Sport in 2016: a dichotomy of soaring highs and desperate lows

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It was somehow typical of 2016 that on the morning after Andy Murray accepted the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year Award for a third time in his career, the focus should switch so joltingly to a man whose strategic brilliance had produced an avalanche of Olympic medals and the first British winner of the Tour de France, but who was now seen trying to persuade a sceptical House of Commons select committee that his team had no involvement with doping.

The year has been a rollercoaster like no other before it, the highs (Murray, Leicester City, Simone Biles, the Chicago Cubs, Wales’s footballers, an unusually stirring finish to cricket’s County Championship) higher and the lows (state-sponsored doping, sexual abuse of young footballers, corruption within governing bodies, the plane crash that killed many of Chapecoense’s football team) lower. Now Sir Dave Brailsford, knighted for his services to British sport only four years ago, was being interrogated on his apparent failure to live up to the promises of transparency he made in 2010 when launching Team Sky on the back of a proven Olympic programme and pledging to win the Tour within five years with a clean British rider. His success with Bradley Wiggins in the 2012 Tour, three years ahead of schedule, and with Chris Froome in three of the subsequent four editions of the race, and the clinical manner in which the richest team in the sport went about its business, created resentments that became the kindling for what could yet turn out to be a catastrophic conflagration, with the urgent gusts of social media fanning the flames, as has been the case in so many recent events.

What had brought Brailsford up before the select committee – along with Shane Sutton, his former right-hand man, and already controversial for allegedly making sexist remarks to the female cyclist Jess Varnish – was the activity of a team of Russian hackers calling themselves Fancy Bears, who had revealed, via Wikileaks, the details of therapeutic use exemption certificates granted to leading athletes in many sports. Those named included Wiggins, and the world was agog to see that he had been given permission for injections of a powerful corticosteroid with known performance-enhancing effects before three big races, ostensibly to mitigate the effects of summertime allergies.

Fancy Bears was taken by many to be a jokey nom de guerre for elements of the Russian security services and the revelations appeared to be a reprisal for the ban on Russian athletes competing in the Rio track and field events that followed the disclosure of a clandestine doping programme so ingenious and sophisticated that it made the old East German system look like meals on wheels. A report commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency from the Canadian law professor Richard McLaren, issued in two instalments, eventually implicated more than 1,000 athletes. The stories of secret rooms in the testing laboratory and undetected fiddling with supposedly tamper-proof sample flasks cast retrospective doubts over the results from London’s 2012 Olympics and, in particular, the Winter Games in Sochi two years later, where Vladimir Putin’s showpiece facility on the Black Sea had provided the stage for 33 medal-winning performances by competitors from the host nation.

Wiggins had broken no rules but it seemed that he and his team may have pushed against the legal limits and perhaps ventured beyond the boundary of moral acceptability, and he responded by mounting a defence that some found unconvincing. The man who had become so distinctive as a national hero with a Tour and Olympic double in the summer of 2012 grew up in a time when doping was rife in cycling but he could never have dreamed, when he entered his first competition at the age of 12, that he would become a pawn in the geopolitic skirmishes of the 21st century.

In 2016, however, sport could do no more than mirror the world in which it exists. For every triumph and moment of grace in an overstuffed year, there was a looming shadow ready to cast its darkness over the celebrations. A further 24 hours after Murray’s acceptance of his latest award came the news that another two-times Wimbledon singles champion, the 26-year-old Petra Kvitova, had been stabbed while attempting to defend herself against an intruder at her home in the Czech Republic; the injury was to the tendons of her playing hand, the left, requiring surgery that will keep her out for six months.

Death claimed an unusually high number of the world’s major figures in 2016 – and sport was not exempt. As if to match the deaths of Fidel Castro, David Bowie and Umberto Eco, it came up with Muhammad Ali, Johan Cruyff and Arnold Palmer. Each had changed his sport in a way that provided a handy metaphor for developments in society: civil rights protests and opposition to Vietnam war (Ali), the baby-boomers’ drive for self-expression and freedom from archaic restrictions (Cruyff), the monetisation of leisure activities in a time of peace and prosperity for the white bourgeoisie (Palmer). Each, too, gave his name to the thing that symbolised his uniqueness. The Ali shuffle, the Cruyff turn, Arnie’s army: all part of history now, tales to be handed down by those lucky enough to have witnessed them at first hand, and then by those whom they told, perhaps blurring a little but still taking their place in an oral tradition that survives even in the digital age.

