Sports review 2011 – A memorable year for the wrong reasons

December 30, 2011

By Steve Keating

The trouble with putting together a top 10 list of the year’s biggest sports stories is that one person”s number one is another person”s 10.

For those of us lucky enough to spend our time chronicling these events the period before New Year is generally one of reflection where we, like every other sports fan, take stock of what we have seen.

It is a search for the moments that generated a buzz, moments that lingered instead of simply appeared and vanish. Moments that inspired and others too grim and unsettling to be ignored or forgotten.

As 2011 prepares for its final bow, an astonishing number of disturbing events are the first that leap to mind in a year dominated by scandals, lockouts and legal wrangling that overshadowed what took place on the field of play.

There are no defining lists only subjective ones. Some lists are restricted by particular sports, others by geography bounded by country or city borders.

For us Canadians the return of the NHL Jets to Winnipeg is at or near the top of every list but would not crack the top 10 of any American or World yearend round up.

Few north of the equator and west of the Greenwich mean-line cared that the rugby World Cup was being played in far off New Zealand while no one beyond the U.S. borders would be bothered about the tedious conference realignment in U.S. college sports.

The fairy tale run of the American squad at the women’s World Cup made almost every top 10 list in the U.S. yet the FIFA scandal that rocked soccer’s governing body to its very core was rarely mentioned there.

Meanwhile India triumphed in the cricket World Cup, Sebastian Vettel wowed Formula One again and Barcelona became world, European and Spanish club soccer champions.

But like every year, 2011 might well be remembered for what did not happen.

The super fight between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather remained a promoter’s pipe dream while no major doping scandals found their way onto my list, although Milwaukee Brewers National League MVP Ryan Braun testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs is worth noting.

With no Olympics or men’s soccer World Cup this year to focus the planet’s attention, no single sporting event
can truly claim to have engrossed fans around the globe.

But some events did cut across all time zones and sporting cultures. Some were tragic, others repulsive and a few unique, awe-inspiring magical moments to be treasured.

1. Scandals. There were no shortage of scandals to keep the 24-hour news cycle churning and none was more disturbing than the child sex abuse charges brought against former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky and alleged cover-up that brought down an American educational institution.

It also left a stain on one of the greatest coaching careers in American sport as head football coach Joe Paterno was fired after nearly five decades in charge of the Nittany Lions and a record 409 wins for ignoring the alleged abuse that took place in the team’s practice facilities.

This story will likely find its way back into the top 10 again next year as the case against Sandusky heads to court, placing a harsh light on U.S. college athletic programs that may be turning a blind eye to illegal activity to protect the billions of dollars generated in sponsorship and television revenues.

While the Penn State scandal has rattled America to its core, the tremors have reverberated around the world making this the year’s biggest sporting story.

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If not for the human toll taken by the events at Penn State, FIFA’s vote-buying and corruption scandal that rocked world soccer would have easily topped the list.

FIFA chief Sepp Blatter once again managed to escape with his job but there was plenty of collateral damage as the seedy underbelly of the beautiful game was exposed.

FIFA vice-president Jack Warner resigned amid bribery allegations, Qatari Mohamed bin Hammam, a FIFA executive committee member and leader of Asia’s soccer confederation, was banned for life by an ethics panel.

No list of scandals would be complete without the match-fixing storm that swirled around Pakistan’s test cricket team that ended with three cricketers sent to prison.

2. Concussions. The buzzword switched from doping to concussions this year as players from across all sport fell victim to brain trauma.

Nowhere has the fallout from concussions been felt more than in the National Hockey League where they have battled a concussion epidemic this season that has forced many of the game’s best players onto the sidelines.

As the calendar turns, the career of the NHL’s biggest name and most popular player, Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, remains in jeopardy because of a succession of cranium-rattling hits.

The Canadian made a triumphant comeback in late November after sitting out almost an entire year with concussion-like symptoms only to return to the sidelines a few weeks later after absorbing another hit.

The NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball have all adopted concussion protocols while almost every sport around the world, from soccer to snowboarding, is now examining what impact repeated knocks to the head can have on an athlete’s long-term health.

3. Labour Wars. The NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball all hammered out new labour deals this year, often producing more action in the courts than on the field of play.

The NFL, perhaps the world’s most successful sports league, engaged in a bitter tug-of-war with players over how to divide more than $9 billion in annual revenue before finally reaching a deal just in time save the entire season.

