Britain with a female Prime Minister? USA electing a celebrity President? A rise in nationalism? Shoulder pads back in fashion? Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” on every TV show?Doping scandals? Anyone would think we’re back in the 1980s!
What a year it has been? And while we’ll remember 2016 for Brexit, Trump and losing Princess Leia (and her mum and Prince and George Michael and the rest), sport has shone and shamed in equal measure. The shaming I’ll deal with next time, but in the meantime, here are my highlights;
The romantic and definitive story of the year goes to Leicester City FC who were marked up by bookmakers at 5000-1 to win the title before the 2015-16 English Premier League season began. While the big clubs stuttered with their heavyweight squads and heavyweight salary bills, Leicester tossed the form book out of the window, creating their own pizza history (see what I did their) providing us with an enchanting reminder of the power of team-working and united spirit. Claudio Ranieri’s team topping the world’s richest football league goes down as one of the most enduring sporting stories of all-time, let alone 2016. Sensational stuff.
Leicester had clearly given the minnows an injection of hope which Iceland with a population of 330,000 (*** feel free to insert the name of any large town here***) and a world ranking of 131 just four years prior, ran with to reach the quarter-finals of Euro 2016. The Vikings slayed England in humiliating style on their way to the quarter-finals. The Icelandic fans stole the show with their spine tingling panoply war chant, with just three drum beats, a unanimous clap and a chant of ‘huh’ turned Iceland into a team of 11 men +10,000.
Hat tip also to Wales* for their dragonly drive at the Euros. Chris Coleman’s belief in the power of the collective, Gareth Bale taking his galactico status and subsuming it into a group were hallmark steps in galvanising a team to become greater than the sum of its parts.
Emotional moment of the year goes to the Brownlees. That’s right Brownlees plural, because of what they mean to each other. One Brownlee on their own is a quite remarkable athlete. Together they are two, ‘ordinary brothers from Yorkshire’ who love training, love competing and even though Alistair doesn’t like the term, showed extraordinary brotherly love. Two-time Olympic gold medalist Alistair was well positioned to take a medal in the World triathlon series but as he rounded the bend with 800m to go he caught a glance of his brother Jonny who was suffering with what was probably heat exhaustion, hardly able to stand, let alone run. With Jonny beginning to sway across the course, brotherly instinct kicked in, Alistair hooked Jonny’s arm over his right shoulder and with all the psychological strength he could muster in so doing shouldering Jonny’s physiological load he dragged Jonny to the line (and sort of dumped him over it). The moment truly moved me. I had a shudder of emotion run over me as I watched this act of familial support, mixed with the diamond tough determination to ‘complete’ took hold. This moment transcended sport. This act could have distinguished any soldier, any climber, anyone helping their kin to a hospital ward. It triggered deep human admiration, that I challenge anyone to ignore. If we went went back just a few centuries, I would have wanted the two of them in my tribe. Sport does this on a regular basis, remind us of our origins and shows us a positive vision of the future.
Comeback of the year goes to the NBA final. Fifty-two years on from their last championship, The Cleveland Cavaliers, complete with hometown son LeBron James, scripted the greatest comeback story in recent sporting memory. The Golden State Warriors, defending champions, masterful all season with a record breaking 73 regular season, with superstar Stephen Curry (a command I respond well to) led the Cavs 3-1 in the best-of-seven finals. LeBron James pushed the series to an unlikely brink. In the climactic Game 7, Lebron amassed 27 points, collected 11 rebonds, delivered 11 assists, blocked three shots and had two steals as Cleveland defeated the Warriors 93-89. An epic sporting moment.
Utterly undervalued achievement of the year goes to Chris Froome. The quiet man of world sport, handles himself with such dignity in the face of a torrent of jealousy and judgements from the skullduggery of years gone by, but plies his talent with strength and stoicism. That his treble of accomplishments in the toughest sporting event is an injustice. That the public at large haven’t recognized his qualities is disappointing. That the BBC consider him unworthy of inclusion on a 16-person shot-list for Sports Personality** of the year is an embarrassment.
And so to Rio. Greedy bugger of the year goes to the most decorated of all Olympians who rallied for one final South American carnival. Penning the final act of a blockbuster career, Michael Phelps took a bow with five golds and a silver in Rio de Janeiro totaling 28 medals overall (28! Most athletes would be very pleased with 28 appearances; most ordinary folk would be happy with 28 exercise sessions in a year) of which a neck-straining 23 are gold. Most medallists I know keep their medals in a sock in their sock drawer, Phelps now needs a wardrobe. As Phelps took his curtain call, 19-year-old Katie Ledecky, burst on to the scene to announce herself as a global force winning the 200, 400 and 800-meter freestyle events. Should Ledecky set her sights on the 2020 Tokyo and the 2024 Games after she could assemble a medal collection to rival that of Phelps.
