The Year Of Miracles: Human dramas that can still halt the grubby march of greed

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The Independent Online
It began like any other year, with the removal of an England management team following another Ashes defeat in Australia and the resignation of the England football coach after an ill-advised remark about his religious beliefs. That seemed like quite enough drama to be going on with. But pretty soon it was as though the gods had realised that the end of the century was coming up and had looked through the special-effects cupboard for all the unused cliffhangers and leftover trick endings, and had adopted an emergency policy of waste not, want not.

To anyone who felt that sport was in danger of becoming denatured and banalised by the attentions of corporate sponsors and multinational broadcasting organisations, the year was one long revelation. As amazing escape succeeded unbelievable feat, there was real joy in the discovery that sport is still about human triumph and disaster, its essence capable of surviving pounds 50,000- a-week wage packets, high-tech equipment, Olympic bungs, widespread drug- taking, the discovery of reverse swing, and even something called securitisation.

In terms of absolute achievements, it was surely fitting that someone should end the millennium by running the 100 metres, the Blue Riband of the track and the most elemental of contests, faster than any man in the world had legitimately done it before. Maurice Green, the Kansas City Cannonball, crossed the timing beam in 9.79 seconds, equalling the erased mark of the drug cheat Ben Johnson, which was a relief in itself. There was another kind of poetry in the fact that Green achieved his feat one midsummer night in Athens, under the gaze of the deities to whom the very first champions dedicated their triumphs.

If you were looking for further signs of spiritual health within sport, there were two in particular, written across the sky in blazing neon. Lance Armstrong, the young US bike racer who muscled his way to the world road racing championship in 1993, returned to competition after extensive surgery to eradicate the effects of a form of testicular cancer which had spread to his brain. After such an ordeal, a decent showing in a humble local criterium would have seemed a personal triumph. To win the Tour de France, the toughest single sporting event ever invented, and to win it in the grand manner, represented some sort of human miracle.

Nor, at the end of the century of feminism, could anyone ignore the nature and the quality of the football played at the Women's World Cup, or the size of the crowds that came to watch. The US took the trophy by beating Brazil in front of 90,185 fans in Pasadena's Rose Bowl. Decided on penalties, it was hardly the greatest final ever seen. But it had been prefaced by some marvellous games, giving great encouragement to those, like the women footballers of Nigeria's Islamic community, who insist on continuing to play the game despite the disapproval of their (male) religious elders. This seemed more important than the gesture of Brandi Chastain, the US player who, having scored the winning penalty, fell to her knees and ripped off her shirt, thus ensuring maximum coverage for the sports bra which she was being paid to endorse.

Yet throughout sport, and perhaps particularly in Britain, there was also an increasingly audible dissonance between events on and off the playing surface. Ever since Rupert Murdoch decided that sport would be the "battering ram" for his attempt to dominate the satellite television market, the infusion of vast amounts of instant cash has raised expectations, often unrealistically, creating the inevitable frictions and schisms.

Britain hosted the World Cups of cricket and rugby, but neither seemed to live up to their billings. Australia won both, of course, and much else besides during an extraordinary year (see below). But the crowds for the matches involving Pakistan and India made it clear that cricket's spiritual home is now in the subcontinent, and while Cardiff's Millennium Stadium turned out to be the fulfilment of its planners' dreams, the two marvellous rugby semi-finals at Twickenham simply demonstrated that the game's headquarters only acquires a real atmosphere when it hosts a game in which England aren't involved.

In football, which is the greatest beneficiary of the new wealth flooding through sport, the magnificent achievements of Alex Ferguson's Manchester United and the popularity of the domestic professional game were counterbalanced by the hijacking of the National Stadium project, handed to the FA and Wembley on the understanding that they would produce an arena equally fit for track and field events. The rampant arrogance and low cunning with which they evaded this important responsibility, while hanging on to most - perhaps all - of the cash, may yet come back to haunt them, perhaps even in the lifetime of Ken Bates, the scheme's egregious but apparently unstoppable front-man.

In terms of spectacle, as well as scandal, football did its best to dominate the year. The April wonder-goal in extra time of an FA Cup replay against Arsenal with which Ryan Giggs took Manchester United to the final was the overture. On 8 May, an on-loan goalkeeper ran the length of the field in the sixth minute of injury time on the last day of the league season to score the goal which prevented Carlisle United falling through the dreaded trapdoor. Later that month, normal allegiances were momentarily put aside to applaud the triple crown won by Ferguson's team in the course of the most hectic 10 days any football club has ever known.

Yet as the leagues filled up with mercenaries from Costa Rica, Estonia and China, Britain's national football teams maintained their decline. Kevin Keegan, appointed as England's new coach on a part-time, short- term basis, decided he liked the job enough to want it permanently, but has yet to demonstrate that his cheerful attitude and gift for personal motivation is enough to match the more sophisticated approach of other nations. A 1-0 home defeat at the hands of a modestly talented Scotland team was sufficient to carry England to next summer's Euro 2000 finals, but it seemed a sad way to say goodbye to competitive football in the old Wembley Stadium.

There were goodbyes, too, to individual heroes (see right). Some of them showed us how to leave the stage with dignity and a tear in every eye, like the 30-year-old Steffi Graf, who won the French Open in an unforgettable psychological battle with Martina Hingis, her successor as the world's No 1, and then bade a fond farewell to Wimbledon, the scene of seven of her 22 Grand Slam titles, accompanied into the wings by her compatriot Boris Becker, another Centre Court favourite. Damon Hill, on the other hand, gave a classic demonstration of the peril of not knowing when to quit, and at 39 endured a season of humiliation that dismayed those who had cheered him to the world championship three years earlier.

After taking Glenn Hoddle's scalp, with a vengefulness that had more to do with his previous petty deceptions than his espousal of a belief in reincarnation shared by millions of Buddhists around the world, the newspapers secured the resignation of Lawrence Dallaglio, the England rugby captain, exposed on the eve of the Rugby World Cup as a pathetic victim of a tawdry set-up.

More respectable was the media's role in exposing the web of graft and corruption behind the selection of various Olympic venues in recent years. Juan Antonio Samaranch's belated attempts to remove systematic bribery from the process seemed less like genuine house-cleaning than rather panicky window-dressing, but they may achieve the intended effect of keeping him in a position of quasi-imperial authority over his Olympic "movement".

But authentic miracles, great and small, kept on coming. In New York and Las Vegas, two likeable and quietly spoken men fought for the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world, and the British-born boxer won. At Carnoustie, a Frenchman took a three-stroke lead into final hole of the Open championship and proceeded to blow it in the most spectacular way imaginable, handing victory to a local boy while creating for himself a legend that will last as long as golf is played. At Old Trafford and the Oval, within the space of six days, the Australian fast bowler Glenn McGrath removed Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar, the world's two greatest batsman, with deliveries as good as any ever bowled. In the carefully tended precincts of a Boston country club, America went berserk as their Davis Cup team came back from an apparently impossible position. At Twickenham, France's rugbymen rediscovered their heritage to produce a semi-final victory over the mighty All Blacks that, for its beauty and ecstasy, was hard to beat.

But on Boxing Day, in the closing week of the century, Ken Bates's football club, Chelsea, became the first to start an English league game without a single British player on the pitch, an affront not just to English football's history but to any commonsense view of its future. It came like a cold breath on the back of the neck, which may yet become the whirlwind that knocks the whole house down.