2016: The year sport refused to stop

all the athletes on stage Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption TeamGB and ParaGB athletes were lauded after achieving their best ever medal haul in Rio

It was the year when sport simply never paused for breath.

For those of us covering this area of news, 2016 has been just as relentless, momentous, frantic and exhausting as it was for our colleagues in Westminster and Washington, trying to make sense of a defining year in politics.

Having spent a significant part of 2015 regularly dashing to Zurich for the climax of Fifa's corruption scandal, this was meant to have been a far more predictable 12 months.

Instead, it has proved anything but.

This time last year, few would have foreseen the entire Russian team's expulsion from the Paralympics after sport's worst ever doping scandal. No-one expected two sporting knights of the realm - Sir Bradley Wiggins and Sir Dave Brailsford - to come under such intense scrutiny. Nor the England football manager to leave his job after just one match in charge.

Meldonium, Rodchenkov, and the Fancy Bears were yet to enter the sports news lexicon.

Having seen England's rugby union team crash out of their own World Cup at the group stage, who would have put money on a perfect year under new coach Eddie Jones?

The child sex abuse allegations that plunged the FA into an unprecedented crisis came from nowhere. As did Wales reaching the last four of a major football tournament. And the smashing of Michael Johnson's legendary 400m record.

And then there was Leicester City winning the Premier League.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Leicester started the campaign as 5,000-1 outsiders for the title after risking relegation in 2015

Their "miracle" truly defied all expectations, providing a welcome reminder of sport's enduring ability to surprise and delight, even in a league where money and success have become so closely tied.

In an interview I will always look back on fondly, Claudio Ranieri told me when we met in April that, with just four games to go, and his team five points clear at the top of the Premier League, it was "now or never". His players never looked back.

The underdogs' win masterminded by the likeable Italian was a welcome tonic, a heart-warming, feel-good piece of classic escapism at a time of almost constant negative headlines in sports news, and will never be forgotten.

Having reached their first major tournament for 58 years, Wales' wonderful journey to the semi-finals of the Euros was no less magical. Like Leicester City, they played with a smile on their faces, and won admirers for their team spirit.

If the success of Chris Coleman's side in the immediate aftermath of Brexit acted as a unifying force at a time of division in Britain, over in the US, sport and politics were truly colliding.

American football star Colin Kaepernick's highly controversial kneeled protest against racial oppression shattered the assumption that in an age of lucrative endorsements and anodyne interviews, athletes must remain neutral and somehow removed from society.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Kaepernick faced death threats, but was also supported by some US military personnel

It also sparked memories of the late, legendary Muhammad Ali - a figure who transcended sport like no other competitor in history, and who so sadly died in June.

Back across the Atlantic, a glorious summer for British sport was gathering pace, with Andy Murray winning his second Wimbledon title,Chris Froome his third Tour de France, and Danny Willett golf's Masters, the first British winner for 20 years.

Rio 2016 was simply remarkable, Team GB setting a new standard, and the Games firmly establishing Britain as a true sporting superpower. Second place in the medal table - above China - was testament to the high-performance revolution brought about by National Lottery funding since 1996, when Britain languished in 36th place.

Whether this record success results in a more active nation - unlike after London 2012 - could depend on the government's new community sport-funding strategy. But it is hard not to be optimistic when you discover that a TV audience of 9 million watched Britain's women's hockey team win gold.

Beyond TeamGB, legends Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps delivered in their final Games, while new stars like Wayde van Niekerk and Simone Biles exploded onto the world stage.

But if Rio will be remembered as as an iconic Games, it was also chaotic, and at times toxic. The build-up was dominated by political upheaval, economic recession, worries over the Zika virus, pollution and security concerns.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Usain Bolt famously won the "triple triple" at his last Olympics in Rio

Once the action began, there were empty seats, stray bullets, dubious green water in the diving pool, and a ticket scandal.A financial crisis then threatened the Paralympics. In the end they went ahead, and proved another triumph for ParalympicsGB, but had to be seriously scaled back.

And then of course, there was the great Russian doping scandal. This was not so much of a surprise. After all, the country was banned last year by the IAAF, the governing body of athletics.

But then it became worse. Much worse.

The barely believable details of the rogue state's institutionalised cheating across many other sports was suddenly revealed by the former head of Moscow's anti-doping lab, Grigory Rodchenkov.

Professor Richard McLaren's damning World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) report - on the eve of the Olympics - would surely see Russia banned.

But, with competitors arriving in Rio in limbo, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) then provoked fury by allowing the country to compete.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Andy Murray was crowned BBC Sports Personality of the Year after a triumphant 2016

For many, this represented a devastating blow to clean sport, and brought the Olympics into disrepute.

It also sparked bad blood between rival athletes and laid bare bitter divisions - not just geopolitical, but also within the sports community: between the IOC and WADA (who wanted Russia banned), but also the IOC and the International Paralympic Committee (who did ban Russia).

Rarely has international sport felt so divided - or discredited.