There are some that say Phelps’ record is unfairly augmented by the number of opportunities to simply swim fast in several slightly different ways, well if that is true then the same should be said of Usain Bolt. But in fact, (IMHO), it should be said of neither, nor should a ‘contribution’ to a team medal such as Simone Biles’ efforts in gymnastics team event, be any way less than an individual pursuit. That is the beauty of sport, the events are what they are, the rules are formed the schedule is set – turn up and compete, support, administer or watch or find something else to do with your time.
In what is becoming a tradition for Olympic and Paralympic competition, the event lead up was mired in speculation that it wont be ready (though Tokyo will). But in time honoured tradition, ‘the games must go on’ (except for a dodgy bus driver taking athletes to the wrong venue – in which case just nudge the timings back an hour or so). Bolt’s treble treble and Mo’s double double (have a little lie down, get up again then win) achievements stand head and shoulders amongst so many greats. There will be one hell of a commanding and charismatic hole left behind when these two hang up their spikes. Cinderella moment goes to Rafaela Silva who rose rags to riches from the slums of the Cidade de Deus up to gold in a sheer face of adversity was an important image for the games and those who conjure hope whatever their background. The endearing moment of the year goes to the Fijians who dominated and dazzled as their nation doted on their win in the newly instated Rugby Sevens tournament. Skillful moment of the year goes to Laurine Van Riessen who rode up and down the vertical velodrome barriers to avoid the impending cycling crash in the Keirin.
From a personal point of view, seeing the gracefully radiant Jess Ennis-Hill add a silver lining to her career filled me full of pride. Having worked with Jess, Toni and Team JEnnis for over 12 years, there was obvious disappointment that the top of the podium was pipped by an incredible performance by Nafi Thiam. But while aspiring to retain an Olympic title she chose to do so as “a mother first” and showed us how life doesn’t need to be put to one side to ‘win at all costs’. In the words of Oliver Holt (@olliholt22) “Jessica Ennis-Hill burnished her reputation more in defeat last night than in many a victory. A great example of a human being with class.” I can vouch for that class.
These were just a few highlights amongst a breath-taking summer of sports for the athletic accomplishments as well as the human stories. Taking another leap upward were the Paralympics that built upon the momentum of London and gave society another strong dose of respect for those competing at the highest levels in the face of adversity.
As Team GB continued the audacious ascendency to claim ‘more medals at the games after hosting’ at both Olympics and Paralympics, mission 66:121 was accomplished, in so doing usurping the might of China and the tainted team of Russia. When I think back to the summer of sport the first memory to spring to mind is the GB Women’s Hockey team taking gold in a thrilling (and showing that Brits can win at a) penalty shoot-out. The term ‘Medallists’ has been inserted alongside ‘Medals’ in UK Sport’s mission statement, no doubt in recognition of the pride brought on by the women’s hockey triumph. The fact that Team GB came back with so many medallists (130 Olympians; 195 Paralympians), was boosted beyond recognition by the fact that it returned home with so many role models.
No-one can quite hold a flame to the efforts and achievements of Andy Murray in 2016. Every round of his Olympic competition looked like a torturous Chris Froome style Tour de France climb. Every reaching return of serve against Jo Wilfrid Tsonga in the Wimbledon quarter-finals looked as gymnastic as Max Whitlock’s floor routine. His quiet determination and resilience in the face of sustained ‘almosts’, deserve the returns he is so good at making.
It was heartwarming to hear of the many sporting competitors give due thanks to the coaches, support staff, family and friends, whether they won, drew or lost this year. Without such support, care, patience, financial as well as emotional investment, any athlete’s journey would be so much harder, lonelier and possibly impossible. If you need a reminder of such dedication and passionate pursuit of the support of others watch this short feature on legendary gymnastics coach Eddie van Hoof.
But for as many highlights there have been equal and hideously opposite scandals overshadowing the bright qualities of sport. The Russian systematised regime of doping, the widespread abomination of young people in the supposed care of Britain’s football clubs and yet more controversies in cycling darken the door of sport’s soul. They hint to what might hide in further reaches of this globalised past-time, but importantly they point towards where effort must be deployed. More on that next time as I look forward to what we need from sport in 2017!
*The Mrs would kill me if I didn’t mention them!
**Despite the fact that the acronym is quite catchy, there is now decent reason why SPOTY does not update to Sporting Achievement of the Year, where the accolade is given to the outstanding accomplishment of the year. Oh and while we’re getting up-to-date, give a male and female prize!