Usain Bolt on the track, Michael Phelps in the water and Yelena Isinbayeva through the air elevated three elemental Olympic sports into another realm at the Beijing Games, the highlight of 2008's sporting calendar.
Bolt, a languid, elongated Jamaican, redefined the adjective laidback while outlining his hobbies before the third Asian Olympics. "Doing nothing and relaxing," drawled Bolt.
A late decision to add the 100 metres to his specialist 200 spelled an end to the quiet life. Instead Bolt electrified capacity crowds at the spectacular Bird's Nest stadium with the greatest 100-200 double since the modern Games began in 1896.
After stunning the sporting world by clocking a world-record 9.72 seconds in only his fifth professional race over the 100 earlier in the season, Bolt reduced the mark to 9.69 in the Olympic final.
Incredibly, he became the first man to run under 9.7 while glancing left and right at the finish and crossing the line with his left shoelace undone.
In the 200, Bolt was swift out of the blocks and ran a perfect turn to clock 19.30 and break Michael Johnson's 1996 world record which statisticians had predicted would last 25 years. Johnson, commentating for the BBC, shook his head in wonder. "Simply incredible," he said. "This guy is Superman II."
Phelps also earned the Superman tag. In 17 races over nine days, the American won eight gold medals, a record for a single Games, and set seven world records.
In the fourth of his Beijing finals, the 200 metres butterfly, Phelps's goggles leaked so badly that he could not see the end of the pool. He equalled compatriot Mark Spitz's previous Olympic record of seven golds by out-touching Californian-born Serbian Milorad Cavic to win the 100 metres butterfly by one-hundredth of a second.
With Phelps swimming the butterfly leg in the 4x100 metres medley, the U.S. completed a sweep of all three men's relays, despite a late challenge from Australia, and shaved 1.34 seconds off the world record they had set at the Athens Olympics.
"He's not from another planet," commented British freestyler Simon Burnett. "He's from the future."
Predictably, Isinbayeva set a world women's pole vault record for the second time in as many Games. Agility, athleticism and artistry fused as Isinbayeva soared 5.05 metres to set her 24th world record. Nobody comes close to the glamorous Russian in a fledgling event first introduced to the Olympics at the 2000 Sydney Games.
The most astonishing example of an unquenchable will to win in a year packed with wonderful individual achievements came from Tiger Woods in the U.S. Open.
Early in the year's second major it was apparent Woods was in pain due to a left knee injury. By the final round, he was wincing visibly after every tee shot yet still managed to birdie the 18th hole to take the amiable Rocco Mediate into a playoff, won by Woods on the first hole. He then underwent reconstructive surgery which kept him out for the remainder of the year.
Spain enjoyed a golden year during which they claimed their first major soccer title in 44 years when Liverpool striker Fernando Torres scored the only goal of a 1-0 win over Germany in the European championship final in Vienna.
Carlos Sastre won the Tour de France and his compatriot Alberto Contador finished first in the Giro d'Italia and then the Tour of Spain, giving Spaniards a clean sweep of cycling's three stage classics.
The year concluded with a Davis Cup tennis victory for the Spaniards over Argentina despite the absence of the injured Rafael Nadal.
Before his injury, Nadal had a year to savour.
Signs that the relentless left-hander with the ferocious top-spin forehand was developing a game capable of prevailing on all surfaces emerged when he reached the Australian Open semi-finals for the first time.
In the French Open he swept aside Roger Federer with almost embarrassing ease, conceding only four games on the Roland Garros clay. He then featured in the longest and most dramatic Wimbledon final ever, defeating Federer as dusk fell on south London.
The elegant Federer, who had suffered from a debilitating glandular disorder early in the year, raised his game to new heights in his attempt to surpass Bjorn Borg and win six consecutive Wimbledon titles.
The force was with the unstoppable Nadal, however. He went on to take over from the Swiss as world number one and win the Beijing gold medal. Wimbledon also featured an entertaining final between the Williams sisters, with Venus prevailing over the younger Serena to win a fifth title on her favourite grass surface.
On Nov. 2, two days before Barack Obama was elected as the first black American president, Lewis Hamilton came from sixth to fifth on the final lap of the final race of the season in Sao Paulo to become Formula One's youngest world champion at the age of 23.
Hamilton is not only Formula One's first black champion, he is the sport's first and only black driver with his roots in the Caribbean island of Grenada and a childhood on a working-class housing estate in Britain.
His success in a glamorous sport patronised by the international jetset has shattered barriers every bit as intimidating as those breached by Woods a decade earlier.
(Editing by Clare Fallon)
7 months ago