THIS year will forever be linked to the Olympics but in golf, tennis and the hearts of Hillsborough families it was much, much more
Bubba Watson might be an unlikely starting point in a review of a sporting year, but with Bubba we begin. Why? Because at Augusta, on a Sunday evening in the month of April, in the play-off for the Masters, we saw the curtain come up on the most extraordinary 12 months, the first single act of inspiration in a year that provided so many. We didn’t know what was ahead of us then, of course. We didn’t know what lay in wait for Andy Murray and Bradley Wiggins and Mo Farah. We didn’t know about the glory that would befall Katherine Grainger and Jessica Ennis and the Ryder Cup boys in America and all the others who shone like beacons month after remarkable month.
So, in the beginning, there was Bubba and his wild imagination and a shot that will live forever in the memory, a wedge from deadsville on the second hole of a play-off with Louis Oosthuizen, a wedge that only Bubba could see and perhaps that only Bubba would be mad enough to try and execute, a wedge that hooked close to 40 yards around the corner and settled beautifully on the green. Once before in the white heat of a major championship, Watson tried a shot where the percentages were stacked against him – and it cost him a USPGA. Now he had the courage of his convictions to try it again. In that moment, we said that the rest of 2012 would have to go some to beat Bubba’s audacious brilliance but, as it turned out, it’s all but forgotten. By some, but not here.
Let football take a back seat. Celtic winning the SPL and beating Barcelona and their manager harangued by an abusive fan weeks later. City denying United in England and then their manager’s future being speculated upon before the year was out. Chelsea grinding out a win in the Champions League and the man who orchestrated it sacked not long after. And Rangers. A review in itself. Not here, not now.
This was a year where greatness fell from the sky like confetti.
In June at Royal Ascot we saw the continuing story of arguably the greatest thoroughbred that has ever lived – Frankel. In the Queen Anne Stakes, against a field that included some of the finest three-year-old colts in the world, Frankel won by 11 lengths and left even the most sage observers of the racing game struggling for the right words to describe what they saw. The Racing Post gave the performance a rating of 142, the highest in the newspaper’s history. But ratings were redundant when it came to Frankel. “A lightning strike of genetics that may not be repeated for 100 years,” as the journalist and former Grand National-winning jockey, Marcus Armytage, described him.
Renaissance stories. The year was full of them. Frankel, now retired, was trained by Sir Henry Cecil, one of the greatest horsemen the world has ever known. Cecil and Frankel were a story to warm the heart, not just because of their historic excellence but because Cecil has been battling stomach cancer and because Frankel’s existence has helped him do it.
The greatest of stories have adversity attached. At the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart, Ernie Els spoke about his young son, Ben, and his autism. He spoke about the confusion the family went through when Ben was diagnosed and the fundraising they were doing to build an autism research institute in their adopted home in Florida. Ben first, golf second. That’s the way it had been for quite a while.
In Inverness, Els spoke about his game and his early season travails, a humiliating implosion in the Transitions championship in March and how he’d had the Mickey taken out of him on television by David Feherty. It hurt, no question. He said he was in Scotland that week to get the rust off his game ahead of Lytham. He thought Darren Clarke might win the Open again. Or Rickie Fowler. Or Lee Westwood. A week later it was Els himself who had the Claret Jug in his hands.
Standing on the 15th tee in the final round of the Open, Adam Scott was four shots clear of the field and looked for all the world as though he was on his way to winning the major that his outrageous talent demands. The journey home, though, was a calamity. Bogey on 15, bogey on 16. As he walked up the 17th fairway there was an almighty roar from the 18th green where Els had just sunk a long putt for birdie. Suddenly the lead was down to one and then none. Els was Open champion again after ten years and nobody – most of all himself – could quite believe it.
How to top that for theatre? Bradley Wiggins had an idea. Few elite athletes in the modern history of British sport have been as beloved as Wiggins. People respond to him because he seems natural. His is an effortless charm and an easy cool. He’s not a publicist’s creation, not protected by image-makers and PR goons. He is a Tour de France champion that people feel they can reach out and touch, a rock star and yet an everyday bloke. This is how people want their footballers to be. Accessible, articulate, respectful, human. Wiggo! Wiggo!
Wiggo rang the bell at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, a fortnight that will be talked about long after we’re dead and gone. That’s its significance. In 50 years and 100 years it will be remembered. Maybe by then the bills will have been paid, but that’s a return to the kind of cynicism that was pervasive in the weeks, months and years before the Games. The rancour about the obscene cost was silenced that first Friday night when Danny Boyle put on an awe-inspiring show that didn’t last just one night but two weeks.
The Olympics didn’t just produce medals, it produced role models. In Katherine Grainger we saw the importance of perseverance. Silver, silver, silver in three successive Olympics, the last of which in Beijing drove her to the point of despair. Finally, the gold was won. At last, the bridesmaid had become the bride.
In Chris Hoy we saw what it means to never know when you are beaten for, if Hoy had an ounce of quit in him, there was no way on this earth that his final race as an Olympian would have ended the way it did, with gold. But, for some of us lucky enough to have seen him race and hear him speak, the most impressive thing about Hoy didn’t begin and end with all the metal that was hanging around his neck but the humility with which he carried it. It takes a great sportsman to reach Hoy’s heights, but it takes a really good bloke to behave with such class when you get there.
There is hardly a piece of hyperbole sufficiently hyperbolic to describe the second Saturday of the Games. It was the night of Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis and Greg Rutherford. Three golds and a stadium electrified. The medal count was escalating even before Super Saturday, or whatever you wish to call it, but there was debate about what type of gold it was. Largely, it was middle-class gold, it was gold from athletes who went to private schools and who were raised in a life of privilege.
