2021: a year of hope or chaos for the biggest events in world sport?

From the Australian Open to the Ashes, our writers assess the chances of the year’s big-ticket sporting highlights taking place

Big ticket events on the 2021 calendar are the Tokyo Olympics, Tadej Pogacar defending his Tour de France title, Maro Itoje joining the Lions in South Africa, England’s cricketers heading down under for the Ashes and Dina Asher-Smith and GB 4x100 sprinters seeking gold in Tokyo.
Big ticket events on the 2021 calendar are the Tokyo Olympics, Tadej Pogacar defending his Tour de France title, Maro Itoje joining the Lions in South Africa, England’s cricketers heading down under for the Ashes and Dina Asher-Smith and GB 4x100 sprinters seeking gold in Tokyo. Composite: PA Images, Reuters, EPA, ECB, Shutterstock
Big ticket events on the 2021 calendar are the Tokyo Olympics, Tadej Pogacar defending his Tour de France title, Maro Itoje joining the Lions in South Africa, England’s cricketers heading down under for the Ashes and Dina Asher-Smith and GB 4x100 sprinters seeking gold in Tokyo. Composite: PA Images, Reuters, EPA, ECB, Shutterstock

Last modified on Sun 10 Jan 2021 04.56 EST

It has been billed as a golden year of sport. But, as our team of reporters has discovered, there are growing doubts about whether the biggest jewels in the 2021 calendar will take place in all their glory – or, in some cases, at all.

There is an expectation the 12-city format for the Euro 2020 football tournament will be slimmed down, perhaps even to a single city, while Uefa has already started to plan for the absence of fans. There are major doubts over the Lions tour to South Africa. And, while organisers remain confident that the Olympics and Paralympics will go ahead as planned this summer, the spike in Covid-19 cases is making them nervous.

Yet in the fear and gloom there are also several shards of light. So what can we look forward to in 2021? Our writers assess the chances of the major events taking place as planned.

Australian Open 8-21 Feb

With the country’s border still closed to non-residents, it has taken significant efforts for Tennis Australia to organise the Australian Open. After lengthy crisis talks in December, the tournament was pushed back by nearly a month and more than 300 players must arrive on 15 January with their team members by charter flights to quarantine for two weeks. They will be allowed five hours out of their hotel rooms each day for training. The state of Victoria endured a three-and-a-half-month lockdown until 27 October and registered one new locally acquired coronavirus case last Wednesday, which makes the situation even more delicate than for other events. Should the figure rise, the arrival of up to 1,000 foreigners will not be without controversy. If Tennis Australia fails to contain any infected arrivals, it could significantly affect Melbourne’s attempts to contain the virus. Tumaini Carayol

Cheltenham Festival 16-19 Mar

Cheltenham will happen – unless heavy rain or frost intervenes – but the expectation is that the four-day meeting will take place behind closed doors, without even the modest crowd of 2,000 annual members who attended the course’s two-day meeting in December. The loss to the town’s economy as a result has been estimated at £60m. If the latest lockdown in England extends into March, even the owners of horses competing at the most prestigious event of the National Hunt season are unlikely to be admitted, while Covid-related travel restrictions between Britain and Ireland could bring a reduction in the number of Irish runners taking part. Nearly 40% of the runners at recent Festivals have been from Ireland and Irish-trained horses have won most of the 28 races in four of the past five years. Greg Wood

Grand National 10 Apr

Like Cheltenham, the Grand National meeting from 8 to 10 April, and the big race itself on the final day, is expected to take place either behind closed doors or with a limited crowd. The three weeks between the two Festival meetings could conceivably bring a significant easing of the level of Covid-19 restrictions, but the prospects of a five-figure attendance to watch Tiger Roll attempt to become the second horse to win the race three times seem remote. Tiger Roll, too, could face travel-related issues if the lockdown extends much longer than anticipated, while Aintree’s location close to the centre of a major city could also present logistical problems in keeping crowds away from Liverpool’s biggest annual sporting event. GW

International cricket summer and the Hundred Apr-Sep

England men: 2 x Tests v NZ (tbc), 5 x Tests v India, up to 12 T20is/ODis v SL, Pak; England women: 14 x T20is/ODIs v SA and NZ; Domestic cricket: CC, T20 Blast, RL Cup, the Hundred, Women’s regional comps

English cricket is looking to avoid a repeat of 2020 when international matches were forced behind closed doors in bubbles, the domestic schedule was reduced and losses in excess of £100m were incurred. that forced 62 job cuts at the England and Wales Cricket Board. As things stand, the 2021 season is packed with fixtures and returns to grounds across the country. The ECB chair, Ian Watmore, has warned the county summer may face a slow start allowing crowds in April , but tickets are on sale for the major matches from June in anticipation of the national picture improving. If not, the ECB at least has a proven – albeit expensive – model to revert to and ensure it can meet its end of a five-year broadcasting deal with Sky and BBC worth £1.1bn overall. There will be fears for the Hundred, however, after its launch was delayed by 12 months and requires crowds to generate the buzz it likely needs. Ali Martin

The MCG entrance
The message on the MCG entrance is stay safe but it remains uncertain if the famous Melbourne arena will welcome England followers for the Ashes in November. Photograph: Daniel Pockett/Getty Images

Euro 2020 11 Jun-11 July

Uefa maintains it is pressing ahead to stage the European Championship as originally envisaged (and named) in 12 cities, including London, Glasgow and Dublin. But European football’s governing body has started to plan for the partial or complete absence of fans. “A decision on which scenario will be applied in each city will be made on 5 March,” Uefa says. A big problem is not only whether supporters can be accommodated but if they can cross borders. Either way, it seems likely the 12-city format will be slimmed down or even that one alone could serve as the host – as Lisbon did for the final eight of last season’s Champions League. London is an option or maybe it could co-host with Glasgow? The sense remains that the tournament will happen because football has shown itself capable of carrying on despite recent disruption. What it will look like is impossible to say. David Hytner

