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Parade of champs!

Christopher Clarey, Dec 23, 2012, International Herald Tribune :

On a December journey to distant Argentina, the highs and lows of the sports year seem like they happened on another planet. At least for a little while, anyway.

At the end of a gravel road at Estancia Harberton, a remote reminder in Tierra del Fuego of 19th-century missionary fortitude, an Argentine tour guide named Rosario still feels the sting of the women’s field hockey gold medal that Argentina lost in August in faraway London.

“Those nasty Dutch,” she said this week. “But our Pumas gave it their best.”
It is tough work indeed to find a place where this Olympic year did not leave a trace, from hermetic Saudi Arabia, where outside pressure finally forced the country to include women on its Olympic team, to the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada, which celebrated its first Olympic medal – a gold – when Kirani James won the 400 metres.


Sports are ever more a global obsession, even if the Olympics placed only third in Google’s rankings of the year’s trending events, behind Hurricane Sandy and the release of those photos of the Duchess of Cambridge (yes, those photos of the former Kate Middleton).

Sports continued to divide across latitudes and other lines in 2012. One team’s or one tribe’s triumph was another’s downer, and sometimes elation turned to deflation – and vice versa – in a flash.

On May 13, Manchester United had yet another Premiership title in its grasp in the dying moments of its last soccer match of the season, against Sunderland. Meanwhile, ManU’s local rival, Manchester City, which needed a victory to secure the title, was more than 90 minutes into its final match and losing, 2-1, to Queen’s Park Rangers. But stoppage time was just enough time for Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero to score the goals that would give the other club from Manchester its first league title since 1968. Mancunians and plenty of neutrals will never forget it.

Fast forward now to the last day of September and the tree-lined golf course at Medinah Country Club, with its neo-Byzantine clubhouse looming like a mirage in the Chicago suburbs. But there would soon be other reasons for rubbing one’s eyes at Medinah as Europe’s Ryder Cup team, down 6-10 to the United States on the final day, commenced rolling in putt after putt to set in motion the most impressive comeback in the Cup’s 85-year history.

Grown golfers were soon in tears and invoking the memory of Seve Ballesteros as the Europeans, with precedent and a rowdy crowd overwhelmingly against them, pulled off the 14-13 victory with plenty of help from wobbly Americans like Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker.

“Why does it feel like we just robbed a bank?” cracked Ian Poulter, the European ringleader.  Poulter, despite his domicile, remains British and the European victory was the last major coup for the British in a year in which they had to make the collective psychological adjustment from gallant losers perennially disposed to celebrate the underdog to serial champions delighted to roar with a pirate crew’s zeal over the latest acquisition of gold.

They appeared to adapt quickly. The Olympics – deftly staged by London – were the primary engine as the Brits built on a surprisingly strong 2008 performance in Beijing and ended up with 65 medals, 29 of them gold, which put them third in the gold-medal table, behind the United States and China and ahead of the likes of Russia, Germany and, most importantly, Australia, which suddenly forgot how to win swimming races.
“We lit the flame and lit up the world,” said Sebastian Coe, the lighter in chief as head of the London organising committee.

But London 2012 and the Paralympics that successfully followed were hardly the only driving force behind Britain’s annus mirabilis. “The most extraordinary thing of all is that, even without the Olympic Games, this would have been the most impossibly fabulous sporting year,” wrote Simon Barnes in ‘The Times’ of London.

The first big hint came in Melbourne in January when Andy Murray – a great and grumpy talent trapped in a golden era of men’s tennis – pushed and pushed against Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of the Australian Open. With his stoic new coach, Ivan Lendl, observing every long rally, Murray lost a five-set marathon in which defense repeatedly proved superior to offense and in which Murray, even in defeat, showed a new big-match resilience.

As the season continued, Murray busted through the barriers, becoming the first British man to reach the Wimbledon final in 74 years before losing to Roger Federer, then winning the Olympic gold medal on the same stretch of lawn against the same opponent, and finally, at the US Open in September, playing another five-set marathon against Djokovic and prevailing to win his first Grand Slam singles title.

There was more for Britain, much more. There was a first victory inthe Champions League for Chelsea; a first British victory in the Tour de France, courtesy of Bradley Wiggins; a commanding eight-shot victory from Rory McIlroy in the US PGA Championship, and victory after victory for the undefeated English wonder horse Frankel.

As the loot piled up, it was almost possible to forget that England had failed to get past the quarterfinals at the European soccer championships, won by Spain, the defending champion, with cruel beauty over Italy by the sandlot score of 4-0.

Yes, athletes from outside the British Isles actually triumphed, too, in 2012.
Usain Bolt was shaky early, losing twice at the Jamaican Trials to Yohan Blake. But it was a false alarm as he ran riot at the Olympics again, winning three more gold medals – in the 100, the 200 and the 4x100 relay – and declaring, with typical understatement: “I am now a living legend. Bask in my glory.”

The German Sebastian Vettel became the youngest triple world champion ever in Formula One, winning his third straight title at 25. Also 25, Lionel Messi scored more goals in a single season for soccer club (Barcelona) and country (Argentina) than any man in history.
It was a good year for Americans, too.

Serena Williams produced some of the most convincing tennis of her mood-swinging career to win Wimbledon, the Olympic singles title and the US Open at age 30. Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson won their first majors in golf. Ashton Eaton broke the world record in the decathlon.

Michael Phelps retired on a high note, if not his highest note, with four more gold medals and two more silver medals, bringing his record Olympic totals to 18 golds and 22 over all.

And then in the midst of all this serial American achievement, there was Lance Armstrong, described by the US Anti-Doping Agency as a “serial cheat” as it stripped him of his seven Tour de France titles and laid out the doping programme allegedly orchestrated for years by Armstrong.

In a year when sports seemed to master the hardware with the first-rate staging of London 2012, Armstrong’s fall after a decade of suspicion made it clear that there are still major software issues, along with another gaping hole in the old-fashioned record books.

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