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2008: 10 of the best

There really is no such thing as a bad sporting year, but I’m sure history will look back on 2008 as a particularly fine vintage for both British and international sport.

Certainly I’ve enjoyed it immensely, despite recent fatherhood restricting my ability to attend live sporting events this year (just the two: the Wembley NFL game and a stage finish of the Tour of Britain).

There have been too many highlights in 2008 for me to pick a single moment which stands out above all the others, so here is a personal top 10: some distinctly British, others truly global, but all moments of high sporting achievement and/or drama which are indelibly etched into my memory. In chronological order:

3 February: Super Bowl XLII – There is an old paradox which asks what would happen if an irresistible force were to meet an immovable object. We saw one possible answer here as the New York Giants (immovable object: tough, no-nonsense defense) defeated the New England Patriots (irresistible force: record-breaking offense), 17-14.

There has been a smattering of truly great Super Bowls in its 42-year history; this was perhaps the best of them all: great offensive plays, great defensive plays, outcome always in doubt, the winning score going to the underdog with just 35 seconds remaining.

And there was a great narrative behind the game too. The Giants’ Eli Manning succesfully stepped out of the shadow of his brother Peyton, the previous year’s Super Bowl-winning quarterback. Meanwhile, the Patriots failed in their quest to complete only the second ‘perfect’ (unbeaten, untied) season in NFL history, and the first since the league expanded to a 16-game regular season.

One destiny fulfilled; another forever incomplete. Link

21 May: UEFA Champions League final – Notable not only for being the first all-English European Cup final, but for 120 minutes of ratcheting tension capped by the ultimate drama of a penalty shootout in which first both Cristiano Ronaldo and England captain John Terry missed their spot kicks.

The Champions League final is so often one of the most over-hyped, underwhelming games of the season. Not this time.

9 June: Euro 2008 – Holland 3 Italy 0. If you ever had just one opportunity to convince a football-sceptic about the beauty that the modern game has to offer, look no further than this game. Two strong, contrasting sides: Dutch artistry versus Italian pragmatism. A controversial opening goal. (No truly memorable game is complete without a dubious incident). Two textbook examples of sweeping, counter-attacking goals. And a game in which the losing side gave as good as they got, but without the goals (and the luck) to go with it.

The only think wrong with this game was that it occurred in the group stages – it would have made a fitting final. Link

6 July: Wimbledon men’s singles final

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Dylan Thomas

As with Bjorn Borg, Roger Federer fell at the sixth time of asking, having won the previous five men’s singles finals on Wimbledon’s hallowed turf. But, my God, he didn’t give up without a fight, and in doing so he reminded us all why he is regarded as such a great champion.

Borg’s nemesis was John McEnroe; Federer’s Rafael Nadal. And it required his greatest adversary, at the very peak of his powers, to strain every sinew (and Nadal is not exactly short of sinew), to wrest the title which he appeared to have won on several occasions during the match. Two sets down, with three break points against his own serve; a break down in the fourth set; 15-40 and 0-30 down in the middle of the final set – on each occasion Federer refused to go gentle into that good night (by the end of the match, it was virtually night) and dug deeper than he ever has before, sending a defiant hail of aces, volleys and seemingly impossible ground-strokes past his opponent.

It is not victory that defines the truly great champions; it is their response to defeat, or to its prospect. Federer may have lost the match and his title, but he went up significantly in my estimation during an afternoon and evening in which he raged futilely but gloriously against the dying of the light. Link

9, 12, 17 & 18 July: Tour de France – No British cyclist has ever achieved what the 23-year old Mark Cavendish acheived in 2008. World champion on the track (with Bradley Wiggins in the madison) in March. 17 road race wins, including two in the Giro d’Italia which announced his presence as a top sprinter in the grand tours. And then, over the course of ten incredible days in July, he became the top sprinter in world cycling, winning four sprint finishes with an ease which was at times embarrassing. Just as Usain Bolt was so dominant in the Olympic 100 metres final that he was able to start celebrating 20 metres from the line, so too Cavendish. It simply shouldn’t be that easy; like Bolt, Cav made such premature jubilation look routine.

Lightning fast, tactically astute, and with the best years of his career still in front of him, we have not seen the last of this young man. Watch out for him in 2009 – if he’s not travelling too fast to see, that is. Link

8 August: Olympic Games opening ceremony – China had already showed itself off to the world with its impressive Olympic stadia; the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube being two of the most striking venues ever seen. But they also wanted to showcase the country’s rich culture and history with an opening ceremony which they hoped would set a new standard.