Although the creation of such legends is in part the job of sport, mostly it exists in order to give pleasure to its participants and relief to its onlookers from the travails and anxieties of everyday existence. In the latter respect, it may be needed more than ever in the years ahead. And if there was something to be said on behalf of 2016, it was the clear evidence that there is no danger of a drying-up of the wellspring of miracles.

An Olympic year inevitably generates more than its fair share of those. The Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio, prefaced by concerns over their cost to a city and a country with so many millions living in seemingly ineradicable poverty, produced an almost embarrassing haul of 214 medals for the lottery-funded Team GB: a staggering 8.3% of the available total. Too many to record individually, although it should be noted that the track cyclists Laura and Jason Kenny must now find a display case big enough to take their combined collection of 10 gold medals – and they have not finished yet.

Rio also confirmed, almost superfluously, the greatness of Usain Bolt, giving him a trio of gold medals to match his triples in Beijing and London. Elaine Thompson came close to matching her fellow Jamaican, taking gold in the women’s 100m and 200m but missing out by a third of a second when Jamaica finished behind the USA in the 4x100m relay.

For some observers, Mo Farah’s historic double in the 5,000m and 10,000m made him the pre-eminent British track athlete of all time, as well as the one whose touching and compelling back-story carries a special relevance to a world being reshaped by mass migration. But not even Farah could steer entirely clear of controversy, in his case engendered by accusations against his coach, Alberto Salazar, still lingering from 2015.

Russia’s gymnasts were allowed to compete in Rio, and Aliya Mustafina took the women’s all-around title. But no one could match the way the 19-year-old Simone Biles, 4ft 9in of spring-loaded genius, lit up the world with a series of incandescent displays that elevated her to a level populated by such names as Tourischeva, Korbut, Kim, Comaneci, Retton, Boginskaya, Khorkina and Miller. At the other end of the physical scale, the final of the men’s sculls drew less attention from the non-specialist audience, but no event in the entire Games was more thrillingly, viscerally and closely fought: after an astonishing late attack, Damir Martin of Croatia lost by a thumbnail to Mahe Drysdale of New Zealand, the defending champion, and was the first to bestow the warmest and most unfeigned of congratulations on his conqueror.

If that was a shining example of sport at the highest level finding space for a sense of brotherhood, fraternal competition acquired a new and unforgettable dimension when Alistair Brownlee, a double Olympic triathlon champion, first caught his younger brother Jonny, close to collapse near the end of the final World Series round in Cozumel, Mexico, then carried him across the line. It would have been no surprise to find the Hollies’ He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother topping the charts the following week.

Leicester City’s success in vanquishing the big battalions was the best bit of image-enhancement the Premier League could have devised on the eve of its obscene new television deal: a real-life fairytale supervised by Claudio Ranieri, a man of unfailing modesty, courtesy and charm. The deeds of the formerly unheralded Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kanté were almost enough to make the nation forget the damage done to other historic clubs by such incompetent owners as Roland Duchâtelet at Charlton Athletic, Venky’s at Blackburn Rovers, Tony Fernandes at Queens Park Rangers, Massimo Cellino at Leeds United and the hedge fund Sisu at Coventry City.

Portugal’s victory in Euro 2016 rewarded the efforts of another underdog, all the more praiseworthy for the way Fernando Santos’s players overcame the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo, their captain and talisman, after only 25 minutes of the final against hosts France, refusing to allow their morale to crack in the way that Brazil had permitted Neymar’s absence to undermine them in the 2014 World Cup. If anything, adversity was the making of a performance crowned by Eder’s decisive extra-time goal.

