Monday, December 20, 2004

Review of the Sporting Year 2004

Hail the conquering sporting heroes of 2004 -
From "The Emirates Evening Post" 20th December 2004

A pessimist’s look back at the sporting year 2004 would find much evidence of the darker side of international sport. Drug users, cheats and the customary gaggle of incompetent administrators have been in the headlines far too often and sport has all too frequently been brought into disrepute by greed and arrogance. But true to the spirit of the season let’s put these events to one side and concentrate in this review of the sporting year on the sportsmen and sportswomen who by their performances and the manner of their success have enthralled and entertained us. Let me hail my personal conquering heroes of a remarkable sporting year.

For me the heroes of 2004 divide into three main categories – the “Predictable”; the “Surprising” and (thirdly) those who have really “uplifted our souls”. In the first group we must include the extraordinary Michael Schumacher who won his seventh Formula 1 Drivers championship. Aside from his technical excellence behind the wheel Schumacher is also an absolutely key member of the Ferrari team both in track testing and in respect of the team’s overall strategey and race tactics. Whilst at the beginning of the season it was thought that Raikkonen or Montoya might challenge Schumi in fact his contribution to the overall excellence of the team was such that it was his team mate Barrichello who was runner up. Rubens is a good driver – but his success is in no small measure due to his team leader – as he himself admits.

Whilst Ferrari was a solid team with a genius at its head the same can also be said for the USPS cycling team led by the legendary Lance Armstrong. No superlative is too great to describe this astonishing man who has now won the Tour de France six times and overcome serious illness to do so. Whilst his win this year may also have been predictable it was none the less another astonishing achievement by this iconic sportsman. Moving towards the icon category is Roger Federer who, although comparatively new to top class tennis, was this year at the Schumacher or Armstrong level in his dominance. Despite winning three out of four Grand Slam events in one season Federer seemed never to let his fame and success go to his head. Whether the same can be said for the all-conquering six times Athens gold medallist swimmer Michael Phelps remains to be seen. He faces trial for a serious motoring offence later this month and we must hope that this fall from grace will be seen to be a sin of youth (he is only 19).

Phelps may be a victim of celebrity and there has been no shortage of other sportsmen who have appeared as often on the front pages as on the back this year. But let’s draw a veil of taste over the off-pitch antics of the football stars like Beckham and Rooney. Instead let’s pay tribute to a team whose success was in no small measure attributable to their collective motivation as a team as well as to their individual brilliance. The Australian cricket team have shown that they are streets ahead of the rest. The Aussies may be predictable winners – but they are never boring and they continually surprise in their powers of recovery when, just occasionally, they do get in trouble. One of my two “Teams of the year”.

In the “surprising heroes category” pride of place must go the Greek football team who won Euro 2004. This extraordinary success presaged a great year for Greek sport with the success of the Athens Olympics also being a surprise to some. That the games were well organised, secure and classy was a delight to see – especially as those know-all pessimists who had filed gloomy copy for months before the Games were all proved wrong. Sad that for the Greeks there was a sordid drugs debacle involving two of their stars athletes. But let’s hail the surprising and satisfying XXVIII Olympiad for the stunning success that it was. Similarly surprising was the emotional win of the Boston Red Sox in the World Series. Few if any of the Red Sox supporters were alive 86 years ago when they last won. My second “team of the year” is the European Ryder Cup winning squad who surprised us not by showing that they are good golfers (this we knew) but by showing that teamwork makes a difference even in this most individual of sports. The Americans lost because their whole ethic is individual – look what happened when they paired their two best players (Woods and Mickleson) together - they just didn’t know what to do.

Finally in this very personal review let me look back at those other sporting moments which uplifted my soul. Special mention should go to Sheikh Ahmed al-Maktoum who won the men's double trap shooting Olympic Gold Medal – the UAE’s first ever. Victories like this in the genuinely amateur sports such as the equestrian events, shooting, rowing and boxing are particularly uplifting because we know how much effort goes into preparation - and the rewards of winning are absolutly untarnished by the prospect of rich earnings just around the corner. This is even more so in the Paralympics which this year were the biggest ever and which attracted huge television audiences around the world. The courage of the thousands of competing athletes was stimulating and humbling and reminds us that there is more to sport than fortune and celebrity.

Last week I was privileged to be at a lunch in London at which some of the conquering heroes of the sporting year were fêted. Along with the cricketers, rowers, sailors and athletes there was the seventeen year old Amir Khan boxing silver medallist in the Olympic Games. It looks likely that Khan’s success and fame will be an inspiration, as was Nasser Hussain’s before him, to all young Brits of Asian origins. This brings me to the sporting event of the year that for me that uplifted the soul more than any other - India’s cricket tour to Pakistan. As a neutral I was largely indifferent to the results of the matches. But as someone who believes that sport can be a force for good in a troubled world, transcending nationalism, religious and racial strife and hatred, the successful outcome of the series was a joy to behold. The cricketers of India and Pakistan set a fine example with their sportsmanship and their courage. I salute them.

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