A dope-tainted year and a crushing tragedy

Russia was at the forefront of the doping scandal that rocked the world of sport. Its greatest tennis star, Maria Sharapova, was banned for using meldonium, while its track and field team — except one — was not allowed at the Rio Olympics. The untimely death of 19 footballers from the Brazilian side, Chapecoense, in a plane crash left the world in a shock. Sportstar chronicles the tales of misdeeds and misfortunes in 2016.

Maria Sharapova at a press conference in Los Angeles where she broke the news to the world that she had tested positive for using meldonium.   -  AP

At the end of the year-end charity match between Red Stars and White Stars at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, players pay tribute to the Chapecoense players and other passengers who died in a plane crash.   -  REUTERS

Maria Sharapova was one of the biggest newsmakers of the year. Not for her exploits on the tennis court, though.

The Russian beauty stunned the world when she announced in March that she had failed a drug test during the Australian Open held in January. The five-time Grand Slam winner said that she had tested positive for meldonium, which was among the substances banned by WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) from January 1, 2016.

Sharapova said she was not aware that the medicine, she had been taking for a heart condition, was actually meldonium. She did not get as much support from her defence as she would have liked. Andy Murray, the World No. 1 in men’s tennis and her former partner in mixed doubles, said she should be suspended.

And she was. The International Tennis Federation banned her for two years though CAS (Court of Arbitration for Sport) reduced it by nine months, paving the way for her to play at the French Open in 2017.

Sharapova wasn’t, of course, the only Russian athlete who lost face because of a doping offence last year. In fact, the entire country starred in one of the biggest scandals in the history of sport.

Doping epidemic

The fag end of the year saw more evidence coming out to prove that Russia was involved in large-scale, State-assisted doping of its athletes. According to the second report released in December in London by Richard McLaren, a Canadian lawyer who was commissioned by WADA to investigate the Russian affair, more than 1,000 athletes between 2011 and 2015 were involved in the scandal.

 

In his first report submitted earlier in the year, he had noted that athletes from a wide variety of sports, from athletics to water polo, were doped and covered up by the Russian authorities. “For years, international sports competitions have unknowingly been hijacked by the Russians,” he said.

Six years ago, a young officer at the Russian anti-doping agency, RUSADA, had blown the whistle on the State-assisted doping. Vitaly Stepanov had written to WADA as early as 2010 about the issue. His wife Yulia Igorevna Stepanova, an 800m runner, also turned a whistleblower; as did Darya Pischchalnikova, another Russian athlete who too wrote to WADA.

The world body may have taken more time than it should have to act, but it recommended Russia be banned from the Rio Olympics, in the light of the first McLaren report, which was released three weeks before the Rio Games. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), however, decided against a blanket ban and let the respective international federations determine the eligibility of individual Russian athletes.

That proved one of the year’s most controversial decisions by a sports body. The IOC received a lot of flak, even as Russia finished fourth in the overall medals tally, despite the absence of its track and field athletes — barring long-jumper Darya Kilshina, who finished ninth — and weightlifters.

A troubled Games

Rio had attracted controversy long before, in the form of a mosquito, to be precise. The fear of the Zika virus, which had wreaked havoc in Brazil, had led to the withdrawal of some stars, notably golfers from the Olympics.

World No. 1 Jason Day and several other stars, including Dustin Johnson and Rory Mcllroy, all stayed out which took the sheen off golf, which was making a return to the Olympics after a gap of 112 years. However, the number of Zika victims from the Rio Olympics turned out to be zero.

The number of controversies Rio generated was higher. A prominent one involved American swimmer Ryan Lochte, who was part of the gold-medal winning 4x200m freestyle team.

Lochte claimed that he and three other US swimmers — Jack Conger, Gunnar Bentz and Jimmy Feigen — were robbed at gunpoint at a gas station in Rio. It, however, proved to be an exaggerated account of what actually happened.

The Brazilian police presented evidence to prove that one of the swimmers had committed an act of vandalism at the gas station, where they had stopped to use the rest room.

According to the police, the security guard at the gas station pulled a gun and demanded the swimmers pay for the damage they did. Lochte later apologised. He and the other swimmers were suspended by the United States authorities.

Boxing in Rio was also in the news for the wrong reason. Six judges and the AIBA (Amateur International Boxing Association) executive were sent home after some contentious decisions.

Much worse was in store for the Olympic Council of Ireland president Pat Hickey, who was arrested for alleged illegal resale of Olympic tickets. He could go home only in the third week of December, that too only for having a heart surgery; he is required to return to Brazil for the ongoing legal process.

The legality of South African athlete Caster Semenya, who won the women’s 800m gold in Rio, also attracted controversy. She is diagnosed with hyperandrogenism, which gives her an advantage over normal women. It was the CAS’s suspension of the regulations on hyperandrogenism that cleared the track to Rio for her and Indian sprinter Dutee Chand.

Abuse rampant in football

Like gender, sex also was a big topic for sporting controversies in 2016. The English football was rocked when former Crewe Alexandra defender Andy Woodward revealed that he was a victim of child sexual abuse by coach Barry Bennell. That opened a can of worms, as more than 350 footballers came forward to tell the world that they too were sexually abused.

Chapecoense tragedy

While scandals like that infuriated sports fans around the world, the news of a plane crash in Colombia that killed almost an entire football team saddened the sporting fraternity. Nineteen players of Brazilian club Chapecoense, travelling to Medelline for the first leg of the final of the Copa Sudamericana against Atletico Nacional on a chartered flight, were among the 71 people who died.

It was not just the biggest tragedy in sport in 2016, but one of the greatest sports disasters of all time.