Back to the future, beginning with Usain Bolt & Katie Ledecky

 Katie Ledecky prepping for the 2016 Olympic season.  (Philip Hersh photo)

Katie Ledecky prepping for the 2016 Olympic season.  (Philip Hersh photo)

What better way to unveil my new website than with a column that has become a tradition in my three-plus decades of Globetrotting coverage focused on Olympic and international sports?

Thus, my 29th annual international sports awards.  

In a year when the scandalous behavior of soccer and track & field federation leaders besmirched the two sports with the widest global participation, it is especially worth recalling the (hopefully) untarnished, brilliant achievements of athletes in those and other sports.

That one must use the qualifier “hopefully” is an expression of the doubt that sadly shadows everyone in a sports world where corruption and doping are far too common.  Skepticism is acceptable, but cynicism is not mandatory.

As in the past, those eligible for these awards are the men and women for whom an Olympic gold medal is the ultimate prize.

An explanation: My criteria mean not considering the likes of Serena Williams and Jordan Spieth, since their sports, tennis and golf, have events of more intrinsic significance than the Olympics.  But the U.S. women’s soccer team has become an interesting case, given what a big deal the World Cup was last summer.  Since that tournament’s profile so far is largely dependent on its being played in North America, the Olympics remain more important to women’s soccer at this point - and the athletes are part of these awards.

So, without further ado, let's celebrate the best of 2015:

World Athlete of the Year

Men

 Don't tug on Superman's Jamaican flag cape. (Photo copyright IOC)

Don't tug on Superman's Jamaican flag cape. (Photo copyright IOC)

Gold – Usain Bolt, Jamaica, track and field.  The only global superstar in his sport has not lost any of the 11 sprints or six sprint relays he has finished from the 2008 Olympics through the 2015 World Championships, where he once again won gold in the 100, 200, and 4 x 100 relay.  (The only blemish was a false start disqualification in the 100 at the 2011 worlds).  At 29, with a shot at an Olympic triple-triple in Rio, he is unequivocally the greatest sprinter in history.

Silver – Kohei Uchimura, Japan, gymnastics.  Like Bolt, he added another line of individual greatness to a resumé in which such greatness has become repetitive – and also claimed a major team prize.  At 26, Uchimura won a sixth straight world all-around title (no one else has won more than two in the 43 times the event has been contested at worlds, an impressive distinction no matter that the event now is annual after being quadrennial and biennial in the past).  He also helped Japan take the team gold for the first time in 37 years.

Bronze – Ashton Eaton, United States, track and field.  The reigning Olympic decathlete helped rescue the second worst U.S. men’s performance (by gold medal count) in outdoor worlds history by breaking his own world record in the event with a score of 9,045.  His time in the 400 meters, 45.0, was a world decathlon best.  Eaton now has won five straight global titles – one Olympic, two world indoor, two world outdoor.

Women

Gold – Katie Ledecky, United States, swimming.  Ledecky’s exhausting schedule at the 2015 World Championships took more of a toll on the dictionary’s supply of superlatives than it did on her.  In the world meet, she became the first swimmer to win the 200, 400, 800 and 1,500 freestyles at a major event.  She added a fifth gold in the 4 x 200 relay, set three world records (Nos. 8-to-10 of her career) and a meet record.

 Simone Biles on the beam.  (Photo World Gymnastics Championships)

Simone Biles on the beam.  (Photo World Gymnastics Championships)

Silver – Simone Biles, United States, gymnastics.  Biles’ unprecedented third straight women's individual all-around title also made her the second woman to win more than two in the 33 times the event has been contested at worlds.  Her victory margin this time was the second biggest since the sport went to the Code of Points scoring system after 2005.  Biles also won gold on floor and beam, giving her eight individual golds at the last three worlds, and she had the top score in her three team final events as the U.S. won that gold.

