2016 in review: sport’s legends and underdogs

Champions of 2016: Usain Bolt, swimmer Katie Ledecky and Leicester City captain Wes Morgan.

The last year has seen some memorable sporting achievements, from Leicester City’s title win to another set of gold medals for Usain Bolt. Was 2016 the year of the underdog or the legend?

The final whistle blew at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea 2 Tottenham Hotspur 2. It was a normal result. But 100 miles to the north of London, the city of Leicester was in a rare state of pure ecstasy. Tottenham’s draw meant that, for the first time in their history, Leicester City were English football champions.

They had defied the now famous odds of 5000/1 to win the league. By that measure it was the single greatest shock in sporting history, and the story for which British sports fans will most remember 2016. ‘I never expected this when I arrived,’ admitted manager Claudio Ranieri.

But Leicester were not the only surprise success of 2016. In April a little-known golfer from Yorkshire, Danny Willett, won the US Masters — the sport’s most prestigious prize. Just a day before, a 33/1 outsider, Rule the World, had lived up to its name to win the Grand National.

Onto the summer, and the European Championships. The minnows of Iceland stunned England to reach the quarter-finals. Wales’s fairytale journey to the semi-finals, especially their 3–1 win over highly-rated Belgium, will ensure Euro 2016 is remembered fondly in at least one part of the UK. They were eventually knocked out by an unfancied Portugal team who went on to win the trophy.

Fast-forward to early November — just a week before Donald Trump was elected — and an even bigger surprise hit the United States. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series of baseball for the first time in 108 years. Their run without a trophy was the longest in all major North American sports.

But for all the shocks, 2016 also saw several sporting heavyweights reassert their superiority. Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt won nine medals between them at the Rio Olympics. England’s rugby union team won every single match they played. Andy Murray became tennis’s world number one.

It was also a year in which several future stars made their breakthrough: the performances of two 19 year-old Americans —the gymnast Simone Biles and the swimmer Katie Ledecky thrilled spectators in Brazil.

So was 2016 the year of the underdog?

Against the odds

Nobody remembers a heavy favourite winning, say some. The great sporting stories are always those that surprise us most, and 2016 has abounded with them. Leicester’s impossibly unlikely success is an example of how sport gives us hope we will all have our day. That is how sport in 2016 will be remembered.

On the contrary, say others. Perennial champions and record-breakers like Bolt and Phelps were the year’s stars. They remind us of the extraordinary things humans are capable of. The global reaction to Muhammad Ali’s death in June proves we remember sport’s icons, not its upstarts.

You Decide

  1. Which sporting event will you most remember from 2016?
  2. Do you tend to support the underdog?

Activities

  1. Write down three sporting predictions for 2017 and put them in an envelope. Open them on 1 January 2018 to see how many you got right.
  2. Research one famous sports person who died in 2016 and give a presentation about their life and career.

Some People Say...

“We should always want the best team to win.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m not that interested in sport. Why does this matter?
With hundreds of sports out there, if you look hard enough you will inevitably find one you like. And there is much more to sport than the technicalities of what happens on the pitch. It is rich in symbolism, and this was most evident this year in the show of solidarity for Chapecoense, a Brazilian football club whose team almost all died in a plane crash two weeks ago.
What will happen in 2017?
No football world cup; no Olympic games; but there is still plenty going on. In soccer the African Cup of Nations kicks off in January as the continent’s 16 best teams face off in Gabon. The World Athletics Championships take place in London in August. And in November England cricket team travel to Australia to compete in the Ashes.

Word Watch

Leicester City
Normal service has been resumed in the Premier League this season. Leicester now sit in the more familiar position of 14th place. Chelsea lead the way, followed by Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City.
Grand National
Held at Aintree in Liverpool, the Grand National is one of Britain’s three most followed horse races. The others are the Derby, held at Epsom, and the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
European Championships
The 2016 edition tournament saw the number of teams involved expand from 16 to 24. Many pundits criticised this change, saying that it diluted the tournament’s quality and that the new format encouraged defensive football.
Minnows
Iceland has a population of just over 300,000.
Portugal
Portugal’s 2–0 win over Wales was, incredibly, their only victory over 90 minutes in the whole tournament.
Run without a trophy
Another team to end a long trophy drought was Scottish football club Hibernian. They won the Scottish Cup for the first time since 1902.
Michael Phelps
The Baltimore-born swimmer has won more gold medals than any other Olympian: 23.

Subjects

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