

The Manchester United striker led a long and ultimately successful campaign to extend free school meal provision, firstly into the summer holidays.

A bid to extend it was initially defeated by MPs in October, but will now cover the 2020-21 Christmas break, while the Holiday Activities and Food programme will be extended to cover the Easter, summer and Christmas breaks in 2021.

There were some more conventional sporting moments to savour too, in a year shorn of an Olympic and Paralympic Games and football's European Championship.

Liverpool ended a 30-year wait for an English league title, finally getting over the line when the 2019-20 season restarted in the summer.

The England and Wales Cricket Board moved heaven and earth to stage the first major international sport post-lockdown, as the West Indies and Pakistan faced England in bio-secure matches at Southampton and Manchester.

In rugby union, there was a dramatic autumn finish to the Six Nations as England's bonus-point victory over Italy was enough to avoid a Halloween scare from France, who fell short of the winning margin they needed against Ireland to overhaul Eddie Jones' men.

Lewis Hamilton celebrates winning the world title for a seventh time
Lewis Hamilton celebrates winning the world title for a seventh time (PA)

Lewis Hamilton equalled Michael Schumacher's record of seven Formula One titles. Just as important as his exploits on the track was his unswerving support for the Black Lives Matter protests, another of the year's big social issues and another where athletes played a hugely positive part.

And there is much to look forward to.

The postponements of 2020 have set up a thrilling 2021, featuring the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, Euro 2020, a Lions tour of South Africa and an Ashes series Down Under among many other highlights.

And with promising news on a vaccine, the hope is that the old connections we once took for granted can be renewed, and never taken for granted again.

We need sport, and sport needs us.

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Lewis Hamilton celebrates winning the Turkish Grand Prix on November 15, 2020
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