No question, they achieved it.

From the glowing Fou drummers (2,008 of them, of course), to the giant LED scroll which gave us a potted (if somewhat santised) tour of China’s history and contributions to global technology, to the fireworks display to end all fireworks displays (even if some of them were created with CGI), to Li Ning’s wire-supported ‘run’ around the inside of the Bird’s Nest’s roof to light the Olympic flame – no one has even come close to matching the sheer scale and spectacle of Beijing’s opening ceremony. Quite possibly, no one ever will.

This – as much as China’s table-topping haul of 51 gold medals, or Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps – was the defining memory of the 2008 Summer Olympics. And, if anyone wasn’t already aware of China’s growing role as a commercial and cultural global power, this put the most populous nation on earth well and truly on the map. London has a tough act to follow in 2012.

10-17 August: Olympic Games, swimming – Eight days, eight gold medals – including a fingertip victory in the 100 metres butterfly won as much by sheer force of will as pure ability – seven world records. A career total of 14 Olympic golds. If he had declared himself an independent nation, he would have been tenth in the final medals table.

Usain Bolt may have ultimately stolen his thunder, but for sheer, sustained domination of a sport, Michael Phelps remains peerless. Link

16 & 20 August: Olympic Games, men’s 100 & 200 metres finals – 9.69s for the 100 metres – while throttling back in celebration – was inconceivable enough. But then, four days later, Usain Bolt beat the one men’s track and field record which I genuinely thought I would never see broken, Michael Johnson’s 19.32s time for 200 metres. It secured the Jamaican’s status as the star of the Olympics, despite the achievements of the aforementioned Phelps.

If anything, Bolt’s 200 was even better than the 100. Sure, Bolt could have registered 9.65 or less in the 100 if he had maintained his sprint. But here’s the thing: not only did Bolt complete the 200 in 19.30s, not only did he do it despite it carrying the weight of global expectation on his shoulders, but he did it running into a significant headwind of -0.9m/s. Even the forces of nature couldn’t stop him: now that’s truly phenomenal.

Oh, and of course he was part of the Jamaican team that took three-tenths of a second off the world record for the 4×100 relay. But, by Usain Bolt’s standards, that was just a quiet day at the office.

6-17 September: Paralympic Games – Since the first Paralympic games in 1960, the event’s scope, awareness and media coverage have all steadily grown. Beijing’s Paralympics was no exception, with over 4,000 athletes competing for 473 gold medals.

UK TV audiences were able to watch daily coverage, courtesy of the BBC. And as successful as Team GB had been at the main Summer Olympics, the medal haul of the British Paralympians was even more remarkable. 42 golds among a total of 102 medals (more than the USA and second only to China), with 17 multiple gold-winning athletes, including four each for cyclist Darren Kenny and swimmer David Roberts, and double gold in the pool for 13-year old Eleanor Simmonds.

More than anything, the Paralympians demonstrated that they are every bit as capable and dedicated as their able-bodied counterparts, and as an audience we were able to focus on the athletes’ abilities, rather than their disabilities. I’m already looking forward to attending the London 2012 Paralympics every bit as much as the Summer Olympics – great sporting competition is no different whether it is Chris Hoy or Darren Kenny, or David Roberts or Rebecca Adlington.

2 November: Brazilian GP – Many, many column inches had been written about how Lewis Hamilton threw away a seemingly certain world championship as a rookie in 2007. So when he lost the fifth position he required to clinch the 2008 title to Sebastian Vettel in the final laps of a horrifically tricky wet/dry race at Interlagos, you could sense the obituaries being written already.

What then happened in the closing moments was one part triumph, one part tragedy and 100% Hollywood. As Felipe Massa crossed the finish line and his family and Ferrari team started celebrating in the pit lane, Hamilton dived past Timo Glock – who had started the final lap fully 18 seconds ahead of him but, crucially, still on dry tyres on a damp track – in the last few metres.

F1 has previously had its fair share of end-of-season championship dramas – Nigel Mansell’s exploding tyre (1986), Michael Schumacher’s collision with Damon Hill (1994), to name but two – but never has the title changed hands so late in the race or in such a – literally – incredible fashion. For those with long-enough memories, this was the equivalent of Michael Thomas’s injury time goal to snatch the league title from Liverpool on their own turf in 1989, but at 180mph. Written on paper, it is barely plausible. But that’s sport for you. Link

So, that’s a wrap for 2008.

2009? Bring it on.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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