BY LILIAN MORGAN, LIAM MORGAN SENIOR CHIEF REPORTER INSIDETHEGAMES.BIZ
Having the insidethegames New Year’s Eve blog slot allows me to cast a look back at what has happened in the Olympic Movement and beyond over the past 12 months.
It is fair to say there is quite a selection to choose from. This time last year, we were eagerly anticipating a packed period of sporting action, including a Winter Olympics, a Commonwealth Games and the small matter of the FIFA World Cup.
But the landscape has again been dominated by politics, scandal and controversy, so the following rundown also includes a series of the darker moments to have blighted the sporting world in 2018.
Sporting moment of the year
There are quite a few candidates for this one but, from a personal point of view, I am going for England’s triumph against hosts Australia in the netball gold medal game on the final day of the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast.
Having initially planned to head out to the venue to cover the game, I ended up watching it in the press centre with a few other British journalists. Across the room from us were the Australian media, who love nothing more than a victory over the English.
It made for a thoroughly-entertaining spectacle as both press corps cheered on their respective countries, with audible cheers when each team scored echoing around the convention centre.
The match itself was a tense finale and provided a thrilling glimpse of a sport which harbours little coverage in some countries outside of a Commonwealth Games or World Cup.
Helen Housby is the name forever etched into English folklore after she found the net with a dramatic late winner to earn her country its first Commonwealth Games netball title. Cue English delirium as Australian heads quickly descended into hands.
For England, it does not come much better than beating the favourites and defending champions on their own patch. It is little surprise that the victory was recognised at the recent BBC Sports Personality of the Year ceremony, where the netball squad scooped moment of the year and team of the year.
Other sporting moments will feature in later categories but a notable mention must go to South Korea and North Korea marching together at the Pyeongchang 2018 Opening Ceremony. There is still scope for it all to fall apart, of course, but few in the Korean Peninsula – and further afield – would have thought that possible even months before the start of the Games.
Controversy of the year
For what feels like an eternity, the Russian doping scandal has dominated the sports news agenda and 2018 was no different.
Despite claims from International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach and World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) counterpart Sir Craig Reedie that we were nearing the end of this sordid affair – one which has ripped sport apart – we are approaching 2019 with no clear conclusion in sight.
The year started with confusion over the extent of Russian participation at Pyeongchang 2018. The full “Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR)” team was not known until hours before the Opening Ceremony after the Court of Arbitration for Sport dismissed appeals of 45 competitors from the scandal-hit nation who were hoping to take part.
Following the end of the Games, where the OAR delegation claimed 17 medals, attention returned to the compliance criteria outlined by WADA for the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) to be reinstated.
Eventually a compromise agreement was reached between WADA and Russia, which saw the global organisation allow RUSADA back into the fold despite two outstanding criteria remaining on the roadmap.
The decision, taken on September 20 in the far-flung location of the Seychelles, sparked an unprecedented outcry from athletes who rightly felt wronged by WADA’s actions. The competitors pleaded for extensive change at WADA, with some even calling on Sir Craig and director general Olivier Niggli to resign.
Those calls are likely to intensify should WADA fail to suspend Russia again. The country will almost certainly miss today’s deadline to hand over data and samples stored at the Moscow Laboratory – part of the strict conditions set by WADA for RUSADA to remain compliant – despite Sir Craig providing a “100 per cent guarantee” that the Russian authorities would comply with the demands.
Now, the ball is back in WADA’s court; not reimposing the ban on Russia will surely shred any remaining credibility the organisation has and will reinvigorate the group of athletes who have spoken out in recent months.
The entire Olympic Movement awaits the next move from WADA, with a Compliance Review Committee meeting on January 14 and 15 becoming more crucial by the day.
Performance of the year
Winning an Olympic gold medal in your sport is described as the pinnacle for any athlete but doing it in a different discipline, as well as your own, is as rare as it is spectacular.
That particular feat was achieved by Czech star Ester Ledecká, who departed Pyeongchang 2018 with a remarkable double having topped the podium in her preferred parallel giant slalom snowboard event and the women’s super-G Alpine skiing competition.
