Rugby

Rio 2016 Olympic preview (I): A (personal) list of athletes to follow

The world’s quadrennial sports smörgåsbord is about to get underway in Rio de Janeiro – well, technically as I write this, it has already started – as over 10 000 athletes have descended on the first South American host city looking to extol the virtues of four years (or a lifetime) of intense, unappreciated preparation. Seven years after the so-called “Cidade Maravilhosa” was selected to welcome the world’s fittest individuals, the novel tradition of derogatory buzz about the conditions waiting the delegations is already surfacing in every media outlet, yet (hopefully) just a few hours remain for everyone to focus on the spirit of this incomparable event.

The Olympics. A communal celebration of the World we live in, its outstanding diversity and history, but also an expression of global unity as representations from 206 countries /nations converge to compete for eternal glory and national pride through the pursuit of athletic excellence, expressed on one of Humanity’s most powerful drivers, sports. Or simply, borrowing the London 2012 motto: The Olympics. Inspire a Generation (too corny?).

During 19 days of competition, not only 306 new Olympic Champions will be crowned, but countless stories will arise, get shared, debated and imprinted on the collective memory, iconic images and heroes will be shot and etched, humans will sense unbridled joy and despair, succumb to sadness and anger or soar to touch the paradise. The Olympic Games should be about this for a fortnight and not the financial, social and political hardships of the hosts, the environmental missteps, the administrative shortcomings, the health concerns that significantly depleted the field of competitors on disciplines like tennis and golf, Russia’s appalling doping issues or even the undercurrent allegations of corruption and fraud that plague the Olympic movement.

For a few weeks every four years, exceptional individuals get to showcase their abilities in front of a global audience that reaches 3 650 million, and we get a front row seat into their life, to experience their victories and the crushing weight of their failures. Heck, at the opening ceremony, entering the Olympic Stadium shortly after the legendary Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, will be 10 athletes with refugee status, courageous men and women who will compete in Rio under the Olympic flag, a redeeming story with so much of unique and inspirational and that still shouldn’t have ever come to life.

This time Brazilian athletes will be the last to touch the Olympic Stadium

Anyway, time to drop the babbles of someone way-too-excited and finally getting to the gist of this article, the first part of the Olympic preview, which will focus on the athletes I’ll keep my eye on during the Olympic Games.

With 42 sport disciplines represented in the Games, it goes without saying that it’s impossible to grasp and highlight every notable athlete (well, they are all notable, actually, since they got to this distinctive stage) while getting a clear picture of what they represent to their sport. Yet, tapping into my knowledge and a bit of research, I compiled a list of eight names (or seven plus a team) that I’m keen to see perform at Rio de Janeiro, based on factors like the personal stakes in the game, the relevancy of their performances at the national level, the worldwide visibility of their results, or simply my own preferences, quirks and interests.

In short, if you’re expecting weightlifters, wrestlers, boxers (sensing a theme here?), diving competitors, synchronized swimmers, rhythmic gymnasts or guys that stroll mounted on horses, you’re out of luck.

Some of the names on the list already enjoy worldwide popularity, others may be on their way and in some cases that won’t ever happen, but all of them have the chance to leave Rio with silverware. I found a way to balance the genres and the athletes compete in different sports, but in terms of nationality wasn’t as successful. Meanwhile, keep in mind that in the next posts I’ll have the opportunity to sift through a bunch of other remarkable athletes.

Without further ado, here is my batch of eight.

Kevin Durant (USA, Basketball)

The main figure of the 2016 summer in USA’s sports landscape arrives in Rio with something to prove after leaving his own Ducat in Oklahoma City and taking his talents to the behemoth Golden State Warriors. An Olympic Champion in 2012, when he was still an emerging superstar fresh of an NBA Final appearance, the career of Durant peaked in 2014 with an MVP award before things sizzled due to nagging injuries.

Kevin Durant will have a chip on his shoulder in Rio

From a contender to LeBron James’ crown as the Planet’s premium basketball player, he became a second-row spectator on James’s show and surplus of Steph Curry’s meteoric rise. The decision to join Curry’s band of brothers will always be a paradigm shifting move on his life, but the start of that new chapter will only come after an attention-grabbing tournament where he’s the main lure.

