Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The Super, Summer of Sport

For once the hyperbole and the hype were justified, it really has been a super summer of sport. There are so many great events to write about, and that's without the Olympic and Paralympic games.

To my mind it actually started on Sunday May 13th, when Manchester City won the Premier Division for the first time, and their first championship in 44 years, as it encapsulates the sheer drama of sport. Sergio Aguero's goal deep into injury time, virtually the last kick of the season, as Alex Ferguson and his Manchester United team, could only wait expectantly.

This is what sport is about, as success and failure are divided by small margins, whether it is 100ths of a second in a 100 metre race, or if the referee adds on 30 seconds too many which gives a team time to get that winning goal.

Only days after this Chelsea, against all expectations, overcame Bayern Munich in a penalty shoot-out to lift the Champions' League for the first time. This also brought in the fairy tale element, as the popular Roberto Di Matteo had taken over earlier in the year when Andrea Villas-Boas had been sacked. Di Matteo was only supposed to see Chelsea to the end of a season which was largely written off, yet he finished with two major trophies, as the F.A. Cup was also placed in the trophy cabinet.

It wasn't long before the European Championships started, and although England did better than expected, they did manage to once again lose a penalty shoot-out at the quarter-final stage, this time to Italy after being totally outplayed for 120 minutes. I expect I wasn't the only person to say 'at last!' when we thought the Italians had scored near the end. But the whole championship was a feast of football, and watching the way the great Spain team took the Italians apart in the final was a delight to witness.

Whilst all this was going on, Wimbledon was  also dominating the sporting headlines, and two weeks of really high quality tennis, culminated in a men's singles final between six time champion Roger Federer, and Britain's Andy Murray, the first British man to reach a grand slam final in 76 years. As an aside, that there have have been three British female grand slam champions in that time; Angela Mortimer, Ann Jones and Virginia Wade is almost completely ignored, in the typically British way disappointment being preferred to success.

Unfortunately Murray was unable to prevail despite being on top for the first two sets, but Federer worked his way back into the match, and eventually won his record equalling seventh title. However, Andy Murray's tearful speech afterwards, for the first time endeared him to many tennis fans, as for they realised just how much he really cared.

But the pre-Olympic drama hadn't ended, as for the first time in many years, the Tour De France became a mass television event as a British rider, Bradley Wiggins, was the favourite to win. With the magnificent support of his fellow Team Sky members, Wiggins did indeed come through after twenty hard stages, through the French countryside. Wiggins became the first British winner of the event, and added the yellow jersey to the Olympic golds he had won previously.

Wiggins' victory was sealed on Sunday 22nd July, and was a great precursor to the big event of the summer of 2012, the Olympic Games. The following Friday, a packed Olympic Stadium, and a worldwide television audience of billions, watched Danny Boyles' stunning and evocative opening ceremony, which set the tone for over two weeks of incredible sport.

It's impossible to sum up the first part of London 2012 in a few words, so I don't think I'll try. A week after his Le Tour triumph, Bradley Wiggins was amongst the favourites for the men's road race, along with his colleague Mark Cavendish, but perhaps a combination of poor tactics and tiredness meant that they were well down. Team GB had to wait until the following day to win its first medal with Lizzie Armistead winning a silver in the women's road race.

Indeed it seemed to take the British competitors a few days to really get into having the games in their own country, and there were fears that after so much hope, it might turn out to be a damp squib after so much hope. Fortunately those fears were unfounded, and a couple of further silver medals followed, before on the Wednesday August 1st, Helen Glover and Heather Stanning brought home gold in the women's coxless pair, the first of four rowing golds for Team GB, three of them from women's teams.

Later that day Bradley Wiggins added the time trial gold to those he had already won, but it would take too much time, and be too boring to write about all Team GB's gold, silver and bronze medals, and a full list can be found here.

But it would be wrong to leave the Olympics without mentioning those victories that particularly stand out, Mo Farah's great 5000 and 10000 metre double. Jessica Ennis heptathlon, and Greg Rutherford's shock long jump gold medal on that 'super' first Saturday of the athletics programme.

There were historic moments too as Nicola Adams became the first women's boxing gold medallist, which was backed up by further boxing golds for Luke Campbell and Anthony Joshua (a medal I felt he was lucky to get personally).

The track cyclists did us proud as usual although there were also some more forgettable moments, Victoria Pendleton being downgraded in two of her three events, but winning the other. Chris Hoy came away with a pair of golds to make him Britain's most successful Olympian ever. Although I think Ben Ainslie would probably think his record fourth sailing gold was equally as valuable, as he only gets one go a games.

There were surprises too, as our slalom canoeists picked up gold and silver, but the big one was Jade Jones' in taekwondo, as she beat higher ranked opponents all the way through to cap off a great night on August 9th.

