Both Marcus Rashford and Lewis Hamilton know a thing or two about maintaining a fine balance.
On the football pitch, Rashford, the England and Manchester United forward, is nimble-footed, his electric pace and powerful striking ability hallmarks of the fine player he has become. Inside a Formula One (F1) car, there is hardly anyone better than Hamilton at the moment. The 35-year-old is now a seven-time world champion and his performances on the track in a shortened F1 season saw him voted not only the 2020 BBC Sports Personality of the Year, but also the Drivers’ Driver of the Year by his contemporaries. Off the pitch, Rashford, just 23, has been campaigning to end food poverty among children in the UK, while Hamilton has been perhaps the most vocal athlete in motorsport for the Black Lives Matter movement.
It was a year both excelled in their chosen sport, despite the obvious difficulties. The 2019-20 season of the Premier League, one of the most watched leagues in the world, was able to resume only in June, with a struggling Manchester United registering an impressive string of results to finish third. Rashford, who had suffered a double stress fracture to the back in January, played a pivotal role, ending the season with 22 goals . He has continued his sparkling form in the 2020-21 season and become a focal point of United’s attack. His meteoric rise has been astonishing, given that he made his first-team debut at the club just four years ago.
While Rashford builds his legacy at a club that is trying to shed the tag of mediocrity, Hamilton is steadily approaching the business end of his F1 career. But he is not doing so quietly. Of the 17 races in the 2020 F1 World Championships, the British driver won 12, sealing a seventh F1 title at the Turkish Grand Prix and equalling Michael Schumacher’s imperious record.
The debate on who among the two is the all-time greatest continues, but Hamilton has proved his doubters wrong time and again this year. In 2020, he broke Schumacher’s record of most race wins in F1 (95). He also holds the record for most number of pole positions in F1 (98). If that weren’t enough, he finished a race this season on three tyres in a dramatic end to the British Grand Prix. Though he tested positive for covid-19 and had to miss a racing weekend, he returned in time for the season finale. The Stevenage-born driver admitted that 2020 has probably been “one of the hardest years” of his F1 career.
But both went well beyond their sports to try and bring about change, inspiring their immediate teams and organisations, even their counterparts. F1 started the “We Race As One” initiative—supporting the fight against racism and promoting greater diversity within the sport—after Hamilton called out all those who were “staying silent” in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing in the US. Mercedes, the team Hamilton races for, did its bit as well. “Hamilton’s team were also invigorated. The drivers’ overalls were to be black and their cars—historically the silver arrows—would be painted for the first time in black livery and they initiated their own diversity programme,” The Guardian’s Giles Richards wrote in a recent feature on Hamilton’s historic year, which also saw the pit straight at the famed Silverstone Circuit renamed in his honour—a first in Silverstone’s history.
Spurred by Rashford’s campaign for free school meals for British children during school holidays, Manchester United worked with FareShare, a UK charity that works to end hunger and food waste, to deliver 5,000 school meals in October. In the same month, Leeds United, one of the club’s fiercest rivals, matched a donation of £25,000 (around ₹24 lakh) by its squad to support Rashford’s campaign. There was little surprise when Rashford became the first recipient of the FIFA Foundation Award at The Best FIFA Football Awards 2020 ceremony recently. He was also honoured with the Expert Panel Special Award at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2020 awards.
The willingness to speak up has its roots in their childhood. In a BBC interview in June, Rashford explained how his experiences and upbringing had inspired his campaign. Growing up, he and his mother, a single parent, knew the importance of free school meals.
In a 2019 episode of My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman, Hamilton admitted that though he was bullied as a child, “he could stand up” for himself in a car. When he was growing up, there wasn’t much diversity even in go-karting. That had changed, he told Letterman. “It’s a real mix, people from different walks of life…. I have got Indian families come up to me and say, ‘Oh my son wants to do what you are doing’. I have got white (families), I have got Mexicans. All people come over to me and I feel like perhaps we have kind of broken that mould.”
In a year of difficulty, Rashford and Hamilton realised the true potential of an athlete: bringing change not only in the sporting world, but also outside it.