Despite still being the mightiest group, the American roster in Rio will be missing so much primetime talent (LeBron James, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul, James Harden, Anthony Davis…) that it can quickly become Durant’s team, for better or worse. He’ll be the fulcrum of the media, the man tasked with the money balls (if they even occur) and his relationship with future teammates Klay Thompson and Draymond Green will be scrutinized before he even enters their own club’s locker room. The 27-year-old better make good use of his closing days as the alfa dog.

Dafne Schippers (Netherlands, Athletics)

For a long time, the sprint events at international competitions have been subjugated by athletes hailing from North and Central America – with Africans sprinkled in – but this blonde phenomenon from the Netherlands has recently pestered their safe heaven.

The 24-year-old Schippers broke into the world stage as a heptathlon competitor, even meriting the third place at the 2013 World Championships, but in 2014 decided to focus on the burgeoning sprinting chops she had been displaying since adolescence. Winning the 100m and 200m in the European Championships was just the first step on a ladder that continued with the furious late charge to take the 200m World title a year later on a national and continental record time of 21.63s, the third best mark of all-time. Additionally, in the 100m, the Utrecht-native was second despite a slow start, and thus jumped to the vanguard of contenders on both races ahead of these Olympics.

It’s entirely possible that a tall, white woman with acne marks dotted on her face will stand on top of the podium in Rio de Janeiro as the Sprint Queen, and that is really cool, no matter the callous, unproven allegations her swift ascension has brought forward.

Neymar (Brazil, football)

A 20-year-old Neymar reacts during the 2012 Olympic Final

Hailed as the poster boy of the Olympics at age 24, the Barcelona superstar is the trump card his country will play to end the chase for a gold medal in the national sport, but it’s about more than that for him. The intrepid winger has personal history to erase, from the loss to Mexico at the 2012 Final to the disappointment of being forced to the sidelines while a catastrophe submerged the “Canarinha” at the 2014 World Cup. Extremely productive for his national team (46 goals in 70 caps), no other football player competing in Rio is even remotely at the same level – the second best in Rio may be South Korea’s overaged forward Heung-min Son and some staunch football fans would be pressed to name his current club – as the third place finisher in last year’s FIFA Ballon d’Or election.

Brazil pretty much punted the 2016 Copa America to get him here and with that comes the burden of carrying the hopes of a nation of 200M, something he’s experienced before. He’ll deliver, mark it in ink (or don’t).

Simone Biles (USA, Gymnastics)

The history of the Olympic Games, whether you particularly enjoy Gymnastics or not, has been written on several occasions by the superb displays of grace, agility and balance paraded by the athletes of this sport. Nadia Comaneci is one of the most recognized Olympians of all-time and every four years female gymnasts carry on with her legacy, delighting worldwide audiences that seldom watch the sport. Some of those gymnasts have turned into fleeting darlings that never again touch the Olympic stage, but it would be a shame if that’s the destiny of Simone Biles.

The 19-year-old Simone Biles is Gymnastics undisputed Queen

The diminutive (145cm high) gymnast will make her Olympic debut after absolutely crushing her competition since 2013. A three-time all-around World Champion, Biles has already collected the most gold medals (10) of any female in World Championships history, adding multiple all-around, team, balance beam and floor triumphs due to her unmatched power and creativity. At age 19, she’s the building block on the USA’s challenge for a second consecutive team triumph, and the Texas-native can leave Rio with up to four gold medals, consolidating her case as one of the best gymnasts of all-time. Look for her face to be plastered on Rio 2016 memorabilia.

Roger Federer / Martina Hingis (Switzerland, Tennis)

Damnit. The charmed reunion of two of the craftiest players to ever grace the tennis courts – who have combined for 39 total Grand Slam wins – is not happening in Rio..or ever, for that matter. Shame. Moving on.

Mark Cavendish (Great Britain, Cycling (track))

Despite growing up as a track racer, the Manx Missile’s illustrious career has been erected on his impressive skills as a pacey finisher on the road, having amassed a plethora of stage wins in all three Grand Tours, a Monument victory in the 2009 Milan-San Remo, and the title of World Champion in 2011. All of this definitely wouldn’t have been possible without putting behind the ambitions indoors, which happened following a disappointing 2008 Olympics, but destiny has given him another opportunity.

Great Britain’s Mark Cavendish will be looking for his maiden Olympic medal

In Beijing, he and partner Bradley Wiggins, the reigning World Champions in Madison, were only ninth despite holding justified medal hopes, and Cav promised to never come back to the track. Then, in 2012, his Olympic dreams were once again ruined as the home boys fought tirelessly on the road to force a sprint finish, but were ultimately unable to control a wild competition. At age 31, the Rio de Janeiro Games presented a last chance, but the design of the course outside proved too tough for Cavendish to handle, facilitating the decision to take his word back. Having returned to the track competitions last year, he was able to narrowly obtain the passport to Rio, where he’ll compete in the omnium and the team pursuit.

