The year after a Summer Olympics is supposed to be a time when the stars of the previous Games catch their breath while the likely stars of the next Winter Games give the Olympic world some breathless anticipation.
So it was no surprise to see alpine skier Lindsey Vonn emerge as, so to speak, the Michael Phelps of the upcoming 2010 Winter Games, a woman clearly capable of winning four of her sport’s five events.
But we also saw Phelps being Phelps all over again, saving a sport whose brain-dead leadership allowed decades of history to be washed away by its failure to rein in technology.
And Usain Bolt becoming lightning-in-a-bottle for track and field’s leadership, a star of such dimensions he is keeping afloat a sport drowning in its recent doping history.
As they had been in 2008, Bolt and Phelps were the biggest winners of 2009 in the Olympic sports world.
The biggest loser? Chicago, its excellent bid for the 2016 Olympics shamed by a first-round elimination. For that, Chicago can thank the U.S. Olympic Committee’s dunderhead leadership, given the USOC’s determined efforts to create more internal turmoil and infuriate the International Olympic Committee.
Not that anyone was going to deny Rio de Janeiro its historic prize: becoming the first South American host of an Olympics.
That is why I am giving Brazil’s president one of the top prizes in these 23rd annual Tribune international sports awards, for people to whom an Olympic gold medal – or, in this case, an Olympic Games -- is the ultimate goal.
World Athletes of the Year
MEN GOLD – Usain Bolt, Jamaica, track and field. Last year, I couldn’t pick between Bolt and Michael Phelps, so they shared this award. In 2009, Bolt was not only in another class from any athlete in any sport but from any human being who has taken on the simplest of all athletic challenges: getting from here to there faster than the competition. With his second set of 100-200 world records at a major meet (Olympics 2008, worlds 2009), plus another sprint relay victory, Bolt is a runaway winner.
SILVER – Michael Phelps, United States, swimming. It isn’t just that Phelps won five more world championship gold medals, giving him an astounding 20 golds for the four worlds in which he has competed. It is his having defied the anything-goes suit insanity that rendered swim world records essentially meaningless: Phelps set world marks in the 100 and 200 butterfly without the all-polyurethane super suits.
BRONZE – Aksel Lund Svindal, Norway, alpine skiing. After missing a season because of a horrific late 2007 crash at Beaver Creek, Colo., Svindal returned to win the World Cup overall and Super-G titles and the world title in super combined in 2009.
GOLD – Lindsey Vonn, United States, alpine skiing. Imagine what Vonn might have done if she hadn’t slashed a thumb opening a Champagne bottle to celebrate her second gold medal (downhill, Super-G) at the 2009 worlds? As it was, she won 9 World Cup races, a second straight World Cup overall title, two World Cup discipline titles and utterly dominated her sport.
SILVER – Guo Jingjing, China, diving. The word had been that Guo, who turned 28 last October, would retire after the 2008 Olympics, where she won two more golds (after two in Athens). But there she was at the 2009 worlds, winning two titles (including an unprecedented fifth straight in a single event, 3-meter springboard), the ninth and 10th world titles of her career. Now she talks of competing at the 2012 London Games.
BRONZE – Federica Pellegrini, Italy, swimming. In a year when she posed nude for the cover of the Italian edition of Vanity Fair, then undressed the competition at the Rome worlds, it was hard to recall this 21-year-old once suffered from panic attacks about competition. She won the 200 and 400 freestyles at worlds to justify the gold paint covering her body in the magazine pictures.
U.S. Athletes of the Year
GOLD – Michael Phelps, swimming. (see above).
SILVER – Todd Lodwick, Nordic combined. After two frustrating Olympics, in which he had top 10 finishes in all six of his events but could not become the first U.S. athlete to win a Nordic combined medal, Lodwick retired in 2006, 11 years after making his World Cup debut. The father of two returned last season at age 33 to win not only the first world title of his exceptional career but a second one two days later.
BRONZE – Evan Lysacek, figure skating. Making 4½ minutes of jumping, spinning and footwork sequences look effortless, the 23-year-old became the first U.S. man to win the world title since Todd Eldredge in 1996.
GOLD – Lindsey Vonn (see above)
SILVER – Erin Hamlin, luge. Yes, she had home-track advantage in Lake Placid, but no woman from any country had won there or anywhere over the German wundermadchen in 99 Olympic, World Cup and World Championship races dating to 1997 -- until Hamlin took the gold medal at the 2009 worlds.
BRONZE – Allyson Felix and Sanya Richards, track and field. Felix won her third straight world title at 200 meters; Richards finally got the major meet gorilla off her back by winning her first individual title, at 400 meters. Then they teamed up for a second straight world gold in the 4 x 400 meters.
World Performances of the Year
GOLD – Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil. The Brazilian president’s appeal to the International Olympic Committee during final presentations before the 2016 Olympic vote was a brilliant mix of emotion and pragmatism. One telling example: after weeks of telling the IOC to stop giving the Olympics only to rich countries, President Lula reminded everyone that Brazil was the only country among the world’s top 10 economies that had yet to be an Olympic host. That ended when the IOC made Rio the 2016 winner.
SILVER – Usain Bolt, Jamaica, track and field. His world-record time of 9.58 seconds at the Berlin worlds was, well, otherworldly. Next for Bolt: the sound barrier.
BRONZE – Kenenisa Bekele, Ethiopia, track and field. Running in Bolt’s shadow, Bekele became the first man to win the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at a world championships. "I would definitely beat him [Bolt] at this distance," Bekele joked after the 5,000.
GOLD – Caster Semenya, South Africa, track and field. Her stunning win in the 800 meters at the world meet, in a time more than 8 seconds better than her personal best a year earlier, touched off a controversy over what constitutes sexual identity and fair competition that has yet to be resolved. Rivals railed that Semenya, 18, was a man; tests have reportedly shown her to be intersex. Semenya will keep her gold medal, but her competitive future has yet to be decided.
SILVER – Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli, cycling, France. Longo, a 1996 Olympic champion, won her 56th national cycling title last summer – at age 50. She also finished 10th in the time trial at worlds five weeks before her 51st birthday.
BRONZE – Kim Yuna, South Korea, figure skating. Before a large contingent of compatriots in a sellout Los Angeles crowd, Kim not only became the first South Korean to win a world figure skating title but did it with a record score, won by a whopping 16 points despite two significant errors in her free skate and established herself as a prohibitive favorite for 2010 Olympic gold.
WORLD ATHLETES OF THE DECADE
Michael Phelps, United States, swimming: Utterly no contest here. With a record-breaking 14 Olympic gold medals, 20 world championship gold medals and 29 individual world records (the first in 2001; the most recent in August 2009), Phelps was in a class by himself.
Anja Paerson, Sweden, alpine skiing. Quietly, unassumingly (except for her celebratory belly slides after races), the 28-year-old had a decade of brilliance in every dimension. Three Olympic medals (one of each color); seven world titles (plus two seconds and a third); two World Cup overall titles; five World Cup event titles; and 40 World Cup wins, making her No. 4 all-time in that category.
-- Philip Hersh