That Saturday night changed the dynamic. Farah was an immigrant from war-torn Somalia who came to Britain at the age of eight with hardly a word of English. Ennis, the girl next door, had come from a regular family in the Sheffield suburbs and had worked as a waitress in Pizza Hut. Rutherford was a normal kid from a normal place in Milton Keynes. “All of a sudden,” he said, “I’ve won the Olympics. It’s possible.”
For Ennis and Farah there was a burden of expectation, an immense pressure to deliver. For Ennis, in particular. For years she had been the face of the Olympics, the darling of the preamble, the banker bet for gold. Then she started losing her world titles and suddenly there was a doubt and she had to live with that, too. If she carried a weight on her shoulders, she carried it lightly. Surely the definition of sporting greatness is the ability to deliver your very best stuff when the pressure is at its ultimate. That is what Ennis did. She carried the deadweight hope of a nation like it was a feather.
Farah’s 10,000m that same night was startling. Ganged up on by Eritreans and Ethiopians and Kenyans he refused to buckle. The sheer bloody-minded defiance of his final 450m was a thing of wonder. It was the same story in the 5,000m. Very few people thought him capable of doing the double and with good reason. Only some of the most storied athletes in history had managed to do it before – Emil Zatopek et al – and that is the company he keeps in the pantheon now.
Of course, in that pantheon there is Farah’s mate, Usain Bolt. Another giant who looked the doubters in the eye in London and said: “Just watch.”
It’s hard to believe but Bolt had people questioning him before that 100m final. There was talk of an injury, there was souped-up chat about the challenge of Yohan Blake, there was a suggestion that the mantle of the greatest sprinter was about to pass from one Jamaican to another. It didn’t. Not in the 100m nor the 200m. In their press conferences, as on the track, Blake played second fiddle to Bolt, a freak of nature and a raconteur without parallel in sprinting.
The Paralympics, too, were a joyous ride full of achievements that made you gasp. David Weir, Ellie Simmonds and Sarah Storey were the marquee names in a Games that made you redefine the meaning of sporting courage.
Rory McIlroy redefined things in his own sport. He won his second major, the USPGA, just as he won his first, dismantling the field by eight shots. McIlroy now lives in a world where every round is scrutinised and every blip blown into a crisis. Early in the year he missed three cuts in a row and a lot was made out of a little. The Ulsterman’s game was supposedly in crisis and his relationship with tennis player Caroline Wozniacki was given as a possible reason. It was hysterical stuff but his second major and the wonders that followed it put all that nonsense to bed.
To bed, also, went the monkey on the back of Andy Murray. Having shown his emotion after losing the Wimbledon final, his demolition of Roger Federer in the Olympic final would have made 2012 a riotous success if that was the only tournament he had won. But to back it up with victory in the US Open was the stuff of dreams, an example of what can happen if you lock out all the doubters and believe.
And not just any victory. An epic. That masterpiece of a final against Novak Djokovic kept us awake into the small hours and kept us in conversation for days on end. It was as if the entire nation was with him in America and we all had bags under our eyes to prove it. It was a win that put a smile on the face of sporting Scotland and it was badly needed.
The homecoming in Dunblane was a remarkable event. A damp and miserable day and yet thousands of people, from kids to pensioners, lined the streets to greet the hometown boy. And how he delivered. He got off the open-top bus and walked the route, signing everything, posing for Lord knows how many photographs and eventually ending up back at the place where it all began, playing tennis at his local court alongside his mother, Judy. It was poetic.
Murray’s comeback from disappointment was a theme that carried on. With two matches left on the golf course on Saturday night, Europe trailed America 10-4 in the Ryder Cup and already the post-mortems were being prepared. What then happened will go down in legend. The bloody-mindedness of Ian Poulter dragged Europe back into contention, not just with the win that made it 10-6 overnight but also with his demeanour that evening. Poulter was a bundle of positivity and it was infectious. No single player has ever had such a galvanising impact on his team as Poulter did at Medinah.
It was a team that included a resurgent Paul Lawrie. If you’re looking for feelgood stories then Lawrie’s year of glory is hard to beat, achieved after the terrible loss of his coach and friend, Adam Hunter, through leukaemia in October 2011. Lawrie’s 5&3 routing of Brandt Snedeker in the singles on Sunday brought the overall score to 10-8, a precious point that made people start to believe in miracles.
Faith is a quality that the campaigners for justice for the victims of Hillsborough have always had. Faith in the truth and that the truth would out one day. And, in the second week of September, it did. Everything they had seen saying for 23 years about the deaths of the 96 in two pens at the Leppings Lane terrace was finally accepted as fact by the Government. Too late, but welcome nonetheless. The publication of the report by the Hillsborough Independent Panel exposed the cover-up and the sickening collusion among South Yorkshire police, some of whom plotted to pass blame for the tragedy on to the victims themselves. Liverpool was overcome with emotion when the report’s findings were published, but they were not alone. They never were.
One wrong was righted and was followed by another, this one not a matter of life or death but one that cut to the heart of cheating in professional sport. Lance Armstrong’s fall was complete in October. A seven-times Tour de France champion and one of the world’s most revered athletes now gets to live out the rest of his life in disgrace following the United States Anti-Drug Agency (USADA) report into his industrial-scale use of performance-enhancing drugs, a report that saw cycling’s governing body, UCI, strip Armstrong of his titles.
For years, Armstrong bullied and belittled those who linked him with doping. For years, the UCI supported him despite overwhelming evidence from fellow riders that Armstrong was the worst kind of cheat. The UCI buried its head in the sand and lifted it only to threaten those who were asking the questions. They, too, are in disgrace.
Sport has no need for false gods such as Armstrong, not when 2012 produced so many people we can believe in and in the process gave us memories that will last a lifetime.