To finish out 2014, we asked some of our writers to cast their votes for the most significant sports figure of the past year – an athlete, coach, or executive who made a notable mark on world sport, whether for good or ill.
Lewis Hamilton. Although Formula One is one of the more debatable sports in terms of the way that it is governed and its decisions to move into new markets regardless of the local human rights record, Hamilton is nevertheless a good ambassador for sport generally. He is also one of the more interesting sports personalities on Twitter and consciously grateful of the opportunities that sport gives him.
–Jean Williams is senior research fellow at the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort University.
Bastian Schweinsteiger. Sidelined with injuries much of the year, the Bayern Munich midfielder and German international has had only had one stellar perfomance in 2014 – but it was when it mattered, in the World Cup final. No-one won the ball more, no-one passed it more successfully or more often. It was the old warrior Schweinsteiger who held the German team together in extra time and drove them forward to victory. For me, it was unforgettable how he was stitched up at the touchline (blood streaming down his face, his legs twitching with pain) after Sergio Agüero caught him in the face, and then simply came back as if nothing had happened and battled on until the final whistle.
–Kay Schiller is senior lecturer in history at Durham University.
Thierry Henry and Derek Jeter. Both athletes retired from their respective sports (football and baseball) at the end of their 2014 seasons. For two decades, these gentlemen have demonstrated to the world at large what it means to be champions and class acts, and that the two are not mutually incompatible. While it’s too early yet to say exactly what Henry will do in “retirement,” Jeter is already busy bringing us the interesting Players’ Tribune, a reportedly first-hand account by players of their experiences and impressions.
Honorable mention goes to FIFA for emotional whiplash. In the same year that we had a terrific men’s World Cup, whose football I genuinely enjoyed more than many recent tournaments, FIFA reminded us that there is indeed fear and loathing in the beautiful game. With endless options to choose from – ranging from alleged corrupt bidding for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments, labor issues constructing stadiums in Qatar, and refereeing scandals to forcing the women’s World Cup to play on artificial turf in Canada next year – it’s hard to determine exactly which to fear and which to loathe.
–Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff is author of The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France, 1958-2010.
Sepp Blatter. FIFA is known for corruption, and sooner or later responsibility for this has to land on the president. Reports of vote buying, vote trading, and outright bribery have surfaced in the aftermath of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding process. The report of FIFA’s own investigation into the allegations of corruption cleared FIFA, Russia, and Qatar of any wrongdoing. However, the person who conducted the investigation, Michael Garcia, claims the report is inaccurate and incomplete. Blatter is planning on running for a fifth term next May, and for whatever reason is expected to win once again. FIFA needs a new leader who will take on the ethical lapses and restore integrity to the association.
–Mike Austin is professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Eastern Kentucky University.
David Warner – as someone who is changing the future of test cricket. Over the past few decades, batting in five-day test cricket has been greatly speeded up by techniques developed in the one-day form of the game. Warner is now bringing the even more explosive batting style of three-hour 20-20 cricket into the test arena. Standing just 5′ 7″, the chunky Warner looks like the kind of small guy who is ready to fight anyone in the bar once he has had a few. And apparently he is that kind of small guy – he became a hate figure in England after he slugged the angelic-faced young English batsman Joe Root in a Birmingham nightclub on the last Australian tour in 2013. Since then, however, his feats on the cricket field have been redefining the art of batting. It took Warner a while to be taken seriously. Early in his career the Australian selectors had him pigeon-holed as a short-form tearaway who lacked the mental discipline for the longer form of the game. But once he was given his chance in test cricket three years ago, there was no stopping him. He takes risks when batting, but scores so quickly that he has done a lot of damage by the time he is out. The two centuries he scored in the first test of the current series against India means he now has 11 centuries from 34 tests – a rate that puts him ahead of all current cricketers. But the time he is done – he is only 28 – he is likely to have rewritten the record books.
–David Papineau is professor of philosophy at King’s College London.
