The Champions: Real stars deliver knock-out blows

There is just is no getting around it. Sport in 2001 delivered some blows to the idea that it is a workable metaphor for some of the best things in life.

There is just is no getting around it. Sport in 2001 delivered some blows to the idea that it is a workable metaphor for some of the best things in life.

As never before, it was awash with hype, and there were times when the gap between what it claimed for itself and the reality of its performance was so huge it was hard to know which was worse – the reeling in your mind or the crawling in your stomach.

It meant, however, that those who did cross that divide, who displayed an honesty of purpose and an intelligent understanding of their roles in a wider world, who didn't need the appaling reminder that came on 11 September that there is an important distinction between the games of life and the real thing, were deserving of special praise.

With this in mind, it is possible to draw up an A-list of sporting heroes and heroines and mine, in no particular order of preference would include a Swedish football coach, an English footballer and rugby player, a brave and single-minded British yachtswoman, an Australian cricketer, an American golfer, a Croatian nutter and a Mexican featherweight.

All of them, in their different ways, explained why it is that the games we play can still be worth the candle, and as they did they gave object lessons in how to handle even the most extraordinary success.

First though, a little itemisation of the bombardment thrown at that hopeful proposition.

Two players of Leeds United, who early in the year offered the bewitching promise of a young, largely homegrown team sweeping towards the final of the European League of Champions, took us back into the nihilistic pages of Clockwork Orange.

Four of England's most celebrated cricketers chose, for one unimpressive reason or another, to stay at home while their captain Nasser Hussain led a young, green team – rather splendidly, as it happened – against the wiles of Indian spinners and the prince of batsmen, Sachin Tendulkar.

The tactics of the big-money Premiership football clubs, shamefully abetted by large sections of the media, in the face of the legitimate demands of the Professional Footballers' Association for a proper share of television revenue, were an expression of ruthless, though thankfully foiled, greed that might been been been delivered by a Thatcherite time machine.

No less appaling was the behaviour of Austin Healey, the British Lion who, with catastrophic timing, chose to trash his Australian opponents at the dawn of the decisive third Test. In a ghosted column, he called one opponent an ape and a plank, a brainwave that inevitably resulted in the victim of this gratuitous attack emerging head and shoulders above anyone else in the field.

Even Lennox Lewis, Britain's first undisputed world heavyweight of the 20th century and for so long an example of dignified professionalism in a rapacious business, slipped from his pedestal, appearing in the ring in Johannesburg so unadjusted to the altitude that he proved a stationary target for the journeyman American Hasim Rachman. Lewis later won back his world titles impressively in Las Vegas, but his fall from grace had damaged another of sport's lingering certainties. Thank heavens, then, for Sven Goran Eriksson, Michael Owen, Jonny Wilkinson, Ellen MacArthur, Steve Waugh, Tiger Woods, Marco Antonio Barrera and Goran Ivanisevic.

No one embraced triumph in such even, decent spirit as the England coach Eriksson and his marvellously inspired and consistent young hitman Owen. Winning 5-1 in Munich was beyond anyone's graph of expectation, but Eriksson, with what turned out to be chilling prescience, was quick to say nothing could be taken for granted before the subsequent World Cup qualifying games with such lesser lights as Albania and Greece. At the end of the game, Eriksson was quick to check on the condition of the father of his beaten rival, German coach Rudi Voller, who suffered a heart-attack during the game. "Something like that reminds you that you are only playing a game of football. It is important to do it well, yes, but it is not everything in life," said Eriksson. Owen, who scored a brilliant hat trick and, at 22, retains the demeanour of a successful but modest sixth-former, echoed his boss's sentiments.

David Beckham, who struck a glorious free kick to ensure England's eventually squeaky qualification against Greece and was immediately deified, unfortunately came quickly enough to represent as much the extremities of hype as supreme achievement, a process that reached a bitter conclusion when his club, Manchester United, dropped him from a series of vital games. Beckham's hopes of winning the World Footballer of the Year trophy also perished, as he came in behind Real Madrid's Portuguese star Luis Figo. On the same day, Owen was voted Europe's best player. It was hard not to see this as a restatement of merit over mere celebrity.

In rugby, England's out-half Wilkinson's progress to the top of his game paralleled, both in substance and style, that of Owen. Self-effacing but as hard as tungsten in his tackling and his spirit, and prodigiously accurate with his mortar-shell kicking, Wilkinson guided England into the rugby elite in a series of mould-breaking victories over Southern Hemisphere giants Australia and South Africa.

When MacArthur made her landfall after her superb circumnavigation of the world in the great single-handed race, France greeted her ecstatically. She was the maid not of Orleans but the sea, and it could be argued that her deeds dwarfed those of any of her rivals in the voting for the BBC's Personality of the Year Award. But if she felt any chagrin as Beckham, dressed in a suit so reminiscent of Al Capone's Chicago some feared that his real mission might be to bump off Sir Alex Ferguson, she hardly showed. But then, why would she? Who knew better than her what she had done when she touched her vessel at the quayside in Britannia and fought to both staunch the tears and find her land legs?

Steve Waugh, Australia's cricket captain, led his team to a crushing victory in the Ashes, but when his job was done he showed no inclination to apply the boot to an English team that had earlier been talked into the belief that it was ready to take on the champions of the world. What he did say, under prompting, was that maybe it was time that England started to pick out the good young players, and then put a little trust in them.

Tiger Woods won his fourth straight major at Augusta, where he had taken his first four years earlier, an achievement that much of white, Country Club America first deemed a freak, then slowly accepted for what it was – the calling card of a sportsman of the ages. He was one who, helpfully for the purposes of this piece, could handle himself as well in defeat as victory.

It is perhaps not too patriotic to stress the point, but perhaps the single most dramatic slaying of hype and its close companion hubris, came in a boxing ring in Las Vegas. There, Barrera beat Naseem Hamed with an intensity and skill that laid bare years of the over-statement that accompanied the vast majority of the opponent's victories. Barrera had said for years that he would expose Hamed's claims to greatness, and when the moment came the Mexican was quite masterful in his execution.

HBO, the American television company that held Hamed's contract and for several years had been trying to establish him as a super-star in the North American market, reached the end of its patience. It said that for too long Hamed had been paid high-risk money for low-risk fights, and now their interest in him went no further than his willingness to take a Barrera re-match. So far it has yet to be arranged.

If Barrera was the essence of merit over questionable celebrity, the champion of Wimbledon, Goran Ivanisevic, was – as he had been for most of his life – in a category all of his own. His achievement, complete with blazing eyes and psychological self-examination that might have intrigued and amused old Sigmund Freud, was to remind the world of the joy of an ambition fulfiled after a lifetime of trying. He shared it with everybody and, in such a year, it was a precious gift.

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