So those really were the days of miracle and wonder, the time of times, or any other lyric you might care to think of. 2012 — never has a year of sport provided so many thrills and tears, so many shivers of disbelief, so much joy. From Manchester City winning the Premiership with the last kick of the season, to England’s demolition of the mighty All Blacks; from the first British winner in the history of the Tour de France to the first British men’s Grand Slam tennis champion since the war; from the Ryder Cup’s Miracle in Medinah — beating the Yanks from 10-4 down thanks to the spirit of Seve and Ian Poulter’s red-hot putter to cricket’s Marvel in Mumbai when England, against all expectations, won a Test in India by being better at playing and bowling spin than their hosts. Did all that really happen?
And of course a gold rush at both the Olympics and Paralympics, where the sun shone, the capital flowed and we had the time of our lives. The great British sports public proved that it didn’t matter if you had two legs, one leg, no legs or were riding on four legs, we would love you just as much and cheer you just as loudly. The Games captured a brilliant British trick: they were grand and highly organised, but also personal and mischievous. The tone set by Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony (we can take a joke!) was echoed by the volunteers, with their preposterous giant sponge hands to point the way, giving the Games their human dimension. Sebastian Coe’s beautiful line from the closing ceremony could apply now to the whole year, to the sportsmen and women, to the administrators, the fans, the public and the players: ‘When your time came, Britain, you did it right.’
And you get a reflection of this, but not all of it, in the shortlist of 12 for Sports Personality of the Year: Nicola Adams (boxing), Ben Ainslie (sailing), Jessica Ennis (athletics), Mo Farah (athletics), Katherine Grainger (rowing), Sir Chris Hoy (cycling), Rory McIlroy (golf), Andy Murray (tennis), Ellie Simmonds (swimming), Sarah Storey (cycling), David Weir (athletics), Bradley Wiggins (cycling). All would be thoroughly worthy winners — not a weak link among them. Look at that list: it’s got five women (that’s five more than last year); eight Olympic champions, three Paralympic legends, and almost lost amid all those medals, the world’s No. 1 golfer, who topped the money list on both sides of the Atlantic and sealed his second Major title by a blistering eight-stroke margin. In any other year, Rory McIlroy would cruise it; now he is almost an afterthought, at 100-1!
Only second favourite (to Wiggins of course) is the wondrous Mo Farah at 11-2. He would be my choice, though the relentless cycling lobby might seal it for Wiggo. But it was little Mo who captured our hearts. What an unlikely iron man! Farah has a tiny, wiry frame and a natural, hopeful personality. Sport is at its most moving and inspiring when it combines superhuman achievement with all too human vulnerability. One part superhero, one part regular guy, Farah reminded us that elite sport doesn’t have to turn everyone into a bland automaton.
And look at the ones we could have had on the list. Olympic champions like lovely, laughing cyclist Laura Trott — a national treasure already; or Charlotte Dujardin — the dressage wonder who reduced the Times editorial conference to open-mouthed silence as she danced to gold on Valegro; or Peter Wilson, the self-effacing farmer’s son from the West Country who nervelessly won gold in the trap shooting. Away from the Games, how about Ian Poulter, for the way he inspired that Ryder Cup fightback; or Alastair Cook, who is one of the greatest run machines in history and has made such a fine start as England captain; or Manu Tuilagi, who scored one try and made two more as England beat the All Blacks. Tuilagi’s wolfish grin of anticipation for the coming battle as the haka finished was a real thing of beauty.
Or we could name an awards list of a dozen mighty Paralympians: we already have Storey (four golds); Weir (four golds); and wonderful Ellie Simmonds (four medals in the pool including two golds). But how about Sophie Christiansen, the cerebral palsy rider who won individual, team and freestyle golds in equestrianism; Natasha Baker, two more golds in dressage; Hannah Cockroft, two golds in sprint wheelchair; Jonnie Peacock, the brilliant blade runner who outshone Oscar Pistorius in the 100 metres; Aled Davies, gold in the discus; David Stone, gold in cycling’s road race; Helena Lucas, gold in the sailing and, like Storey, not all that far off the able-bodied Olympic squad; Richard Whitehead (the double amputee who was told he couldn’t enter for the marathon, his favourite event, so he just went out and won over 200 metres instead); or David Smith (a Paralympic champion rower born with a club foot who two years ago was temporarily paralysed after surgery on a spinal tumour). These weren’t disabled sports people but supremely able ones, with rammed stadiums cheering their every move.
It was an extraordinary embarrassment of riches: a glorious improbable year of sporting stories that has revealed a deeper truth about the power of sport, something far greater than medal tables or flag-waving pride. Come on, admit it: for all its problems and vices, flaws and excesses, modern sport has never inspired us more, nor given more joy round the world. We are lucky to be living in the here and now.
Furious note from a nerdy anorak, part 94: sure, it was a hell of a game, one of the best rugby matches ever, but what’s this? At the end, in time-honoured fashion, the winning team crouch around a giant cardboard placard bearing the name of the sponsors and the trophy, splashing champers, hugging each other and generally having a ball for the snappers to beam round the world. The trophy was the Hillary shield, named after Everest conqueror Sir Edmund Hillary. But in giant letters two feet high was written ‘Hilary Shield’. That’s Hilary with one ‘l’ as in Mantel, term, or Benn. Shame on you, RFU, for not being bothered to spell correctly the name of the greatest Kiwi of all.
Roger Alton is an executive editor of the Times.