Ten out of ten

Here is a nod to 10 persons and events that defined the sporting year. By Shreedutta Chidananda.

Being an Olympic year, 2012 has been a bonanza for sport. And in looking back at the annum’s memorable sports events, it is natural that the Games figure prominently. India turned in its best-ever performance while Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps carried on doing the extraordinary to pass into sporting history in London.

There were history-makers outside the Olympics too: Sebastian Vettel on the track, Spain on the football pitch, and India’s own Viswanathan Anand on the chess board. In cricket, it was time to rally round the West Indies once again and cheer Sachin Tendulkar for his 100th international hundred. At the fag end of the year, the incomparable Sachin bid farewell to One-Day International cricket. Earlier in the year, at different times, three other truly great batsmen also bade the game goodbye.

Elsewhere, this was a landmark year for cycling, marked by a rousing success story and a crushing fall from grace.

Here is a nod to 10 persons and events that defined the sporting year.

1. Spain conquers Europe. Again.

Spain sealed for itself a gloriously prominent place in the history of international football after becoming the first team to win three major tournaments in succession. Vicente del Bosque’s men destroyed Italy 4-0 in the Euro 2012 final in Kiev to wrap their hands around the Henri Delaunay Cup again. En route, Spain extended its record of having not conceded a single goal in the knockout stages of a major competition since 2006, a tribute to its remarkable hunger for possession of the ball. The world can only but admire.

2. India puts up its best Olympics performance

Some may consider it pitiable for a nation this big to exult over an accomplishment this size, but the six medals at London still represent India’s best returns ever from an Olympic Games. Vijay Kumar (S), Sushil Kumar (S), Gagan Narang (B), Saina Nehwal (B), Mary Kom (B) and Yogeshwar Dutt (B) ensured that India returned home with twice the haul from Beijing. There were disappointments, not least the men’s hockey team’s dismal last-place finish, but they did not become the chief attraction. Instead, the country celebrated Sushil’s second medal, Nehwal’s fine end to a great season, and the continually inspiring success of the wonderful Mary Kom.

3. Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps break new ground

The 2012 Games, surely the finest edition since Sydney 2000, also gave the world a chance to marvel at two uniquely phenomenal athletes. Jamaica’s Usain Bolt put to rest months of speculation over poor form by defending the men’s 100 and 200m titles, the first to do so. He became the most successful sprinter in the history of the Olympics; whether he is the greatest of them all will be debated but nobody can quite love the big stage as much as Lightning Bolt.

America’s Michael Phelps, meanwhile, overtook Larissa Latynina as the most decorated Olympian of all time after finishing with four gold and two silver medals at London. The 27-year-old may have finished second in his beloved 200 butterfly but in the roll-call of swimming’s finest, there’s no doubt whose name is first.

4. The West Indies win the T20 World Cup

Perhaps no other cricket result in recent times brought as much cheer to neutrals everywhere as the West Indies’ joyous triumph in the final of the Twenty20 World Cup. It had been eight years since the Caribbean team last won an ICC trophy, and far longer since it was taken seriously. It is to the relief of cricket lovers all over that though not restored to their former majesty, the West Indies can be called champions again. The 2004 ICC Champions Trophy was perhaps the ultimate false dawn but today, at least in the shortest format of the game, there is no pushing the Windies over.

5. Sebastian Vettel becomes the youngest to three F1 world titles

At 25 years and 145 days, Sebastian Vettel became the youngest driver to win three Formula One world championships. The German held off a hopelessly persistent Fernando Alonso in the final race of the season, at a rainswept Interlagos circuit, to grab his third successive drivers’ title. Whatever may be said about Alonso driving an inferior car, Vettel showed he had ample stomach for a fight over the course of the season, culminating in a thrilling Brazilian GP, where despite damage to the Red Bull, he worked his way up from the back. It has been a thoroughly deserved hat-trick.

6. Manchester City is Premier League champion

Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s millions (close to 400 GBP of them) invested in Manchester City finally paid dividend in May, when the club won its first top-flight league title for 44 years. Sergio Aguero scored an injury-time winner against QPR, in arguably the most dramatic conclusion to a league season since 1988-89, to plunge the Etihad Stadium into delirium.

The outcome kept Roberto Mancini in the job and, more importantly, denied arch-rival Manchester United an unprecedented 20th league title. It was understood that City would force a restructuring of the old order; it has happened soon enough.

7. Cricket retirements

With Ricky Ponting’s retirement in December went the last great member of the indomitable Australian sides of the late nineties and the early noughties. It marks the halfway stage in Australia’s cricket transition, with a new generation of players seeking to take their country back to the top.

India will soon reach a similar bend in the road. This year saw the departure of two pillars of the middle order, Rahul Dravid and V. V. S. Laxman. Sachin Tendulkar also announced his farewell to One-Day Internationals. With humiliation in recent Test series, India is staring at a long path to recovery.

8. Viswanathan Anand defends World Chess Championship for the third time

India’s biggest sporting achievement of the year surely has to be Viswanathan Anand’s staggering fourth successive world title. In a contest of fine margins, Anand prevailed over Boris Gelfand in May’s World Chess Championship final in Moscow. The 43-year-old had his back to the wall after the seventh game but fought back, leaving Gelfand with no answer to his speed in the rapid tiebreaks. No other Indian sportsman today has reigned over his domain for so long.

9. Bradley Wiggins does THE double

Bradley Wiggins’ quest for cycling’s Holy Grail ended in the space of 10 days. He became the first Briton to win the Tour de France, and from the Champs Elysees took his success to Hampton Court, where he grabbed the Olympic gold in the men’s road time trial. The 32-year-old is now Britain's most decorated Olympian alongside Chris Hoy and only the second cyclist, after Miguel Indurain, to win both the Tour de France and the time trial gold.

10. One cycling hero rises, another falls

After years of suspicion and insinuation, Lance Armstrong was finally declared guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs by the United States Anti-Doping Agency in October. In its report, based on testimony from 11 former team-mates, the USADA called Armstrong a “serial” cheat, accusing him of being the ringleader of “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping programme the sport has ever seen”. The Texan was banned for life and stripped of all seven Tour de France titles by the International Cycling Union (UCI). Once a heroic cancer-surviving champion, Armstrong now stands disgraced.