Bronze – Gwen Jorgensen, United States, triathlon.  The mild-mannered former accountant finished a two-year morphing process into the Triathlon Terminator by winning a second straight world title, her 12th straight victory over two seasons in the sport’s World Triathlon Series events. She is dominating the scene as no other woman has in the 15 years since triathlon made its Olympic debut.

 

 

U.S. Athletes of the Year

Men

Gold – Ashton Eaton (see above)

Silver – Jordan Burroughs, wrestling.  With a third world title at 74 kilograms, the reigning Olympic champion is one shy of John Smith for most in that category by a U.S. male wrestler.  He has kept the torch burning for a U.S. men’s wrestling program that has struggled of late: since 2006, only Burroughs and Kyle Snyder, a surprise gold medalist in 2015, have won world titles.

Bronze – Ryan Lochte, swimming.  In a brilliant and long career overshadowed by that of U.S. teammate Michael Phelps, the 31-year-old Lochte filled some of the gap left by the suspension of Phelps from the world team by becoming the second swimmer to win four straight world titles in the same event (the 200 IM in Lochte’s case) and six straight world medals in the same event.   He saved Team USA’s men from the ignominy of an individual event gold shutout in pool swimming at worlds.

Women

Gold – Katie Ledecky (see above)

Silver – Simone Biles (see above)

Bronze Gwen Jorgensen (see above)

World Performances of the Year

Men

Gold – Aries Merritt, United States, track and field. Four days before undergoing kidney transplant surgery, the reigning Olympic champion and world record-holder in the high hurdles won a world bronze medal.  Until the 2015 world meet began, Merritt had not revealed a problem diagnosed two years earlier.  It had forced him to be hospitalized six months from fall 2013 to spring 2014.  He competed at worlds with kidneys functioning at less than 20 percent efficiency.

Silver – Yuzuru Hanyu, Japan, figure skating.  In two weeks late last fall, the reigning Olympic champion completely redefined the scoring parameters in his sport.  With skating marked by technical wizardry and artistic majesty, Hanyu became the first with a total score over 300 points (322.40) at the final regular-season Grand Prix event and pushed that total to 330.43 at the Grand Prix Final.

Bronze – Mitch Larkin, Australia, swimming.  Larkin made himself Olympic favorite in both backstroke events by becoming the first to win both at the biennial swim worlds since Aaron Piersol of the U.S. in 2005.  Larkin is just the second Aussie to win a world backstroke title, and his victory in the 200 broke a U.S. streak of eight straight world titles. There will be plenty of pressure on Larkin in Rio: Only one athlete from swimming-mad Australia ever has won Olympic backstroke gold – David Theile (100m) in 1956 & 1960.

Women

Gold – Carli Lloyd, United States, soccer.  With the greatest goal scorer in women’s soccer history, Abby Wambach, reduced to a bit player’s role, Lloyd – who had scored just one goal in her first 14 World Cup matches – carried Team USA to the 2015 title with six goals in the team’s final four matches.  Those goals included the game-winners in the quarterfinal and semifinal and three in 16 minutes against Japan in the title game.  The last of the hat trick became an all-time highlight: a perfectly place strike from midfield.

Silver – Genzebe Dibaba, Ethiopia, track and field.  Dibaba lowered the 22-year-old world record for the 1,500 meters by .39 seconds, to 3 minutes, 50.46 seconds, at a Diamond League meet in Monaco.  The old mark, by China’s Qu Yunxia, always has carried doping suspicions, because it came out of nowhere.   Given the doping mess in the sport today, Dibaba - who went on to win the world title in the event - cannot escape similar questions, since the record time – like Qu’s – was substantially faster than her previous best.

Bronze – Lindsay Vonn, United States, skiing.  After two years of injuries and surgeries had made a seemingly inevitable achievement become a real challenge, Vonn’s comeback produced a season in which the fourth of her circuit-leading eight World Cup race wins broke the all-time women’s World Cup career record of 62 held by Austria’s Annemarie Moser Proell.  Vonn’s total had reached 71 before the new year, giving her a shot at the overall record 87 by Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark.