The Olympic cycle, like the calendar, has odd years and even years.
The even years, like 2018, include an Olympics, in this case February's Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
The odd years, like the one that just ended, are not devoid of big events in international sports. And 2017 was full of them, but the overriding feeling was of a year that was empty, just plain odd – and, at times, depressingly sad.
This was the worst of it:
*Larry Nassar, a doctor, pleaded guilty to criminal sexual conduct against many U.S. Olympic female gymnasts and Michigan State women’s athletes whom he treated. Nassar got a 60-year prison sentence on child pornography charges and awaits sentencing in January on the criminal charges. The U.S. Olympic Committee has taken an essentially “see-no, hear-no” position on its failure to have intervened, claiming it was unaware of the scope of Nassar's abuse until law enforcement intervened, but its CEO, Scott Blackmun, delivered an apology – after the USOC was named as a defendant in a lawsuit filed by Olympic champion McKayla Maroney.
*The International Olympic Committee and its president, Thomas Bach (aka “Feckless Thomas"), waited until the 11th hour in logistical terms before coming up with a baby-splitting decision to allow Russian athletes to compete in the upcoming Winter Games as “neutrals” despite massive evidence of state-sponsored doping. (They still will have the word “Russia” on their uniforms.) How massive? As of Dec. 23, the IOC had disqualified 43 Russian Olympians from the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. Those athletes accounted for 13 of Russia’s 33 total medals and 9 of the 13 gold medals. Nearly all have appealed.
*Four-time Olympic medalist Frankie Fredericks of Namibia was suspended as an IOC member after French authorities charged him with money laundering and corruption as part of an alleged bribes-for-votes scheme in Rio’s successful bid for the 2018 Olympics.
*IOC member Alex Gilady of Israel stepped down “temporarily” as president of the media group he founded after several women accused him of sexual assault and harassment. Gilady, who denies the allegations, has kept his Olympic positions while the IOC ethics committee investigates the charges.
*Trials in U.S. courts showed the international soccer federation, FIFA, was indeed the putrefying mess everyone has been smelling for years.
And these were the oddments:
*Embarrassed by declining interest from cities in taking part in an IOC con known as bidding to be an Olympic Games host, the IOC took the stunning step of awarding the 2024 (Paris) and 2028 (Los Angeles) Summer Games at the same time - to the two cities remaining from an original field of five eviscerated by referendum (Hamburg), fear of referendum (Budapest) and lack of mayoral support (Rome.) Bach pooh-poohed the pullouts as expressions of anti-establishment populism.
*Usain Bolt, the greatest track athlete of the 21st Century – and one of the greatest in history – finished his career with a whimper at the World Championships in London. Bolt, whose only other defeat in eight 100 finals at the Olympics or worlds had owed to a false start DQ, took third in the London worlds 100 to winner Justin Gatlin of the U.S., whom most of the British media portray as an incarnation of the Antichrist because he had served a doping suspension. Then Bolt pulled up lame in his final race, the anchor leg of the 4 x 100-meter relay. (Early in 2017, he lost one of his nine Olympic golds, the sprint relay from 2008, because a teammate’s retested urine sample was positive for a banned substance.)
It was not the ending anyone wished for the man who almost single-handedly kept the sport alive for a decade.
But the playful, crowd-pleasing, lightning Bolt of years past never will fade from memory, so it is easy to take the golden view of him at his peak, destroying sprint world records and winning both the 100 and 200 at three straight Olympics, a feat unlikely to be matched - especially since he is the only one to have done it twice.
And one can take a similarly shining view of 2017 through the achievements of the many athletes to whom I am awarding medals in my 31st annual international sports awards. (As always, these awards are for sports in which an Olympic gold is the ultimate prize.)
For the second annus horribilis in a row, these athletes have saved Olympic sport from itself. Celebrating their excellence is the best way to express hope for a better 2018.
WORLD ATHLETES OF THE YEAR
Gold – Marcel Hirscher, Austria, alpine skiing. The tech specialist became the first man to win six World Cup overall season titles, won his specialties (slalom and giant slalom) at the World Championships (plus a silver medal in combined) and, at age 28, moved into fourth place among men in career World Cup wins. He could be second on that list by the end of this season.
Silver – Caeleb Dressel, United States, swimming. Dressel won seven gold medals at the World Championships, including a record three in one night. He also tied Michael Phelps’ record for golds in a single worlds, but two came in mixed relays not on the program when Phelps won his seven. The most impressive of Dressel’s wins were in the sprint freestyles: he set U.S. records twice in both the 50 and 100, breaking an eight-year-old, suit-enhanced mark in the 100.
Bronze – Mo Farah, Great Britain, track and field. Farah ended one of the most remarkable distance running championship meet careers in history by winning the 10,000 meters and taking second in the 5,000 in the World Championships before a home crowd in London. Beginning with the 2011 worlds, Farah won three of the four world golds in both the 5k and 10k and had silvers in the other two races. He also won both events at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.
