Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Sport in 2008

The big 'names' of 2008 in the sporting world remained the same as in previous years but this year, courtesy of the 2008 Olympics and the 2008 Football European Championships, some new names gained attention and wider public acclaim.

Before the summer of 2008 it's doubtful that Chris Hoy, Rebecca Adlington, Rebecca Romero, Rebecca Adlington and Usain Bolt to name five. were names known beyond the spectators of cycling, swimming and track and field - by the end of the summer their names, faces and Gold medals were as familiar to us as those of Ovett, Goodhew and Johnson had been in the past. The success of Team GB in winning nineteen golds and forty seven medals in total in Beijing brought with it some fantastic memories for competitor and spectator alike and showed that a combination of state sponsorship, via the National Lottery, and nurtured natural talent can produce exceptional results .

Usain Bolt sets the 100m World Record in New York in May

Usain Bolt began the summer in style at the Reebok Grand Prix in New York. On May 31 he ran 9.72 in the 100 metres, in what was only his fourth race at the distance in international athletics, taking an impressive 0.02 off of the existing record. In Beijing, Bolt seemed to belong in another world, beating the legendary Michael Johnson's 12 year record over 200 metres, lowering his own World Record to 9.69 in the 100 Metres Semi Finals and then he ran the third leg in the Jamaican team that won the 4 x 100 metre relay, oh and he also became the first man since Carl Lewis to win the 100m and 200m at the same Olympics.

Mark Cavendish set the scene for what would be the greatest summer in the history of British cycling. He won two stages in the Giro d'Italia in May, four stages in the Tour de France in July, the first three stages in the Tour of Ireland in early August and then won three stages in the Tour of Missouri in September. In one of those horrible twists of fate that sport occasionally throws up 'Cav' returned home from the Beijing Olympics the only member of the Cycling Squad not to win a medal.

Sportsmen and women don't have to posses sparkling personalities to match their talent, but once in a while the rare combination of somebody with grit and determination is matched with a sense of humility, a sense of humour and above all a willingness to understand that sport isn't the most important thing in life but for one moment in time it is the only thing in life. Sir Bobby Charlton, Michael Johnson, Chris Boardman, Sir Steve Redgrave and Sir Jackie Stewart are names that spring to mind as people who have been single minded in their pursuit of success whilst retaining the aura of 'generally good bloke' - to that list the names of Chris Hoy and Rebecca Adlington can be added.

As the Times put it on 20th August:

The problem with calling Chris Hoy “the Olympics' most decorated sprinter” or “Britain's greatest ever sprint cyclist” or whatever sprint superlative you fancy is that his achievements these past few days here have collectively been a triumph of endurance.

Five days of consecutive competition, 15 races, three gold medals. After the first two golds, he moved on quick: sung the National Anthem, posed for pictures and mentally clocked straight on to the next event. Only after yesterday, when it was all done and he had God Saved the Queen for a third time, did he wrap himself in his father's hug and let tearful emotion tumble.

It may be impossible to be a hero these days without a weep, but allow Hoy his tears because he is not merely the first Briton in 100 years to sweep a triple gold, he is the genuine thing, a sporting hero for our times, and that is not solely an assessment from the stands, it comes universally from his team-mates.

Rebecca Adlington, who at almost any other Olympic Games would have been the British Number One and in any other year the Sports Personality of the Year called Hoy her sporting hero. Adlington, nineteen years old from Mansfield and with the looks of somebody who could have been working on a till at Woolworths, won two Golds (400m and 800m) at the Freestyle, in winning the 800m she broke the 19 year old record of Janet Evans - at one point in the race it looked as if the officials had forgotten to ask Becky's competitors to take their marks she was so far ahead.

The Olympics ended with Jimmy Page, Leona Lewis and David Beckham giving a display of the best of British and the new Mayor of London making an exhibition of himself.

Xavi Hernandez, Cesc Fabregas and Fernando Torres were the stars of Euro 2008 as Spain finally ended forty four years of waiting and left England as the only major footballing nation in the world not to have won an International competition in the last forty years. Spain provided nine players in the team of the tournament, they had the Golden Boot winner in David Villa and the player of the Tournament in Xavi. For a while it did seem as if the dream ticket final of Holland v Spain was a real personality but having played the best football of the opening round of matches the Dutch managed to run out of steam against Russia. That was as good as it got for Russia who were outclassed by the Spanish 3-0 in the semi-final. Germany reached the final by beating the surprise team of the competition: Turkey.

In the group matches Turkey had needed to beat the Czech Republic to progress to the knockout stage and they did that by scoring two goals in the last three minutes, in the knockout stages they scored two minutes into added on time at the end of extra time against Croatia to take the match to penalties. The Turks won the shoot-out 3-1. With four minutes left of the semi-final, against Germany, Turkey were losing 1-2, they equalised and then watched in horror as Philip Lahm scored a ninetieth minute winner.

In the final a ball from Xavi through to Fernando Torres enabled the Liverpool forward to beat Jens Lehmann and win the trophy for the great underachievers of European football.