Such was the improbability of her even challenging, let alone winning, in the super-G that broadcasters NBC had already announced Austrian Anna Veith as the gold medallist. Some television stations did not even show Ledecká’s run, while NBC later apologised.
Add in the fact that she was wearing skis borrowed from American star Mikaela Shiffrin and you have all the ingredients for arguably the biggest upset in Winter Olympic Games history.
It would be remiss of me to not also mention Simone Biles, who is equally deserving of a place on the performance of the year podium.
You begin to run out of superlatives when speaking about Biles, who is already being described as the greatest of all time even at the young age of 21. The American gymnast endured a torrid start to 2018 as she courageously confirmed she had been a victim of the sick and heinous abuse of hundreds of women carried out by disgraced team doctor Larry Nassar under the guise of medical treatment and some thought this might affect her at international competitions.
How wrong they were. Despite passing a painful kidney stone on the eve of the event in Doha, Biles won four gold medals at the World Championships and even created her own vault, which was subsequently named after her by the International Gymnastics Federation.
Another contender is Kenyan runner Eliud Kipchoge, who smashed the world record with a staggering time of 2 hours 1min 39sec at the Berlin Marathon in September.
His performance in the German capital marked the culmination of a long campaign to beat the mark set by Kenyan Denis Kimetto in 2014. Plenty thought it was only a matter of time and so it proved as he went beneath the previous time by a huge 78 seconds, a truly remarkable display even by Kipchoge’s high standards.
Mistake of the year
WADA’s decision on Russia, and the insistence that Russian authorities would meet the deadline, could have won this sought-after award but the obvious and stand-out candidate is the International Boxing Association electing Gafur Rakhimov as the permanent President in November.
The AIBA membership were given warning after warning from the IOC that voting in Rakhimov, described as one of Uzbekistan’s leading criminals by the United States Treasury Department, put boxing’s place on the Olympic programme into serious jeopardy.
But the controversial official, who denies wrongdoing, was elected at the Congress in Moscow following a comprehensive election victory over sole challenger Serik Konakbayev.
After weeks of speculation and rumour as to what consequences AIBA would face, the IOC decided to freeze preparations for the Olympic boxing tournament at Tokyo 2020 and initiate an enquiry into the embattled governing body, which could lead to AIBA losing the right to organise the competition.
Yet AIBA still do not quite seem to comprehend the severity of the situation, repeatedly insisting the organisation is in a good place and has improved dramatically since a coup ousted former President Ching-Kuo Wu.
AIBA’s denials and arrogant response to the whole crisis has been nothing short of staggering and is another example of how sporting bodies often neglect their most important stakeholders – the athletes.
Event of the year
For me, this is a toss-up between Gold Coast 2018 and the Summer Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires in October.
In some ways, the two events are similar; both claim to be a huge part of the sporting calendar but each often endures a struggle for relevance, battling other more lucrative events for coverage worldwide.
The Commonwealth Games, for example, are seen by some as merely a demonstration of the power of the former British Empire, while others question the need for a Youth Olympic Games amid the IOC’s desperation to cut costs around its major competitions and a jam-packed schedule of events.
To some degree, the two events held this year answered many of the questions surrounding their very existence.
Gold Coast 2018 was a fun, down-to-earth sporting extravaganza which captured the imagination of the competing countries. Buenos Aires 2018 was exactly what a Youth Olympics should be as organisers ditched the grandiosity of previous editions for a subtler, smaller-scale multi-sport event which may have just about saved the future of the concept. For now.
What to look out for in 2019
While 2019 may not be as stacked as this year, there is still plenty to look forward to, including World Championships in swimming and athletics, a series of continental Games and the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France.
Away from the sport itself, the Russian doping saga is likely to continue to linger ominously over the Olympic Movement, while the IOC will select the host city for the 2026 Winter Olympics and Paralympics in June, providing there are any candidates left as doubts remain over Stockholm and Milan-Cortina d’Ampezzo owing to a lack of National Government support.
What happens in 2019 is anyone’s guess but it will go some way to matching the drama on and off the field of play we have seen this year.