James Lawton: The year belongs to Barcelona, but Bolt shines through as star of the decade
Saturday 26 December 2009
Removing Tiger Woods from the bedroom, as briefly as his story of sexual impropriety would permit, and returning him to the golf course made it a relatively small step for the US sports editors polled by Associated Press to go on and make him Sportsman of the Decade.
Nor could you quibble too much with the choice of runners-up, Lance Armstrong and Roger Federer.
Yet the feeling here is that they missed out the man who produced the single most compelling performance in 10 years of sport – and one that may prove, we may still have to pray, also the most uplifting in its meaning.
It has to be Usain Bolt not only for his astonishing deeds in the Beijing Olympics, but the thrilling sense that he is responsible for one of the most dramatic evolutionary surges in the history of human locomotion and that he may have done it clean.
Yes, it is impossible to ignore the fact that some are not so easily shaken from the sceptical view that his greatest achievement has been to elude drug controls and if you dismiss this as irrational some 16 months after his annexation of the 2008 Olympics you may have forgotten the identity of the first athlete to most powerfully invade these last 10 years.
It was Marion Jones, the queen of Sydney who we chose to call Superwoman – and then found out that she had deceived the world more shamelessly, more relentlessly than anyone since Ben Johnson, the world record-shattering gold medal winner of 1988.
When her husband, the shot-putter C J Hunter, was exposed as a serial drug cheat during the Olympics of 2000 she called a press conference and didn't so much blink.
Her claims of innocence seemed to challenge credibility in so many ways, including the central one that she had slept unknowingly with the enemy, but the lie she was telling was so monumental many chose to believe she had been caught in unfortunate circumstances rather than another monstrous conspiracy.
So it was the decade which started with the bogus Superwoman and finished with The Bolt.
The Bolt certainly generates an encouraging level of credence in his freakish dimensions and his long but devastating stride. A man of such a gangling body is not supposed to run so fast but we want to believe him so much that each day that passes since he transfixed the Bird's Nest stadium is an encouragement to hope that indeed some things may have changed in sport – and profoundly for the better.
What, we have to ask, could run deeper than the implications of a man who is able to push back the barriers of athletic achievement so sensationally and still preserve the idea, so long after we assumed drug contamination of the most explosive and compelling Olympic event had created unshakeable doubt, that you could still tell a kid that he had, entirely within his own means, the ability to win the greatest prizes.
Because of the world we inhabit, the glory of Usain Bolt is inevitably provisional. That is the consequence of the pale dawn in Seoul 21 years ago when Johnson, after handing back his gold medal, was hustled out of town. A day or two later the International Olympic Committee president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, declared that the battle against drugs had become a fight "to the death".
It that was indeed so, it means that if Bolt did indeed win cleanly he did more than dazzle the Bird's Nest stadium and the world. He said that in the war against corruption it might, after all, be sport that survived.
Against the scale of such a statement the grubby chicanery of Harlequins rugby club and the Renault Formula One team, the cheating of Thierry Henry and all the other footballers who see hoodwinking officials not as a crime but a professional obligation, have to be seen as perversions of sport which can, with the right mobilisation of outrage and supervision, be successfully attacked. What Bolt may have done, almost as casually as he celebrated his gold medal with an order of chicken nuggets, is suggest that the most intractable of all sport's problems could be beaten by one honest, albeit sublimely gifted individual.
Certainly trawling back through the decade is made lighter work by the so far unchallenged achievements of the big Jamaican.
It is also true that the world's most popular game, in the end, also provided us with a vision of something closer to perfection than anything provided since the Brazil of the Seventies and the Milan of the Eighties.
This was embodied in the year of Barcelona, when they won everything before them and in such a way that transcended every last trace of xenophobic prejudice or Premier League triumphalism.
Barça gave us football that simply lit up the world along with providing the core of Spain's brilliant European Championship win and Fifa with a footballer of the year in Lionel Messi who surely met every requirement of such status: superb control, deadly instinct and the grace to play in a way that often defined the deepest beauty of the game.
Pep Guardiola's late run as coach of the decade did nothing to diminish the mighty achievements of Sir Alex Ferguson, the brief but dramatic impact of Jose Mourinho at Chelsea or the enduring belief of Arsène Wenger that if football is without the kind of enchantment that a Cesc Fabregas or Andrei Arshavin can conjure it really loses its most important point.
But Guardiola did give us the stunning dimension of both total success and, so often, total refinement. Whether the individual parts, beyond the sublime trio of Messi, Iniesta and Xavi, will stand the test of history may be doubted, but not the brilliance of the team's intent.
Chelsea may argue that outrageous refereeing denied them Champions League success after the tremendous reorganisation worked by Guus Hiddink but under the impressive Carlo Ancelotti they have another chance to prove themselves the most powerful team in Europe. Can Ancelotti carry them into the uncharted country? Maybe, but first he, like every coach in Europe, has to recognise that it is Barça's young leader who has set the standard and who wields the torch for the very best of the game.
Fabio Capello has made his own impact on the decade by coming to what we like to call the home of football and ramming down our throats, and more importantly, those of the England players who for so long chirruped about their possibilities on the world stage, all the old, easy assumptions about a right, rather than a way, of once again winning the World Cup.
England may fall short in South Africa next summer – a conviction worryingly deepened by evidence that both Brazil and Spain may be occupying a sharply higher class, but it will not be for the want of organisation and a hard professional eye.
Roberto Mancini, whatever else he achieves at Manchester City, will also surely detach both the club and its hugely rewarded but distinctly underachieving players, from the illiterate belief that success in football can be achieved by anything other than proper development of a team ethos – and a consistent rhythm of play.
Robinho is said to be disaffected and Craig Bellamy outraged by the sacking of Mark Hughes. Mancini will no doubt echo the message of Capello; coaches coach and players play, in large part as they are directed. The other option is to be shown the door.
If you want the enigma of the football decade it is to be found at Liverpool, a team who won the Champions League so stunningly in Istanbul and now have deteriorated to the point where it sometimes seems that success might have been 50 years ago rather than less than five. It is now impossible to believe that they can stagger to the end of a whole season in such chaos.
What can redeem the most successful team in the history of English soccer? Nothing less than a new start in all the key areas.
Boxing, of course, has always had a less complicated route to a restatement of its appeal and strength. Nothing was more thrilling in the old decade than the emergence of a fighter who may be of the ages, Manny Pacquaio, and he carries his business on his shoulders into the new one with the prospect of a fight with Floyd Mayweather Jr.
It is a contest which promises the best of the ring, the science, the timing, the skill and an absolute ambition to be the best.
You could make a case for the little Filipino as the man of the decade but then you run through the candidates, Federer, Woods, Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Armstrong, Dan Carter, Ian Thorpe, Michael Phelps, Ricky Ponting, Tony McCoy and a Tom Watson who was one putt short of the story of any age.
When you do that you know there is no need for a machete to cut through all the ambivalence. You know that sport is still worth the trouble. It has also helped that we had, maybe, the Bolt from the heavens.
Justin Bieber was one of the hardest hit
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