In club football it was the year of the all-English Champions League Final, played bizarrely in Moscow, the capital of a country that has yet to provide a finalist for Europe's leading club competition. Manchester United were the better side for an hour and then Chelsea seemed to have the upper hand, literally in the case of Didier Drogba who was sent off for slapping Nemanja Vidic. The match was decided on penalties and ultimately it was decided by John Terry slipping at the crucial moment and missing the chance to win it 5-4 for Chelsea. Once Terry had missed it was left to Anderson and Giggs to score penalties for United and Kalou for Chelsea, Nicolas Anelka then took possibly the worst penalty in the history of penalty shoot outs and Manchester United added the Champions League to the Premiership title.

A year is a long time in sport, just ask the England rugby union team. The quiet optimism that followed the 'glorious failure' in the 2007 Rugby World Cup final defeat against South Africa was replaced by the shiver of a reality check as 2008 did nothing but show up the shortcomings in the Northern Hemisphere game.

England dominated the first half of the first match against Wales by such a margin that you could be forgiven for thinking that a brave new dawn was just over the horizon. Whatever happened in the changing rooms at Twickenham on that February evening remains a mystery but Wales got better and better as England disappeared into their shirts. The 16-6 lead that England took into the break was overturned in some style during the second half and Wales eventually won 26-19 - their first victory at Twickenham for twenty years. In doing so they scored the first two of what would eventually be thirteen tries and they would win the Grand Slam with a points difference of 82.

England claimed second place in the final table courtesy of a better points difference than France for whom this was seen as the beginning of a rebuilding phase. Ireland, Scotland and Italy continued to plumb new depths of performance - naturally Scotland's only win of the Six Nations came at Murrayfield against England!

In the Autumn it was a case of new broom sweeps clean as Martin Johnson, appointed on 1st June, led his merry band of men against the might of the Southern Hemisphere. Johnson's record in his first four matches as Coach reads played 4, won 1, lost 3 - things can only get better.

England's cricket team also began life under a new leader, the South African born Kevin Pietersen. Ironically in his first summer in charge England managed to lose a series at home to Saffers for the first time in 43 years. Of course everything is relative and for a large chunk of those forty three years our relationship with South Africa consisted mainly of campaigning for the release of Nelson Mandela and boycotting Cape grapes.

Now I don't want to come over all Alf Garnett here, and I know that he was the player on form, but surely to Cliff we can find an English born player to lead England. Pietersen is a fine player but as he has grown into the Captaincy he has become boorish to the point of being a national embarrassment - the captaincy of our national side requires a certain level of aptitude and sporting diplomacy, what's wrong with Andrew Strauss?

2009 sees the Australian's and West Indies arrive on these shores, both are sides in a state of rebuilding - we could see two series of well matched teams scrapping for supremacy. Of course cricket in 2008 will be remembered for the emergence of 20/20 - with the much awaited IPL and the less heralded (by cricket fans at any rate) of the Stanford 20/20. In many respects it was the year that cricket came of age financially but the reaction in some quarters of the press could have led you to believe that the ghost of Jim Laker was being buggered on the square at Old Trafford by some champagne quaffing merchant bankers with more money than sense. Of course 20/20 will upset the purists, in the same way that thirty odd years ago people thought that the opening of a McDonalds in London would herald the demise of civilisation as we know it. 20/20 is for those people who don't need an eight hour alcohol induced kip in public during the summer months to prove they are 'real' cricket fans, it's fun, it's loud, it's non-stop - as Eric Morecambe described his version of Grieg's piano concerto to Andre Previn, "it's the same piece but with the notes arranged differently."

Away from the main sports a certain Mr Lewis Hamilton became Formula One champion and opened up the most bizarre thread I think I've ever seen on the 5Live message boards questioning whether his success would have been so celebrated if he had been white. The fact that Stirling Moss can still be recognised walking down the streets and that Sir Jackie Stewart published a best selling autobiography last year shows that the great British public will recognise genuine talent whatever its colour - something narrow minded racists of Italian extraction over on the 5Live boards just cannot accept.
2009, being a year with an odd number on the end, doesn't have an Olympics, World Cup (in football) but it does have the Ashes. It also looks like we might have a Premiership that is going to sustain interest at both top and bottom until May - I just hope West Ham are still in business, whatever end of the table we are in at the end of the season.

A happy sporting year to you all.


The Great Gildersleeve said...

I'm not sure I can get my head around calling Hoy "Sir" and there was a young girl in the Olympics(I forget her name)she had two gold medals(he had three)so if she had managed to get that third one would she have been awarded the title Dame?

I am less likely to dislike knighthoods when they are given more to people who discover something important in the scientific field or medicine.

It's just the way I am otherwise I can just about accept recognition for the population in general when it's maybe an MBE or a CBE etc...

Paul said...

I agree Gildy, I'm not happy with sports people being knighted simply because I think sporting success brings it's own reward.

Span Ows said...

Great post Paul...well done ...or 10 out of 10 for effort :-)

Paul said...

Thank you.

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