Oscar Pistorius. His trial, sentencing and prosecution all garnered enormous media coverage, much of it only tangentially concerning sport, but which, nonetheless, was the principal reason for the story’s prominence. His disgrace embraced the best and worst aspects of sport. The heartening story of the “Blade Runner” who beat the odds not just at the Paralympics but also broke through into the Olympics was the kind of narrative beloved of sports aficionados and the sports-neutral alike. But his shooting of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp raised a depressingly familiar issue that sports publicists prefer to cover up. Once again, there was violent sporting masculinity on show. Another picture of Pistorius emerged that was far distant from that of the heroic battler so beloved of sports mythologists. His erratic gun-toting narcissism and evident sense of entitlement and self-absorption demonstrated that his petulant display in defeat at the 2012 Summer Paralympics was not an ignoble aberration. So Oscar Pistorius put sport, celebrity, and gender in the spotlight in a very significant way in 2014, and also race and class – would a black South African have received such an extensive legal defence, sympathy from elements of the local media, and a five-year sentence for culpable homicide? The figure of Oscar Pistorius unforgettably but gruesomely embodies the indissoluble links between sport, politics, culture and society.
–David Rowe is professor in the Institute for Culture and Society at the University of Western Sydney.
Brian O’Driscoll – the rugby player who retired this year after a 15-year international career. He helped lift Ireland from perennial also-rans to a world force. They are now third in the world ranking behind New Zealand and South Africa. O’Driscoll bowed out this past March in the game where Ireland clinched the coveted Six Nations championship. He was one of the great rugby players of his era, and it’s hard to find anyone who speaks a harsh word about him. A genuine legend.
–Graham Tomlin is dean of St Mellitus College.
Luis Suarez. I think that something of extraordinary significance arose from the Uruguayan attacker’s decision to sink his teeth into the shoulder of Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini during a World Cup match in June. Moments such as this are what the internet was made for, and so for weeks after the incident everyone was having a laugh over Suarez turned into the shark from Jaws, fitted with a Hannibal Lecter mouthpiece, or awkwardly wearing one of those pylon things that force dogs to keep their teeth to themselves.
But the conversation didn’t stop there, nor did it stay confined to traditional soccer circles. For a few weeks during the summer, it seemed like everyone was asking big questions about Suarez’s snack choice. Why is the act of biting another human being a nearly universal taboo? How is this any different from a dirty tackle or a cheap shot? Most people seemed to think that it is different, and the explanations that emerged as to why relied on abstract and philosophical concepts such as dignity, morality, and the supposition that some level of civilized comportment should attend our station as a higher order species. With one ill-advised chomp (or several if you include his history of toothy indiscretions), Suarez managed to provoke a global conversation about what it means to be human. And that has to count for something.
–Michael Buma is author of Refereeing Identity: The Cultural Work of Canadian Hockey Novels.
Reno Saccoccia, coach of the Steubenville (Ohio) High School Big Red football team, had a negative impact in 2014. Saccoccia was head coach in 2012 when football players Ma’Lik Richmond and Trent Mays repeatedly raped an unconscious teenage girl. Not only was Saccoccia implicated in helping to cover up the rape (text messages from those players shown as evidence in court suggest that he had seen videos of the rape, with one text from Mays’ phone reading, “I got Reno. He took care of it”). Saccoccia also failed to punish any of his players who circulated the photos and videos, threatened a female reporter with violence, and kept Richmond and Mays on the team for eight games after they were arrested and charged. Richmond served nine months in prison and was released in January 2014. In August, Saccoccia had him back on the team as soon as the school’s ban on participating in extra-curricular activities was lifted. When trying to justify his decision, Saccoccia said Richmond had “earned” a second chance, adding, “We don’t deal in death sentences for juvenile activity” – equating not being allowed to play football with the death penalty. Not once did he mention the victim, let alone display concern for her welfare. The award goes to Saccoccia for putting sport ahead of decency.
–Deb Waterhouse-Watson is postdoctoral research fellow at Macquarie University.
The Costa Rican Football Federation. Costa Rican soccer had a banner year in 2014, the fruit of planning and commitment that began in 2007. First, in March-April the country hosted the U17 Women’s World Cup, which saw Japan beat Spain in front of almost 30,000 people. At the Men’s World Cup in Brazil over the summer, the men’s national team surpassed expectations. Expected to be the minnow in a group with England, Italy, and Uruguay, the ticos instead won their group and advanced to the quarterfinals, losing to Holland on penalty kicks. And in October, the women’s national team not only defeated CONCACAF rival Mexico for the first time, but qualified for the country’s first Women’s World Cup. All in all, a pretty good year.
