Peaks and Valleys

Peaks and Valleys

Dazzlers: Turning on the style in time, Spain were the biggest winners of 2010.

Bravo Espana!” said President Nicolas Sarkozy of France in late July as he barged into a television interview during the Tour de France to shake hands with the Spanish cyclist Alberto Contador.

Bravo, indeed. In that historically heady month for Spain, Contador was well on his way to a third victory in the Tour, Rafael Nadal had won his latest Wimbledon and Spain’s national soccer team had sparked the country’s party of the century — so far — by winning its first World Cup.

Spain’s golden age of sport had never looked so golden and had never seemed such a blessed contrast to the moroseness permeating too much of wider Spanish life: the slumping economy, the 20 percent unemployment rate, the sense of diminished clout and prospects.

But as 2010 proved once again, modern sport is a shaky foundation on which to build certitudes, not to mention national honor, and as year’s end approached, Spain’s brilliant sport year was showing signs of tarnish.

That was not because Fernando Alonso faltered down the stretch after leading the Formula One standings or because Spain failed again to win the right to stage a global sporting event – this time the 2018 World Cup, which went to Russia. The more troubling failure came with the drug test that could force Contador to surrender his Tour title, even if he continues to insist that he ingested the banned steroid clenbuterol through contaminated meat.

Roaring matador: Rafael Nadal had an outstanding year.Then this month, the Spanish government’s latest investigation into doping in Spain – called Operacion Galgo (Operation Greyhound) – led to the arrests of several Spanish officials and athletes over allegations of involvement in a distribution ring, chief among them the country’s leading track and field star, Marta Dominguez, the reigning women’s world steeplechase champion. So it went in a year when clarity was hard to come by and the winners tougher than usual to sift from the losers. So much seemed to come with a caveat. Consider the case of David Moller, a silver medalist in luge at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, who complied with a photographer’s request to bite his medal for a picture and ended up with a broken tooth.

Other winners were losers, too. South Africa pulled off the World Cup in style but also became the first host nation not to advance past the first round and now looks as if it might have a few white elephants to go with its elephants as its stunning new stadiums sit unused.

Sachin Tendulkar, Caroline Wozniacki and Seb Vettel.There was also Paul the Octopus, who showed an underwater knack for picking World Cup winners and became the unlikely toast of Google’s search engine and the planet (is there a difference at this stage?). The only spoilsport was President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, who labeled Paul a symbol of Western decadence. Paul surely couldn’t hear him, but then he would soon hear nothing at all as he failed to survive the year in his Berlin aquarium. (No allegations of foul play have surfaced.)

Even some of those who finished the year at No 1 had to deal with the downside. Lee Westwood displaced Tiger Woods at the top of the world golf rankings in the same year that he once again failed to win a major, although he did help Europe reclaim the Ryder Cup in another bad news/good news sports event that was nearly washed out by Welsh weather but turned into a thriller.

Caroline Wozniacki finished atop the women’s tennis rankings but could not manage to reach a Grand Slam final. As for Serena Williams, she won two more majors – the Australian Open and Wimbledon – but slashed her foot in an off-court accident and did not play again after limping her way through a big-money exhibition with Kim Clijsters in July in Belgium.

Then there were those who lost something and still came out looking like winners (although this group does not include Woods).  The Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette skated through the grief at the Vancouver Olympics after the death of her mother and came away with a bronze medal that felt more like gold.

Nicolas Mahut, an injury-prone Frenchman, lost the longest tennis match in history to the American John Isner at Wimbledon, but was still feted at home and abroad for his role in their 11-hour-5-minute ode to the held serve.

That was strange, but not quite as strange as a losing team not being, well, the losing team. Bahrain beat Togo, 3-0, in a friendly soccer match in September only to discover that its out-of-breath opponents were imposters, sent without the real team’s knowledge, apparently with the intent of unscrupulously securing an appearance fee.