Gold – Evgenia Medvedeva, Russia, figure skating. Utterly dominated women’s skating in the 2016-17 season, becoming the first woman to win back-to-back world titles since Michelle Kwan in 2000-01. During the season, she bettered the highest overall and free skate scores in history three times and the highest short program score once. Also won second straight titles in the European Championships and Grand Prix Final and a third straight national title.
Silver – Mikaela Shiffrin, United States, alpine skiing. In a sport where a gust of wind can affect results, Shiffrin’s consistent winning was remarkable. Just before turning 22, she won a third straight world title in slalom (plus a silver in giant slalom, her first world medal in GS). On the World Cup, Shiffrin won her first overall title, her fourth slalom season title and 11 races. As the 2017-18 season began, she won a downhill, giving her victories in every alpine discipline but Super-G.
Bronze – Katie Ledecky, U.S., swimming. By the ridiculously high standards she has set, this was a “down” year for the greatest women’s distance freestyle swimmer in history, the first year since 2012 in which she did not set a world record. By any other standards, it was another triumphant year: five gold medals (three individual) and a silver at the World Championships, where her 14 golds now are the all-time women's record; and five gold medals (three individual) at the NCAA Championships, where she led Stanford to its first team title since 1998. She was the first freshman in 35 years to win the Honda Cup as the top woman collegiate athlete.
U.S. ATHLETES OF THE YEAR
Gold – Dressel (see above.)
Silver – Christian Taylor, track and field. Because his speciality, the triple jump, rarely gets much attention, it is easy to overlook just how relentlessly successful the 27-year-old Taylor has been. In 2017, the two-time Olympic champion won a second straight world title (third overall) and sixth straight Diamond League title in the event.
Bronze – Sam Kendricks, track and field. Not only did Kendricks become just the second U.S. man (and first in 10 years) to win the outdoor world title in the pole vault, he also went undefeated in 17 competitions, won his first Diamond League title and joined the 6-meter club (19 feet, 8 inches).
Gold – Mikaela Shiffrin (see above.)
Silver – Katie Ledecky (see above.)
Bronze – Helen Maroulis, wrestling. The 2016 Olympic champion won a second straight world title without conceding a point, taking her five matches by an aggregate 52-0. Her 14-0 record at the last two worlds and Olympics, at three different weights (55, 53 and 58 kilos), includes two wins by fall and a combined score of 81-7 in the other 12 matches.
WORLD PERFORMANCES OF THE YEAR
Gold – Kyle Snyder, United States, wrestling. In what wrestling’s international federation called “the match of the century,” the reigning Olympic champion scored a takedown in the final 30 seconds to beat Abdulrashid Sadulaev of Russia for the world title at 97 kilos and earn the points that gave the United States its first freestyle team tyitle since 1995 – by one point over Russia.
Silver – Wayde van Niekerk, South Africa, track and field. Van Niekerk became just the second man to win medals in the 200 (silver) and 400 meters (gold) at the world championships. (Michael Johnson of the U.S. is the other, having won gold in both in 1995.) With the retirements of Usain Bolt and Mo Farah, the 25-year-old Van Niekerk is assuming the mantle as his sport’s biggest star. The reigning Olympic 400 champion capped off the year with an October marriage to Chesney Campbell, a sociology lecturer at University of the Free State.
Bronze (tie) – Yuzuru Hanyu, Japan, and Nathan Chen, United States, figure skating. Hanyu rebounded from a mediocre short program to win his second world title with the most impressive free skate in history, blending four brilliantly executed quadruple jumps, with one in combination (execution grades from 2.43 to 2.71 on those jumping passes), into a program of exquisite emotional beauty (11 perfect component scores). He topped the previous world best score (also his) by 3.72 points. At the U.S. Championships, the 17-year-old Chen became the first to land five clean quads (two in combination) in a free skate - and first to land seven in a competition (all with an execution grade of 1.0 or better.)
Gold – Sarah Sjostrom, Sweden, swimming. Sjostrom, 23, set world records in the 50 and 100 freestyles (winning the 50 and finishing second in the 100) at the World Championships, where she also swam the fastest 100 butterfly relay split in history.
Silver – Heather Richardson Bergsma, United States, speedskating, On the 2018 Olympic rink in South Korea, Bergsma capped the best season of her career with wins in the 1,000 and 1,500 at the World Single Distance Championships. Added to her 2015 title at 500 meters, Bergsma became the first to have won world titles at all three distances.
Bronze – Caster Semenya, South Africa, track and field. The two-time Olympic champion at 800 meters ran the world’s fastest time at that distance in nine years to win the world title (her third at 800, but first since 2011.) She also won bronze in the 1,500, becoming the third woman (first since 1999) to win medals at those distances in the same world meet.