From the Olympics to Euro 2016 to the death of Muhammad Ali, 2016 has been a rollercoaster ride that will not be forgotten, for the right and wrong reasons
It was somehow typical of 2016 that on the morning after Andy Murray accepted the BBCs Sports Personality of the Year award for a third time in his career, the focus should switch so joltingly to a man whose strategic brilliance had produced an avalanche of Olympic medals and the first British winner of the Tour de France, but who was now seen trying to persuade a sceptical House of Commons select committee that his team had no involvement with doping.
The year has been a rollercoaster like no other before it, the highs (Murray, Leicester City, Simone Biles, the Chicago Cubs, Waless footballers, an unusually stirring finish to crickets County Championship) higher and the lows (state-sponsored doping, sexual abuse of young footballers, corruption within governing bodies, the plane crash that killed many of Chapecoenses football team) lower. Now Sir Dave Brailsford, knighted for his services to British sport only four years ago, was being interrogated on his apparent failure to live up to the promises of transparency he made in 2010 when launching Team Sky on the back of a proven Olympic programme and pledging to win the Tour within five years with a clean British rider. His success with Bradley Wiggins in the 2012 Tour, three years ahead of schedule, and with Chris Froome in three of the subsequent four editions of the race, and the clinical manner in which the richest team in the sport went about its business, created resentments that became the kindling for what could yet turn out to be a catastrophic conflagration, with the urgent gusts of social media fanning the flames, as has been the case in so many recent events.
What had brought Brailsford up before the select committee along with Shane Sutton, his former right-hand man, and already controversial for allegedly making sexist remarks to the female cyclist Jess Varnish was the activity of a team of Russian hackers calling themselves Fancy Bears, who had revealed, via Wikileaks, the details of therapeutic use exemption certificates granted to leading athletes in many sports. Those named included Wiggins, and the world was agog to see that he had been given permission for injections of a powerful corticosteroid with known performance-enhancing effects before three big races, ostensibly to mitigate the effects of summertime allergies.
Fancy Bears was taken by many to be a jokey nomdeguerre for elements of the Russian security services and the revelations appeared to be a reprisal for the ban on Russian athletes competing in the Rio track and field events that followed the disclosure of a clandestine doping programme so ingenious and sophisticated that it made the old East German system look like meals on wheels. A report commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency from the Canadian law professor Richard McLaren, issued in two instalments, eventually implicated more than 1,000 athletes. The stories of secret rooms in the testing laboratory and undetected fiddling with supposedly tamper-proof sample flasks cast retrospective doubts over the results from Londons 2012 Olympics and, in particular, the Winter Games in Sochi two years later, where Vladimir Putins showpiece facility on the Black Sea had provided the stage for 33 medal-winning performances by competitors from the host nation.
Wiggins had broken no rules but it seemed that he and his team may have pushed against the legal limits and perhaps ventured beyond the boundary of moral acceptability, and he responded by mounting a defence that some found unconvincing. The man who had become so distinctive as a national hero with a Tour and Olympic double in the summer of 2012 grew up in a time when doping was rife in cycling but he could never have dreamed, when he entered his first competition at the age of 12, that he would become a pawn in the geopolitic skirmishes of the 21stcentury.
In 2016, however, sport could do no more than mirror the world in which it exists. For every triumph and moment of grace in an overstuffed year, there was a looming shadow ready to cast its darkness over the celebrations. A further 24 hours after Murrays acceptance of his latest award came the news that another two-times Wimbledon singles champion, the 26-year-old Petra Kvitova, had been stabbed while attempting to defend herself against an intruder at her home in the Czech Republic; the injury was to the tendons of her playing hand, the left, requiring surgery that will keep her out for six months.
Death claimed an unusually high number of the worlds major figures in 2016 and sport was not exempt. As if to match the deaths of Fidel Castro, David Bowie and Umberto Eco, it came up with Muhammad Ali, Johan Cruyff and Arnold Palmer. Each had changed his sport in a way that provided a handy metaphor for developments in society: civil rights protests and opposition to the Vietnam war (Ali), the baby-boomers drive for self-expression and freedom from archaic restrictions (Cruyff), the monetisation of leisure activities in a time of peace and prosperity for the white bourgeoisie (Palmer). Each, too, gave his name to the thing that symbolised his uniqueness. The Ali shuffle, the Cruyff turn, Arnies army: all part of history now, tales to be handed down by those lucky enough to have witnessed them at first hand, and then by those whom they told, perhaps blurring a little but still taking their place in an oral tradition that survives even in the digital age.