–Joshua Nadel is assistant professor of history at North Carolina Central University.
Derrick Rose – for the way he’s challenged expectations for athletes. Just recently, the Chicago Bulls point guard was most conspicuous in being the first prominent professional athlete to wear an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt on the court to highlight the injustices around the death of Eric Garner at the hands of police in New York City. Beyond simply bringing more attention to the dramatic inequities of the American justice system, Rose’s gesture seemed a potential tipping point for a new consciousness among athletes around their platform for addressing social and political issues. A few months back, Rose more subtly challenged the conventional expectations that athletes concern themselves only with physical performance when he claimed that he wasn’t willing to risk his body and his future by playing through injuries and pain. Popular culture has so commodified athlete’s bodies (and brains), and so bought into the idea that “real” athletes ignore pain, that somehow Rose saying he cared about his future as a person generated outrage. Rose himself is indeed struggling with injuries, and he wasn’t great this year as a basketball player. But as a symbol of athletes starting to engage with the potential social and personal power of sports celebrity, and starting to challenge the conventions of a flawed sports culture, his year strikes me as extremely significant.
–Andrew Guest is associate professor of psychology and sociology at the University of Portland.
Jürgen Klinsmann. He became the recognizable face of the World Cup and soccer for most Americans this past summer. Though the U.S. national team provided some memorable moments, the majority of American players disappointed with uneven play. Nevertheless, the tournament provided the opportunity for marginal supporters to catch on to the nuances of the game, and the appreciation for soccer in the U.S. became more sophisticated and widespread, in part due to Klinsmann’s plainspoken discussion of strategy and his clever use of media. Before the team’s opening round match against Germany Klinsmann issued a note to supporters’ bosses via Twitter excusing them from work. The note quickly went viral and endeared Klinsmann to the average American. While the media ensured that American audiences adopted the German World Cup champion and former Germany national team coach as their own, Klinsmann’s likeable personality contributed to a historical shift in America’s piecemeal acceptance of soccer. Klinsmann became a central part of bringing soccer into the American sporting mainstream, something which generations of supporters have been unable to do with a long list of unappealing personalities in his role.
–Brett Bebber is assistant professor of history at Old Dominion University.
Kim Yuna. At the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, the South Korean figure skater showed us not only how a champion returns, but also how one loses. In Vancouver in 2010, where she won gold, her triple lutz-triple toe loop combination in the short program blew me away. Her long program shattered any expectation of what a skater could do. In the years that followed, “the Queen” had a bit of a rocky road, with a very public split from her coach, Brian Orser. She came back to the Olympic ice as somewhat of a mystery in terms of what she could still do. While she left most people absolutely speechless with her performances, she lost the gold medal to Russia’s Adelina Sotnikova. The controversy surrounding the judges’ decision should be no surprise to anyone who follows skating (I wrote about it at the time for CNN Opinion). It simply seemed unfair that anyone who possessed such a perfect balance between artistry and technique should place second to anyone. But that’s skating, and Kim knew it as well as anyone. Her Olympic skate would be her last in competition, and the image of Kim looking away from a jubilant Sotnikova and her Russian flag is one that will stay with me a long time. It didn’t seem fair. But it did seem like sports.
–Amy Bass is professor of history at The College of New Rochelle.
Phillip Hughes. His death reminded us of the dangers of not just cricket, but of all kinds of adventurous physical endeavor, and because of its unexpected and statistically improbable nature, of the fragility of life. Hughes’ death brought together the world’s cricket community in an outpouring of grief; it produced powerful, touching affirmations of the bonds that tie cricketers and fans together. At a time when the world of cricket, especially online, is racked all too often by edgy, contentious, hostile discourse, Hughes’ passing provided a rare moment when dispute and disagreement could be laid aside for a moment that acknowledged our common humanity.
–Samir Chopra is professor of philosophy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.
I don´t know who to choose. I can only talk about personal preferences: always Roger Federer; Manu Ginóbili for winning his fourth NBA championship ring with the San Antonio Spurs – but that is a local preference; Lionel Messi, for his brilliance year after year, in spite of his not-so-successful perfomance during the World Cup. But clearly, I am thinking according to my loves and my wishes, not with any objective evaluation.
But I am not an academic. I am a fan.
–Pablo Alabarces is professor in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Buenos Aires.