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James Lawton: Salute to the heroes and heroines from an astonishing year

It was the impossible choice, to get perfectly right or even marginally wrong, from the year which can never be forgotten by anyone who cares about the morale of the sporting nation.

It was the year when the heroes and the heroines simply refused to stop coming – and when we learnt, in the shadow of a mountain of cynical wisdom, that sport retained the power to prove that not only was it worthwhile, it could also lay hold of some of the deepest emotions of a proud nation.

It was when a bunch of young men and women, some of them seriously handicapped, reminded us beyond a scintilla of doubt that big-time sport was not necessarily owned exclusively by oligarchs and sheikhs and their over-indulged footballers and their grasping agents – and the TV schedulers who parcelled up the games we play in their most marketable packages.

There were a dozen contenders last night and who could have said that any one of them was not entitled to step into the brightest spotlight of their lives?

Of course, even superlatives demand an order of precedence, a measuring of their true weight, and a personal instinct was that Bradley Wiggins, right, was in charge of the most imposing credentials of all when he stood on an Olympic platform in the yellow jersey of the Tour de France and on the opening night of arguably the greatest of modern Games promised that he would also deliver a gold medal.

That was an almost eerie evocation of the gods of sport and like some unstoppable tide it came to the shore.

But then the promptings of the heart and the gut were never more relentless or varied before last night's winner ascended to the throne first claimed by the brilliant, flame-haired middle-distance athlete Chris Chataway after running Vladimir Kuts into the ground in 1954.

For once it was possible to cheer any winner without any pang that some arbitrary injustice had been inflicted.

Jessica Ennis's claims had emotional force that was based with equal sturdiness in the scale of her achievement. If you wanted to trace back the moment when there was an electric surge of belief that something quite extraordinary was about to unfold in the Olympic Stadium you had to go back to her appearance in the starting blocks of her first event in the heptathlon. She received more than an ovation. It was the first morning of track and field and it was marked by fitful sunshine and the acclaim of people who dared to believe, really believe, that something quite extraordinary was in the air.

When she and Mo Farah – and long jumper Greg Rutherford – compressed the winning of three British gold medals into less than an hour they produced an atmosphere in that new build of a stadium which would have invigorated the oldest, most fabled theatres of sports action.

Wiggins, Farah, Ennis, Andy Murray – a young man who not only beat the world but his own most doggedly resident demons – and Rory McIlroy – whose only crisis has always been the fact that one day he will grow old – all had claims of withering authority last night. But they also faced a body of uniquely strong rivalry, one in which the hoarders of gold, Sir Chris Hoy and Ben Ainslee, the winner of silver as a spookily assured teenager at the yachting course in Savannah in 1996, found themselves in the rare situation of being some way from the circle of likeliest winners.

If they needed any comfort, which is extremely unlikely given the depth and consistency of their achievements, it was that they too had crossed an astonishing line in the year that will never die.