The NBA and players went toe-to-toe in game of brinksmanship that ended in a new deal that saw owners get the 50/50 split in revenues they demanded and teams returning on Dec. 25 for the start of an abbreviated 66 game season.

In stark contrast, MLB owners and players were able to work out a new five-year collective bargaining agreement without even a hint of labour action.

4. Tragedy. It would be hard to imagine a bigger tragedy than the crash of a Russian charter plane that killed all 36 members of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team, who were on their way to Minsk for a Kontintenal Hockey League game.

The crash triggered mourning in arenas around the world, with many of those on board having played in various leagues including the NHL.

Among the dead were players from Sweden, Germany, Czech Republic and Slovakia as well as the team’s Canadian coach Brad McCrimmon.

Adding to a summer of tragedy for the NHL were the shock deaths of Wade Belak, Rick Rypien and Derek Boogaard, three tough guys who made a living on the unforgiving fringes of the sport, enforcers who had to literally fight to keep a place on their teams.

The death of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon of Britain in a horrific multi-car crash at the IndyCar season finale in Las Vegas shook the motor-racing world, reminding everyone of the dangers of the sport. Days later and MotoGP rider Marco Simoncelli also died in a race.

Wheldon’s death has forced IndyCar to take a hard look at safety standards that may well change the sport in the coming season but there is little more MotoGP organisers can do to improve the situation on bikes.

5. Golf. The biggest golfing story this year was not penned by a player but a caddie.

It was a memorable year as Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy underscored his talent by claiming his first major, winning the U.S. Open after a sudden collapse at the Masters while fellow Briton Luke Donald became the first player to top both the PGA and European Tour money lists.

Tiger Woods finally ended his title drought with a victory late in the year at his own tournament but it was Woods’ former caddie Steve Williams who grabbed the headlines.

Sacked by Woods, Williams blasted his former boss after helping his new employer Adam Scott to victory at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, describing it as “the most satisfying win I’ve ever had, there’s no two ways about it”.

Later Williams could not resist taking another dig at Woods, with a racially tinged comment that landed the Kiwi in hot water.

6. MMA goes mainstream. Once regarded as little more than human cock fighting, mixed martial arts stepped into the mainstream arena with the UFC and FOX inking a seven-year multi-media rights deal worth a reported $700 million that includes the broadcasting of four live prime time events a year.

Early in the year, the UFC pulled in a record crowd of over 55,000 for an event at Toronto’s Rodgers Centre .

It is pushing ahead with its global expansion with events heading to Macau in China next year and Singapore in 2013 as it bids to build its brand across Asia.

7. In a year featuring many special individual performances it would be hard to find any that top Novak Djokovic.

It was a season to remember for the Serb, who proved to be a man for all surfaces, capturing three of four grand slams with the help of 43-match winning streak and wrestling the number one ranking away from Rafa Nadal.

Honourable mentions:  It would also be hard to overlook the accomplishments of two Yankee Doodle Dandies, New York Yankees closer supreme Mariano Rivera notching his record setting 602nd save and Derek Jeter becoming just the 28th member of Major League Baseball’s exclusive 3,000 hit club and doing it in style, reaching the milestone with a home run.

The year ends with New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees breaking the NFL single season passing record and who could forget Dirk Nowitzki leading the Dallas Mavericks to NBA title.

Vettel also won a second straight Formula One world title with Red Bull often destroying the rest of the field.

8. Polarising Pair.  There is little doubt the two most polarising figures in American sport in 2011 were the loathed LeBron James and the lovable Tim Tebow.

James watched his popularity plunge when he ditched the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat, becoming the ringleader of the team everyone loved to hate.

In stark contrast, Tebow was the athlete everyone seemed to pull for when he took over as the Denver Broncos starting quarterback and proved his doubters wrong, putting the team in position to claim a playoff spot with a string of magical fourth quarter comebacks that earned him the nickname the Mile High Messiah.

9. World Series wonder. In a year with far too many scandals and tragedies, Game Six of the World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers reminded us all of just how enthralling and uplifting sport can be.

The Cardinals, down to their last strike, came back to claim a 10-9 victory in 11 pulsating innings to force a Game Seven and then win the title but the real winners were sports fans who reveled in an evening of high drama that left you breathless.

10. What a riot. Forgive me for a bit of self-indulgence but my final most memorable moment in 2011 is one most Canadians would like to forget.

If the return of the NHL to Winnipeg was the feel good moment of the sporting year for hockey-mad Canadians then the riot that erupted on the Vancouver streets after the Canucks Game Seven loss to the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup was one that made the country sick.

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