The Spanish soccer team – the real one – was beaten in 2010, too, losing to Switzerland, 1-0, in its first World Cup group game. Spain’s players and their understated coach, Vicente del Bosque, declined to panic and proceeded to go undefeated the rest of the way, thereby smashing the last vestige of Spain’s sporting inferiority complex, with Nadal and Pau Gasol, the most successful Spanish basketball player in history, watching from the stands in Johannesburg.

It was symbolic that Spain’s greatest sports triumph came in the same year that the Spaniard who helped set the change in motion, Juan Antonio Samaranch, died at 89. Samaranch, a former president of the International Olympic Committee, was pivotal in securing the Summer Olympics for his home city, Barcelona, in 1992. The confidence and sports structures that grew out of those Games were critical to much of the Spanish success that followed.

There has been plenty: Nadal’s nine Grand Slam singles titles, Miguel Indurain’s five consecutive Tour de France victories from 1991 to 1995, a world championship in men’s basketball, Alonso’s Formula One titles in 2005 and 2006, the European and now the World Cup titles in soccer.  It sure sounds like a golden age, but as photographs of the popular Dominguez flashed across television and computer screens in December with news of her arrest, July’s flag-waving, vuvuzela-blasting fiesta seemed a long way off, even as Spanish commentators and officials rushed to give her the benefit of the doubt and defend Spain’s other sports achievements.

“I’m convinced that nearly all the successes in Spanish sport are more than genuine,” Samaranch’s son, Juan Antonio Jr., a member of the IOC, said in an interview with the Spanish news agency Efe.

One hopes for the sake of the Spanish people, who are losing faith in too many other institutions, that he is correct.

IN SPOTLIGHT

Winners

*Andres Iniesta: Scored Spain’s World Cup-winning goal.
* Sachin Tendulkar First-ever double century in one-day inernational cricket and also fifty centuries in Test cricket
* Wesley Sneijder: Champions League winner with Inter Milan, World Cup runner-up with the Netherlands
* Jose Mourinho Special One’s triumphs at Inter Milan lead to Real Madrid
* Rafael Nadal Three tennis Grand Slams in a row, back to No 1 and still polite.
* South Africans Invictus they weren’t but still a great World Cup effort
* Thomas Muller Star is born for Bayern Munich and German Mannschaft
* Sebastien Vettel Youngest Formula One champ ever
* Francesca Schiavone On Paris Clay, first Italian woman to win a tennis major
* Manny Pacquaio Boxer won Philippine election (and title in eighth weight class)
* Kobe Bryant Back to back NBA titles with Los Angeles Lakers
* Caster Semenya South African runner allowed to compete as woman
* Yani Tseng Two more women’s golf majors for Taiwan at age 21

Losers

*Tiger Woods Had to do without victories  (and wife)
* Raymond Domenech French coach fired after World Cup fiasco
* Robert Green English goalkeeper let one slip; Coach Capello didn’t forget
* Diego Maradona Hugs all around until Germany’s four goals buried Argentina
* Write the future Nike’s great World Cup ad nothing but a curse for its cast of stars
* Bill Clinton US bid’s trump card must visit Qatar to watch 2022 World Cup
* Sergio Garcia Rare Spanish sportsman who had an annus horribilis
* Australian cricket Is Shane Warne still available?
* Frank Lampard Is video replay (ever) available?
* Juan Martin Del Potro From No 4 to No 257 because of wrist injury
* Michael Schumacher Not even Germany’s top driver anymore
* Mark van Bommell Coach’s son-in-law played dirty for Dutch at the World Cup
* Floyd Mayweather Junior Felony charges and no mega-payday with Manny
* Lance Armstrong Minor player in last Tour; major player in fraud inquiry
* Kim Jong-Hun North Korean coach loses all three World Cup games
* Jabulani Time to stop reinventing the ball
*LaShawn Merritt World 400M champion blames male-enhancement drug for ban
* Tranquility Ears still ringing worldwide from drone of vuvuzelas.

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