Bolt... and the bolt from the blue

Usain Bolt, Roger Federer, Virender Sehwag... there were quite a few champion performers in 2009. There were also cases of heroes becoming zeroes, prominent among whom was Tiger Woods. G. Raghunath takes stock.

As another year is delivered to history, the controversies and scandals that raged in sports in 2009 give one the impression that the reign of moral anarchy was near total. A field day the sceptics had, running amok and shaking the very foundation of humankind's faith in sport. We had among others the infamous `Crashgate' in Formula One involving Renault; Andre Agassi and his stunning revelation of drug use; Thierry Henry's obnoxious hand-ball that cost Ireland a place in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa; the embarrassing case of South Africa's middle-distance runner Caster Semenya and her gender, the handling of which was ingloriously botched up. And then there was the mother of all scandals - Tiger Woods and adultery, which completely gutted an otherwise remarkable year for the world No. 1 golfer.

It couldn't have got any worse. But let the crepehangers and sourpusses be damned! Let's salute the masters, the champions who stood tall despite these tawdry issues. People such as Usain Bolt, Roger Federer and our own Virender Sehwag.

Though the Berlin World Athletics Championships (August 15-23, 2009) were held a year after the Beijing Olympics (August 8-24, ? 2008), they were like two contiguous events for Bolt. The champion sprinter's record performances in the 100m (9.69s) and 200m (19.30s) were like an aperitif before the grand feast that he spread out in Berlin. The Jamaican, with an astounding run, lowered the sprint records to 9.59s in the 100m and 19.19s in the 200m - a clear improvement of .11 seconds in both events, the biggest margin since electronic timing was introduced.

In the process, Bolt quite ruthlessly, though not consciously perhaps, exploded some age-old myths pertaining to track events. At 6ft 5in he was considered a little too tall to make any significant strides as a sprinter. But that was only until the Beijing Olympics where Bolt simply wolfed down the track, his long and well co-ordinated strides and hands working as methodically as a steam engine piston, sending the spectators into gasps of rapture.

A sprinter in order to be very successful had to be in the United States - where many of the major players with sports sponsorships are based - was another myth that Bolt detonated. Post the Berlin World Championships, the Jamaican, it is reported, commands an appearance fee of nearly $200,000 for races. This is believed to be double of what other top track and field athletes earn. He also has lucrative contracts with Puma, Gatorade and the Caribbean GSM company, Digicel, which make for a sumptuous package.

Bolt also gave credence to what a rare breed of athletes in modern times believe - that one can be clean and still clock exceptional times. Bolt has been tested innumerable times in the last year and a half, both during competitions and outside, and each time he has come out with flying colours. Even the cynics now believe such phenomenal speeds are within the realms of human possibility. Bolt's arch-rival, Tyson Gay, pointed out after the 100m in Berlin, "I knew it was humanly possible for someone to run that fast - unfortunately it wasn't me."

It's a tribute to Bolt that track history is now delineated based on his record-breaking feats - `Before Bolt' and `After the advent of Bolt.' Now, this is the kind of influence he has come to wield on the sport in such a short time.

Roger Federer, like Bolt, enjoys restructuring record books. The world number one, who wound up with just one Major title - the U.S. Open - in 2008, which led to whispers of his waning power on the tour that reached almost deafening levels ? at the Australian Open in 2009, came down like a thunderclap at Roland Garros to win his maiden French Open title, equal Pete Sampras's record of 14 Grand Slam crowns and complete a career Grand Slam.

The Australian Open defeat at the start of the 2009 season was really agonising for Federer who wept in full view of the spectators. "This is killing me," the Swiss stuttered as he went up to receive the runner-up trophy. That his tryst with greatness was put on hold was only a small matter. What was really disappointing for Federer was that Rafael Nadal had dislodged him from the top of the world rankings, which in effect had given the Spaniard the psychological edge over the Swiss.

Federer then added another Major to his burgeoning list of titles by regaining the crown at The Championship which he had lost to Nadal the previous year. A sixth Wimbledon title took Federer past Sampras' record and into a world of his own.

Though Federer went down to Juan Martin del Potro in the final of the U.S. Open, the Swiss had, by the end of 2009, a stupendous collection of 61 career titles including 15 majors. He had also, by the way, wrested the number one ranking from Nadal. That, for you, is the mark of a true champion - one who, rightfully, can claim to be the all-time best, even at the risk of triggering a heated debate.

That most sportspersons are often identified with what they haven't achieved than what they have accomplished is one of the biggest conundrums of sport. Take Sanya Richards for instance. The 400m champion from the United States, the fastest in her event in the last 10 years or so, won the gold at the World Championships in Berlin and was adjudged `the female athlete of 2009'. But she is still referred to as one who is still to win an Olympic medal!

That's the case with `Mesmerising Messi' too. It didn't seem to matter that the Argentine had won the Ballon d'Or in 2009, that too by a record margin of 240 votes over former winner Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal and Real Madrid. But to get his greatness endorsed Messi would have to wait for the day when he plays for his national team with the same kind of verve and goal-scoring abilities he shows in Barcelona's colours.

At home, the dashing Indian opening bastman, Virender Sehwag, is more or less a victim of this peculiar syndrome. If the critics weren't carping over his footwork, or rather the lack of it (when was Sehwag ever known for twinkling footwork?), they were at him for his "failure" to convert the double hundred (293) into triple hundred in the recent Mumbai Test against Sri Lanka, which would have made him the first batsman to score three triple centuries in Test cricket.

That Sehwag's influence on Indian cricket, in both Tests and ODIs, has been tremendous is beyond doubt. He has been an integral part of Team India that scaled the summit of Test cricket by taking the number one spot in the ICC rankings. His record in 2009 speaks for itself - 631 runs in 6 Tests with two centuries (average: 70.11, highest score: 293) and 756 runs in 17 ODIs with three centuries (average: 47.25, highest score: 146).

"Heroes don't come easy", sang the American rock band R.E.M. How true it was with Jenson Button and Ross Brawn in Formula One. A team that rose from the ashes of Honda Racing after its handlers Honda Automobile pulled the plug due to financial constraints, Brawn GP lived a niggardly life on the circuit, managing just enough funds for one race at a time. Its drivers, Button and Rubens Barrichello, had to take massive pay cuts - Button had to even fly low-cost airlines - to stretch its budget to the maximum. In the final analysis, these austerity measures didn't hinder the team's progress; it only strengthened Brawn GP's resolve in its quest for both the world constructors' and drivers' pennants. And what a team Button and Brawn have been.