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Philip Hersh: 24th annual awards to international sports figures

December 24, 2010 | 11:15 am
Yunakim_300 So here we are, at the end of another year, finding ourselves looking back at an Olympics with tragedy and triumph, with good sports and sore losers (you know who you are, Evgeny Plushenko), a year with stirring achievements and the taint of doping charges on yet another Tour de France winner.

A year when injuries and a little indifference to training, in a chicken-and-egg relationship, made Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt seem mortal again.

A year when South Korean figure skater Yuna Kim (pictured at left) joined her sport's immortals with an Olympic performance for the ages.

A year when Bode Miller's quest for the perfect run meshed with what he always considers an imperfect judgment of his runs — where they put him in the standings.

A year marked by the passing of an old potentate, former IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, who died at 89 after a life in which he utterly transformed the Olympics, for better and for worse.

A year marked by the passing of a luge racer, Nodar Kumaritashvili, 21, of Georgia, about to realize the dream of his young life until he died in a training crash on an Olympic course officials knew was too fast for anyone's good.

The first year since 2002 someone other than Michael Phelps was the best swimmer in the world. (Hello, Ryan Lochte.)

The year when swimming's decade of suit stupidity ended — but not the mockery the high-tech suits have made of the sport's records.

The first year since time immemorial that the United States Olympic Committee leadership did not make a mockery of itself, thanks to the quietly effective resolve of CEO Scott Blackmun and Chairman Larry Probst.

And another year of brilliance for Simon Ammann and Shaun White and Shani Davis, Lindsey Vonn and Mariel Zagunis and Samuel Wanjiru and all the others whose names you will find in my 24th annual international sports awards.

Normally, I pick people for whom an Olympic gold medal is the ultimate goal. I'm making an exception for hockey this year, because Canada's gold medal is as big as it gets.

World athletes of year
Men

Gold: The U.S. and Canada men's hockey teams. In an Olympic final of stunning intensity and skill, with the U.S. tying in the final 25 seconds of the third period and Canada winning in overtime, they made a champion of hockey itself.

Silver: Bode Miller, alpine skiing, U.S. After winning nothing but the jerk of the Games award for his uncaring attitude as an strong favorite four years earlier, a Miller matured by the 2008 birth of his daughter and chastened by poor results in 2009 turned into one of the feel-good stories in Vancouver, enjoying his full assortment of medals (gold, silver, bronze) and leaving everyone glad for his success.

Bronze: Simon Ammann, ski jumping, Switzerland. Not only did he win both individual events, duplicating his feat of eight years earlier as a 20-year-old, but he was sensitive enough to bring up the sad contrast between his good fortune and the horrible fate of luger Kumaritashvili.

Women

Gold: Yuna Kim, figure skating, South Korea. Despite the enormous weight of her country's expectations, the most celebrated athlete in South Korea gave her nation the celebration it wanted with breathtaking skating and a runaway victory.

Silver: Lindsey Vonn, alpine skiing, U.S. Not only did she win the Olympic downhill despite a badly bruised shin and the pressure of being the most publicized U.S. athlete, Vonn won a bronze in Super-G; a third straight World Cup overall title; a third straight World Cup downhill title; and 11 Cup races to become the all-time U.S. leader.

Bronze: Wang Meng, short track speed skating, China. The unpredictability of this sport makes it more impressive that Wang, a heavy favorite in the shorter races, won both the Olympic 500 (for the second straight time) and the 1,000 as well as gold in the relay.

U.S. athletes of year

Men

Gold: Miller.

Silver: Shani Davis, speed skating. He became the first man to win back-to-back Olympic golds at 1,000 meters; made it back-to-back silvers in the 1,500; and won his third straight World Cup titles at the two distances.

Bronze: Johnny Spillane, Nordic combined. He won Olympic silver medals in all three races in a discipline where the United States never before had won any, and he worked to help teammate Bill Demong win gold in one of those races.

Women

Gold: Vonn.

Silver: Julia Mancuso, alpine skiing. The free-spirited counterpoint to the more methodical Vonn won two silver medals in Vancouver, adding to a 2006 gold and becoming the most decorated woman in U.S. Olympic ski history

Bronze: Alicia Sacramone, gymnastics. After taking a year off following her 2008 Olympic disappointment, when her failures on two events may have cost the team gold, she returned to win the world title on vault — five years after her first world title, on floor exercise.

Performances of year

Men

Gold: Sidney Crosby, hockey, Canada. When you are the national icon in the de facto national sport, of course you will score the winning goal in overtime to win Olympic gold in your own country.

Silver: Shaun White, snowboard, United States. The guy could have won a second straight gold medal with a routine final run. Instead, he delighted the audience, by pulling out his toughest trick: the Double McTwist 1260, a 3 1/2 turn, double flip maneuver that was a big and crazy leap forward from his winning trick in 2006.

Bronze: Samuel Wanjiru, marathon, Kenya. All but written off as a factor in Chicago after an injury- and illness-plagued year, the 2008 Olympic champion won a stirring battle with Ethiopian Tsegaye Kebede for a second straight Chicago title.

Women

Gold: Joanie Rochette, figure skating, Canada. Her mother died of a heart attack on a Sunday. The Olympic short program was Tuesday. With her own heart broken, Rochette left everyone else in the Pacific Coliseum near — or in — tears with a strong third place short program skate she followed two days later with a long program good enough for the bronze medal.

Silver: Petra Majdic, cross-country skiing Slovenia. A freak accident in the warm-up for the Olympic sprint race left her with four broken ribs and a punctured lung. After a trip to the hospital, she was cleared to compete and won a bronze medal — which she accepted after getting to the ceremony in a wheelchair.

Bronze: Mariel Zagunis, fencing, U.S. Competing in what must have seemed like Valhalla, the Grand Palais in Paris, two-time Olympic champion Zagunis took another step toward joining the gods of her sport when she won a second straight world title in sabre.
-- Philip Hersh

phersh@tribune.com
Photo credit: Lucy Nicholson / Reuters
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