McLaren's second report earlier this month was even more explosive, the full scale of Russian cheating laid bare. With IOC President Thomas Bach telling me in Doha last month that he had no regrets over the his handling of the crisis, sport now faces a long, hard road to recovery.

The future of anti-doping, as well as the Games themselves, will be a major theme throughout next year, when the hosts for the 2024 Games will be chosen.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption A tearful Sharapova told reporters that she had failed a drugs test during the Australian Open

The doping saga had other significant twists, and some of sport's biggest stars became embroiled.

Maria Sharapova was suspended after testing positive for banned substance meldonium, and Britain's most decorated Olympian, Sir Bradley Wiggins, had to defend his use of steroids after hackers calling themselves The Fancy Bears leaked details of western athletes' therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs).

Team Sky were forced to do the same after revelations about a mystery medical package delivered to Wiggins in France in 2011, and a BBC interview with former rider Jonathan Tiernan-Locke about the use of controversial painkillers.

Despite more triumphs on both road and track, the wheels were coming off at British Cycling, governing body of the country's most successful sport.

One drugs test was failed, several were missed, there were accusations of bullying, sexism, discrimination and misappropriation of kit, several investigations, bitter recriminations, and finally, two major resignations; of technical director Shane Sutton and chief executive Ian Drake.

Image caption Sir Bradley Wiggins insisted he not gained any unfair advantage from steroids

Team Sky boss Sir Dave Brailsford, the man credited with establishing Team GB's "medal-factory", came under heavy and sustained pressure.

He finally revealed to a parliamentary committee that the infamous Jiffy bag contained a mere decongestant, but plenty of questions remain and the reputation of both his team and the sport's governing body has taken a battering.

In the business of sport, one of the biggest deals came in motor racing where, despite the continued domination of Mercedes, Liberty Media agreed a multi-billion pound purchase of Formula 1 that marks the beginning of the end of Bernie Ecclestone's long reign.

Manchester United set a new British transfer record when they spent £89m on Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba, helping Premier League summer transfer spending surpass £1bn for the first time.

But as well as commerce, there was conflict. Not least in France, where despite significant fears over the threat of terrorism, it was actually hooliganism that blighted the Euros.

A weekend of mayhem in Marseille saw both Russia and England threatened with expulsion. The appalling violence once again raised serious questions over Russian's suitability to host the 2018 World Cup.

And as if that was not bad enough for the FA, England then disgraced themselves on the pitch too. Their abject defeat to minnows Iceland was probably the national team's worst ever defeat, and brought manager Roy Hodgson's four-year reign to an end.

Image copyright Dan Mullan
Image caption Iceland - population 330,000 - were among the lowest-ranked teams in France at 34 in the world

In their wisdom, the FA hired Sam Allardyce as replacement, hailing him as the obvious choice to lead England for years to come. Incredibly, just 67 days later, he was gone, caught out and made to look greedy, foolish and naive by the Daily Telegraph's undercover sting, part of an investigation into alleged corruption into football's barmy and deregulated transfer market.

By this point, the beleaguered FA - along with those of us trying to somehow keep up with a decade's worth of crises crammed into just a few months - must have been hoping that the annual soap-opera of the Premier League would finally win back control of the sports news agenda.

With the BBC having broken the news of Manchester United's appointment of Jose Mourinho, I was fascinated to see how he would fare against his old sparring partner Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, and whether Liverpool could continue their revival under Jurgen Klopp.

There was off-field controversy of course. In March, former England player Adam Johnson was jailed for six years for grooming and sexual activity with a girl aged 15. Sunderland chief executive Margaret Byrne was forced to resign in the wake of the scandal. In October, former Wales international Ched Evans was cleared of rape following a retrial, and resumed his playing career with Chesterfield.

British football bosses had been pleased to see Gianni Infantino become the new Fifa president, but then got themselves embroiled in a heated row with the sport's world governing body over the wearing of poppies.

But if the FA thought the focus would then return to the action, they were sadly mistaken. Instead of the current crop of stars, it was the name of former player Andy Woodward that suddenly and disturbingly grabbed football's attention. The former Crewe trainee told the Guardian how he had been sexually abused as a young player by his coach.

Image caption Andy Woodward spoke out after waiving lifetime anonymity offered to victims of sexual offences

The initial sense was that this was a tragic but isolated story. Soon however, it became dreadfully apparent that Woodward was far from alone, and with the floodgates finally open, the dark secret that football had harboured for so long finally emerged.

This is another scandal that has a long way still to run, raising some of the toughest questions the sport has ever faced.

Over the coming months, expect sport to continue to be shocking, politically charged, and full of intrigue. And do not be surprised if the relatively recent trend of sports news regularly providing the lead story on the News at Ten, continues. Such are the huge levels of interest, and the richness of the stories, sports news has gone mainstream, and it will stay there.

With athletics' world championships in London, arguably the most anticipated ever Lions tour in New Zealand, and the return of the Ashes in Australia, there is much to look forward to over the next 12 months.

But there will surely never be another sports year like 2016.

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