There were, of course, stunning performances from Non-British competitors, with Usain Bolt becoming the first man to retain the 100 and 200m gold medals, and David Rudisha's great world 800m record, perhaps the run of the games. Although I make no excuses for this blog being mainly about British successes.

Team GB exceeded the medal target it had set itself, but more importantly the games themselves outdid anything that could have been predicted. The transport system worked (though probably down to the fact there was a dearth of visitors who weren't attending events), and after a tricky start due to sponsors not taking up seats, once that was sorted out, the crowds flocked to all sorts of events, with only the football missing out in the main.

The spectacular closing ceremony, brought down the curtain temporarily, as a three week hiatus set in before the start of the paralympics, although the football season did kick off. If one thing stood out during this time, it was not only that England beat Italy in a friendly, but that we actually passed the ball, and didn't give it away as much as usual.

On August 29th the opening ceremony for the Paralympics (meaning parallel), which started at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1948, a centre for spinal injuries, although the first official games took place in Rome in 1960.

Once again the opening ceremony was a feast, as more countries than ever before took part, and over 4000 competitors prepared for competition. Team GB (or Paralympic GB as it was known) had much higher expectations than ever, and  a target of over 100 medals was set.

From the first day British medals stacked up as Sarah Storey won the first of her four gold medals, and Jonathan Fox gained a surprise one in the pool. Swimming proved a very successful event in the paralympics, unlike in the Olympics where Team GB came away with just three medals, two of which belonged to Rebecca Adlington.

Day after day the Paralympians served up an amazing set of sporting achievements, from Hannah Cockcroft's jet powered chair, to the sheer determination and strength of David Weir, whose four golds at 800m, 1500m, 5000m and the marathon show that disability is no barrier to sporting excellence.


 As earlier in the summer, the cyclists brought home medals galore, although it is Jody Cundy's red mist when not allowed to restart one of his events that most will remember.

Team GB won medals across the board, where other nations that had done well in the Olympics such as the United States fared much worse, and is perhaps an indicator that they have yet to embrace the idea that disabled athletes too can thrill the crowds. As with the Olympics there isn't space to talk about all Britain's medallists, but you can find the full list here.

The paralympics were a supreme example of sporting endeavour, as athletes overcame all sorts of disabilities, overcoming them in various ways, to achieve remarkable things. An example being the American 'armless archer' Matt Stutzmann who uses his feet and his teeth to fire his arrows.

My favourite moment of the games came from double amputee Richard Whitehead, whose performance in his 200m event even now amazes me.

Or the amazing 34pt 4 x 100m women's relay in the pool where Australia beat Great Britain by 3/100ths of a second. That sort of drama is found hardly anywhere else but the sporting arena.

The Paralympics also have their fair share of superstars, and I have already mentioned a couple, Hannah Cockroft and David Weir. But there is also Ellie Simmons, Jonnie Peacock, Annis Al Hannouni, Marie-Amelie Le Fur, Natalie De Toit, and the one who currently surpasses them all, Oscar Pistorius

The South African sprinter, who also became the first Paralympic runner to compete in the Olympics, is a real superstar, and has raised the profile of Paralympic sport immensely over the last few years. Although this time he was overshadowed by Jonnie Peacock in his 100m, and Oliveira's in the 200m, and his reaction to that defeat which many saw as sour grapes. However, he came back to win the final event, the 400m in fine style.

But in London in 2012, the Paralympics themselves became their own ambassador, as the world watched these amazing athletes compete at a level many able-bodied people can only dream of. The dedication that the athletes put into their sport is there for all to see, and perhaps one day, it may be possible to fully integrate the two, so they really are the Paralympics?

So how do we cap all of this? It had been 76 years since a British man had won a grand slam, as we saw earlier, Andy Murray broke that chain by reaching the Wimbledon final. Well at the Olympics he went one better, and after dispatching Djokovic in the semi-finals, beat Roger Federer in straight sets win claim the gold medal. Then in partnership with Laura Robson, a silver was added to the tally in the mixed doubles.

Murray and Robson carried this through into the US Open, with Robson defeating first, three times former champion, Kim Clijsters, then world number 9 Li Na reached the fourth round. Murray on the other hand, took full advantage of the absence of Rafa Nadal, and the surprise defeat of Federer, to battle through to the final, where he faced defending champion Novak Djokovic. In what was a final filled with incredible rallies and  remarkable shots, Murray took a two set lead, which Djokovic brought back to 2-2. A year ago, Andy Murray might have buckled under this pressure, but last night he dug into his reserves to win a famous victory, and earn his place in the record books.

So a truly remarkable summer of sport comes to an end. A summer filled with incredible achievements, and drama of the highest order, and it will not be forgotten in a hurry.

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