Wales and Iceland, and their bands of wonderful supporters, had already given the tournament its flavour. By the time of their departure, at the semi-final and quarter-final stages respectively, the players of England were already on the beach or by the pool or wherever they had gone to wash away the humiliation of a deserved last-16 defeat at the hands of the representatives of 330,000 Nordic islanders. Elimination ensured the end of Roy Hodgson, a decent man but never quite up to the job. The more bullish Sam Allardyce replaced him, thus realising his loudly proclaimed life’s ambition, but there was a sense of suppressed relief emanating from the FA bosses who accepted his resignation after only 67 days, one sketchy victory and an outlay, all told, of around £4.5m. His replacement, the civilised but untested Gareth Southgate, duly went about the time-honoured business of creating unrealistic expectations with decent results in qualifying matches against minnows.

In what has been declared the first year of a new post-truth age, sport had its ration of fake news when the England rugby international James Haskell was maliciously declared to have succumbed to a steroid overdose. The babble of Twitter and Facebook may even have contributed to the decision by Nico Rosberg to retire 24 hours after winning the Formula One world title; who could blame anyone for declining to remain any more than a day longer than necessary inside a world of fanboys and haters whose rancour drowns even the blare of racing engines? His team-mate, Lewis Hamilton, became the first driver to win 10 races in the season without also taking the championship, while in the motorcycle world Cal Crutchlow made himself the first Brit to win a top-tier race since Barry Sheene, and then did it again – both times on a second-tier machine.

The final day of the dear old County Championship, a survivor of the analogue age forever under threat from modernity, saw Middlesex clinch the title for the first time since 1993 by beating Yorkshire in front of 10,000 spectators on a Friday evening at Lord’s, with only five overs of the season remaining. Somerset, the other contenders for the title when the day began, could only watch helplessly from the sidelines.

Cricket also provided one of three individual examples of excellence from the year which stand out in their very different ways – two of them spectacular, the other the essence of understatement. With West Indies needing 19 off the final over to beat England in the World Twenty20 final in Kolkata, the Barbadian all-rounder Carlos Brathwaite smashed four consecutive sixes off the bowling of Ben Stokes in the most majestically brutal climax to a sporting contest ever witnessed outside a boxing ring. Second, Fiji’s joyful rout of Team GB in the rugby sevens final in Rio: a lesson in initiative, inspiration, skill, courage and, oh, just about everything. Third, the contribution of Chris Robshaw – replaced as captain of the England XV after a disaster in the 2015 Rugby World Cup – to the team’s current year-long 13-match winning run, embracing anonymity and making himself as essential to the collective success as his blindside predecessor Richard Hill was to the World Cup winners of 2003.

Dylan Hartley, the man selected by Eddie Jones to replace Robshaw as captain, performed valiantly and behaved impeccably throughout the unbeaten international year but then ended it by elbowing a Leinster opponent on his return to Northampton colours. The resulting ban took his career aggregate of suspensions to 60 weeks: more than an entire year of the 30 he has so far spent on earth, all imposed for various forms of unacceptable violence.

Leadership on the field is also an issue for England’s Test cricket team after a bruising 4-0 series defeat in India. A good start to the year, with series victories against South Africa on tour and Sri Lanka at home, was followed by drawn series against Pakistan at home and Bangladesh away. Now Alastair Cook will spend the holiday deciding whether to step aside and allow his vice-captain, Joe Root, to take over, giving the Yorkshireman the summer meetings with South Africa and West Indies in which to get his bearings before setting off to retain the Ashes in Australia. Eoin Morgan captained England’s ODI squad to a series defeat in South Africa and home wins against Sri Lanka and Pakistan before declining on security grounds to travel to Bangladesh, allowing Jos Buttler to lead the team to another series victory.

Finally, a normally reliable source suggests that Bernie Ecclestone will at last be stepping down from his role as the supreme dictator of Formula One in the early weeks of next year, at the age of 86. But given that he is on such excellent personal terms with both Donald Trump (“His election is the best thing that could have happened to the world”) and Vladimir Putin (“He gets the job done – he should be running Europe”), it is hard to imagine him passing up the chance of joining them to form a troika bent on world domination. Either way, it’s something to look forward to in 2017.