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Olympics provided the silver lining

December 07, 2004 12:27 IST

Among the pine-scented groves of Ancient Olympia, along the marathon route traced by Phidippides and on the cycle course beneath the Acropolis, the 2004 Athens Olympics produced a stream of unforgettable vignettes.

In the afterglow from 16 days' competition staged under a flawless Mediterranean sky, it was easy to forget the chaos and confusion that had reigned before the Games returned to their spiritual home.

After a series of public warnings from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Athens somehow met all its main construction deadlines and staged a Games as stylish as either the 1960 Rome or 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

The athletes, notably American swimmer Michael Phelps, rose to the occasion.

Phelps won six of the US team's table-topping 35 gold medals plus two bronzes. On the track Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj atoned for the disappointments of the previous two Games and confirmed he is the finest middle-distance runner of his or probably any era with the first 1,500-5,000 double since Paavo Nurmi at the 1924 Paris Olympics.

Portents that the country which staged both the ancient Olympics and the first modern Games in 1896 would be celebrating rather than lamenting at year's end had come in the previous month.

Prior to the 2004 European soccer championship Greece had not won a single game at a major tournament. In Portugal they did not lose one, beating the home side 1-0 in the final after recording a 2-1 victory over the same opponents in the tournament's opening game.

Appropriately for an Olympic year it was individuals rather than teams who scaled the sporting heights, apart from the notable exception of the Boston Red Sox who beat the St Louis Cardinals 4-0 to win the city's first world series since Babe Ruth was sold to the hated New York Yankees in 1920.

FEDERER'S YEAR

Swiss Roger Federer completed probably the best year on the tennis circuit since Rod Laver's second Grand Slam in 1969 by winning three of the four major tournaments, exciting speculation that he could soon be the best of all time.

Federer, who travels the world without a coach, has no obvious weaknesses, as Briton Tim Henman ruefully acknowledged.

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"If you take Andy Roddick's serve, Andre Agassi's return, my volley and Lleyton Hewitt's speed, you've probably got a chance," said Henman.

On the women's circuit, Russians won three of the four Grand Slam tournaments. Maria Sharapova, the youngest of the trio at 17, won Wimbledon in only her second year on the WTA tour.

Anastasia Myskina defeated Elena Dementieva to capture the French Open and Svetlana Kuznetsova won the US Open, with victory over the unfortunate Dementieva.

Vijay Singh, who once gave $10 lessons as a club professional in Borneo, became the first man to earn $10 million on the US golf tour. The well-built Fijian with an obsessive work ethic joined Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Tiger Woods as the only players with nine victories in a year.

Singh ended Woods's five-year reign at the top of the rankings in September and secured his third career major at the US PGA at Whistling Straits.

The most popular victory of the year came in the US Masters where Phil Mickelson at last controlled his prodigious talent over all four rounds to win a major at the 47th time of asking.

Less happily Mickelson and Woods were twinned in a mutually disconsolate pairing at the Ryder Cup, where the United States went down 18-1/2 to 9-1/2 to Europe at Oakland Hills.

To nobody's surprise Michael Schumacher won his seventh Formula One world championship and Lance Armstrong succeeded where Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault, Miguel Indurain and Eddy Merckx had failed by winning the Tour de France for a sixth time.

WORLD RECORD

West Indies cricket captain Brian Lara, who struck a world record 375 against England in Antigua a decade ago, chose the same opponents at the same venue to become the first person to score 400 in a Test match.

Sri Lanka off spinner Muttiah Muralitharan, banned for a time from bowling a new delivery while the authorities debated whether it was legal or not, briefly held the world record for Test wickets before he was overtaken by Australia leg spinner Shane Warne.

In baseball, Barry Bonds scaled hit his 700th career home run. Only Ruth (714) and Hank Aaron (755) lie ahead of the San Francisco Giants slugger, who turned 40 in July.

But those suspicious of Bond's longevity and impressive physique were not surprised when he was named as one of several high-profile athletes involved in the federal investigation into the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO), believed to be manufacturing and distributing the previously undetectable steroid THG (tetrahydrogestrinone).

Bonds denied knowingly using steroids but, according to a US newspaper, told a grand jury he had used substances supplied by BALCO. His personal trainer Greg Anderson was one of four men indicted by the grand jury.

Double world sprint champion Kelli White and Olympic 4x400 relay gold medallist Alvin Harrison were banned after admitting taking THG as well as a host of other illegal drugs.

World 100 metres record holder Tim Montgomery was charged with serious doping violations as a result of the BALCO inquiry and the laboratory's head Victor Conte said he had supplied Montgomery's partner Marion Jones, the triple 2000 Sydney Olympics champion, with steroids.

The moribund heavyweight boxing arena was briefly revitalised after Briton Lennox Lewis announced he was retiring undefeated as World Boxing Council champion.

Ukrainian Vitali Klitschko stopped Corrie Sanders in the eighth round to avenge the South African's upset win over his brother Vladimir.

Vitali's first challenge was scheduled for December 11 against Britain's Danny Williams, who knocked out the former undisputed champion Mike Tyson in the fourth round in the biggest upset of the year.

John Mehaffey
Source:
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