Roaring into the 2020s: Sports and a brave new world

The most fascinating thing to look forward to as we head to a new decade has more to do with the evolution of sport itself. There is little question that the athletic endeavour is changing at a fever pitch.

American soccer star Megan Rapinoe typifies the new age of athlete

American soccer star Megan Rapinoe's fight for equality and inclusion in sports is the leading edge of what should be a decade of change in sports. (Associated Press)

It would be taking the easy way out to look ahead to the next decade in Canadian sport and point to the stars that might emerge.

But making obvious predictions of who could take centre stage in the unfolding athletic drama is kind of like gazing into a crystal ball. There are a lot of variables that go into success.

Nothing is certain when it comes to superstardom on the field of play.

That said, tennis stars Bianca Andreescu, Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime have served notice they'll make an impression on their sport for years to come. Shapovalov is the oldest at 20 years of age.

Brooke Henderson is already Canada's most successful professional golfer in history and she's just 22. At 25, sprinter and three-time Olympic medallist Andre De Grasse is just now rocketing into the prime of his career. The same is true of short track speed skater Kim Boutin, who has become a dominant figure on international ice.

The Canadian female swimmers, including Penny Oleksiak, Maggie MacNeil, Sydney Pickrem, Taylor Ruck and Kylie Masse, have all established themselves as Olympic and world championship medallists. They're heading to the Tokyo Olympics where they'll dive in as contenders for the podium in every race they swim.

Masse is the senior citizen at the ripe old age of 23.

Kylie Masse, right, is congratulated by Taylor Ruck after winning gold at the world swimming championships in July. The pair are part of a strong Canadian women's swim team that should challenge for medals at the Tokyo Olympics. (The Associated Press)

In men's basketball, Canada has a bevy of young stars. RJ Barrett is a case in point; at 19 he's already made his way to the NBA and many hope he'll be a key factor in this country's Olympic aspirations.

The list of hopeful and youthful talent across myriad sports goes on and on. Never have Canadian fans had more to look forward to or more contenders to cheer for and on so many different fields of play.

But the most fascinating thing to look forward to as we head into a new decade has more to do with the evolution of sport itself. There is little question that the athletic endeavour is changing at a fever pitch.

Long considered the battering ram when it comes to reflecting societal change, sport is once again on the front lines of breaking down barriers and clearing the way for a more inclusive and modern world view.

There's plenty of evidence for this.

Sports Illustrated magazine, for many the ardent sports fan's bible, has made Megan Rapinoe its Sportsperson of the Year for 2019.

Rapinoe is an American World Cup-winning soccer star and the Ballon d'Or recipient as the FIFA women's player of the year. But more significantly she is a lesbian who has long been a vocal advocate for LGBTQ rights, anti-discrimination and gender pay equity in sport.

She is arguably a revolutionary and symbolic figure who reflects how far sport has come and how far it still has to go in order to be completely relevant with its maturing consumers.

Going forward, it's clear that the athletes themselves will be taking more control of what happens in sport. Social media has afforded them the opportunity to connect directly with their fans and, in many cases, to control the narrative of their own stories. In this sense, the athletes have become adept at securing their own brands and establishing a self-worth which means they are less the property of franchises and national teams and more able to control their own destinies.

Kawhi Leonard led the Toronto Raptors to an historic NBA championship, but in the end, he determined where and with what teammates he would next play.

He is just that good. 

Kaillie Humphries, the bobsleigh pilot who won two Olympic gold medals as a Canadian, was unhappy in her circumstances at home and is now thriving wearing the stars and stripes of the United States.

She talks the talk and backs it up by walking the walk. She's still winning races.

WATCH | A decade of gold for Canadian Olympians:

Canada's decade of gold at the Olympics

3 years ago
Duration 1:22
This decade, there were five Olympic Games, and it all began in 2010 in Vancouver. There were 41 gold medals won in total. Here's all of them, in a one minute musical montage.

There is now an Athlete's Anti-Doping Rights Act and Olympic performers are declaring that enough is enough when it comes to the chronic cheaters on the international stage. Their demands for clean sport will be increasingly listened to by the powers that be at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

Speaking of the Olympics, the Games themselves are facing huge challenges in the 2020s. At the outset of the last decade, Canadians celebrated the wild, nation-building, spectacle of Vancouver/Whistler 2010. At the close of the same decade, the people of Calgary flatly refused to consider hosting another Olympics. In fact, fewer and fewer cities around the world are interested in staging the Games because of fears of bloated cost overruns, legacies of debt, and celebrations which are out of touch with what people are genuinely interested in.

That's why the Olympics are scrambling to modernize and become more sustainable. In the 2020s the Games will continue to embrace inclusion in the form of gender equity. They'll also be forced, in the digital age, to confront the colossus of E-Sports because young people are obsessed with this phenomenon on a worldwide basis.

As it is with music, sport will rapidly explore different genres over the course of the next 10 years. In the summer, skateboarding, rock climbing and street basketball already boast flourishing audiences. In the winter the extreme sports of snowboarding and freestyle skiing are well on their way to eclipsing more traditional disciplines.

Mixed-gender relays are quickly becoming the order of the day as women and men increasingly compete on the same playing surface and ultimately for the same prize. Pay equity in tennis, curling and soccer is a reality and it's a trend which will continue.

The 2020s will unquestionably be a pivotal decade in which sport lives up to its potential. A long held and widely accepted mantra claims that sport, unlike business or religion, is a place where people of every race, faith, circumstance, sexual orientation and ability can feel welcome.

We're not there yet, but the next decade will get the world closer to this objective.

Harassment, homophobia, racial discrimination, bullying, and physical abuse in sport have all been exposed with great fanfare as 2019 comes to a close.

The message is loud and clear: These bad things and those who espouse them are no longer acceptable.

Sport can and must move forward as the calendar turns. In the modern age people have more choices to make than ever before. They can connect with whoever they want. They can stream anything they desire. There are fewer and fewer borders to separate human beings.

As this decade ends and a new one begins, the athletes who may or may not shine become only part of the story. 

The real plot lies with sport itself and whether the games we play are ready to confront a brave new world which demands a place where we can all feel safe, entertained and fulfilled. 


Scott Russell has worked for the CBC for more than 30 years and covered 14 editions of the Olympics. He is a winner of the Gemini Award, Canadian Screen Award and CBC President's Award. Scott is the host of Olympic Games Prime Time and the co-Host with Andi Petrillo of Road to the Olympic Games. He is also the author of three books: The Rink, Ice-Time and Open House."


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