British & Irish

Lions tour of South Africa 26 Jun-7 Aug

There is growing acceptance the Lions tour will not take place as scheduled given how unlikely it is that 30,000 travelling supporters will be able to attend. As far as the South African union is concerned, staging the tour behind closed doors is not commercially viable and there are few sporting events that rely more on travelling fans to illuminate it. The problem is that there is no contingency solution that suits all parties. South Africa would prefer a delay until the summer of 2022 but the home unions have tours arranged and their head coaches will not want such disruption so close to the 2023 World Cup. The home unions are open to the idea of the tour taking place in the UK and Ireland – a scenario only worth consideration on financial grounds if fans can attend and that is still a big if. To do so would also go against more than 130 years of tradition. A decision will be made in the next few weeks. Gerard Meagher

Tour de France 26 Jun-18 July

Tour organisers are confident the race will go ahead. Indeed, last week they announced the route for Paris-Nice in March, which shows their optimism racing will resume in Europe sooner rather than later. The Belgian classics from the end of February to April have said they will all be behind closed doors as they were in October, which worked well. The Tokyo Games are due to start less than a week after the end of the Tour and with organisers not requiring athletes to quarantine, cyclists will be able to target the Tour and the Games. Sean Ingle

Tour de France spectators wearing face masks look on last summer
Tour de France spectators wearing face masks look on last summer. Organisers are confident this year’s race will take place in June and July. Photograph: Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images

Wimbledon 28 Jun-11 July

Wimbledon was the only slam not to take place in 2020, its first cancellation since the second world war, so another is undesirable. The All England Club’s investment in an insurance policy in the case of a pandemic yielded a significant payout that will safeguard the tournament and the Lawn Tennis Association. The club announced the commencement of planning for the 2021 event last October and the tournament will likely be held unless prevented by public health guidelines. The tournament is keeping all crowd options open, including the possibility of a championships behind closed doors. TC

Olympic Games and Paralympics 23 Jun-8 Aug; 24 Aug-5 Sep

Tokyo organisers remain confident both Games will take place in “some form”, although that choice of words gives plenty of wriggle room – ranging from a full bells-and-whistles event in front of packed stadiums to a more modest venture with fewer athletes and spectators. Expect more meat to be put on the bone by March, although if infection numbers spiral out of control all bets are off. It certainly will not be easy to stage such a global event in a pandemic with 11,000 competitors, 10,000 officials and another 20,000 journalists due in Japan. However, the International Olympic Committee remains hopeful the vaccines will be a game changer. While having a jab will not be mandatory, the IOC is pressing for most athletes and staff to get it in the second wave, once key workers and the most vulnerable have had it. SI

Ryder Cup and Solheim Cup 24-26 Sep; 4-6 Sep

With eight months to go it is too early to say whether the events will take place – although last week Europe’s Solheim Cup captain, Catriona Matthew, gave no indication her event would not be played. However, there is a lively debate whether it is right for the Ryder Cup to go ahead without fans lining the fairways and filling the galleries, given they are so central to the event. The US captain, Steve Stricker, has insisted: “There has been no talk of contingency plans. I would imagine we’re at the point where we would play no matter what.” Kerry Haigh, the chief championship officer for the PGA of America, was more downbeat. “We are talking about an event with an atmosphere like no other,” he said. “So our hope and expectation is that we will be able to play it in a manner it deserves, with full crowds and full support. If the situation exists that is not going to allow that, I guess it likely would not be played.” SI

Rugby World Cup 2021 18 Sep-16 Oct

Given New Zealand’s success in dealing with the virus – its last local case was recorded on 18 November – the women’s tournament is expected to go ahead as planned. New Zealand has held numerous sporting events with capacity crowds since emerging from lockdown and the first women’s edition of the World Cup held in the southern hemisphere is set to follow suit. At the draw in November, New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, said: “As one of the few countries in the world where sport can even be played in front of packed stadiums of fans, Rugby World Cup 2021 offers up a chance to showcase New Zealand to a global audience.” How easy it is for large numbers of overseas supporters to attend, if at all, remains to be seen, however, with the country’s strict border controls contributing to its success in its handling of the virus. GM

Rugby League World Cup 23 Oct-27 Nov

Organisers of the 16th staging of the Rugby League World Cup are hopeful the event will take place in full stadiums as planned, but contingency plans include playing behind closed doors. However, a significant investment in the event, and early reports of positive ticket uptake from supporters, means rugby league could miss out on a lucrative windfall if supporters are not allowed to attend. No decision will be made on that until spring at the earliest, but the tournament is almost certain to go ahead in 2021 in some capacity. Postponing until 2022 remains a last resort: though the organisers are quietly confident the autumn start could mean the World Cup is the first major sporting event in the UK with full crowds in attendance. Aaron Bower

The Ashes Nov 2021-Jan 2022

Australia’s thus-far successful home summer suggests nothing other than the tour going ahead and this far out the chief questions appear to be what state the two teams are in and whether England’s vocal supporters can attend. The latter will hinge on the ease of global travel by the end of the year and the current 14-day hotel room quarantine on entry that would put many off; there is plenty of time for this to be eased or lifted beforehand. On the field the issue of mental fatigue is hard to ignore. Covid-safe bubbles may have disappeared by the time the urn is at stake but the fixture pile-up caused by the pandemic – and cricket’s thirst for broadcast money – means a number of players may be cooked. Before the Ashes comes a T20 World Cup in India, while England have trips to Bangladesh and Pakistan sandwiched between this and their packed home summer schedule. Rest and rotation is the expected, product-diminishing response to counter this. AM