If the third time’s the charm and he can add Olympic silverware to a résumé that includes an outstanding total of 30 stage wins at the Tour de France, Cavendish may force the Queen’s hand. He would surely relish the title of “Sir”, joining fellow cyclists and (multiple Olympic medallists) Bradley Wiggins and Chris Hoy.

Katie Ledecky (USA, Swimming)

While watching a 15-year-old Katie Ledecky triumph in the gruelling 800m freestyle race of the London Olympics, one couldn’t help to feel excited for what would be coming ahead. Four years later, the unassuming youngster from Washington-DC is the leading face of her entire sport, the one where a certain Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all-time, is still active.

Katie Ledecky, perhaps the greatest athlete in the World at the moment. Would you believe it?

This would only be possible because Ledecky is a once-in-a-lifetime talent, even if absolutely no one would believe it looking at her physique, distant from the broad torso, long-limbed freaks that ruled the pools before her. She doesn’t need that to demolish world record after world record, to finish race after race with ungodly advantages, to blow away the audience (and her rivals) with efficient strokes, sheer pace and unmatched stamina.

Ledecky will probably sweep the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyle races in Rio de Janeiro, and if the 1500m were part of the women’s calendar, she would win that one too, regardless of the need to get in the water three or four times per day to race heats and finals of individual and relay events. Her unprecedented range at elite level is something to behold, and every sports fan should jump at the chance to watch history. After all, she’s “better at swimming than anyone else is at anything”.

Fiji Rugby Seven’s National Team (Fiji Islands, Rugby)

Since first debuting at the Olympics in 1956, the athletes that have represented Fiji, a Pacific Ocean country of 0.9M citizens, haven’t been able to collect a single medal to warm the heart of the nation. However, at Rio de Janeiro, history can be just around the corner, as the national rugby seven’s team is the favourite to take the inaugural Olympic title.

The rugby seven’s Fiji National Team, a group hoping to reach the Olympic pinnacle and make proud an entire nation once again

On a sport that returns to the Games for the first time since 1924, this time on the quicker, more wide-open version of seven-men aside, Fiji is able to regularly beat the usual heavyweights of the rugby of 15, where they rank 10 in the World. Nations like Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are still forces to be reckoned with, but the last two HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series titles were conquered by the Fijians, who due to their consummate speed, skill and flair thrive on a full-sized field over two short seven-minute halves.

Some of the alluring members of the team already ply their trade abroad for the best European Teams, but nothing compares to the potential happy ending with Fiji standing on their maiden Olympic podium. The pursuit of glory by the Pacific minnows boasts every ingredient to develop into the feel-good story of the Olympic Games.

Majlinda Kelmendi (Kosovo, Judo)

The Olympic Committee of Kosovo was the 205th organization to become a full member of the International Olympic Committee, having joined in December 2014, thus the Rio Olympics symbolize the first opportunity for Kosovar athletes to compete under their nation’s flag. Carrying the banner on the opening ceremony will be Kelmendi, a two-time World Champion in the -52kg category, and the country’s best medal hope amongst an eight-people delegation.

Majlinda Kelmendi will return to the place of her international breakthrough

The 25-year-old Judoka represented Albania in the 2012 Olympic Games, going out in the second round, and since then has transformed into his discipline’s most feared combatant, leading the World rankings over the last while. In 2013, incidentally at Rio de Janeiro, Kelmendi beat the home favourite Erika Miranda to claim her first World title, and she repeated the feat in 2014 at Chelyabinsk, also adding two European Championships in 2014 and 2016. The weight of the expectations of 2M people hardened by the war, and still awaiting full-independence ratification, will stand on Kelmendi’s powerful shoulders, and you only need to check her “game face” to understand she’s more than ready for it.

Her aggressive, ferocious, resolute style on the tatami channels her personality, and nothing less is expected from someone born on a town, Peja, decimated during the Kosovo War in 1999.

 

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European Tour of Sports – Republic of Ireland

The Basics

Population: 4.6 M
Area: 70 273 km2
Capital: Dublin
Summer Olympic Medals: 28 (9 G-8 S-11 B)
Winter Olympic Medals: 0

 

Popular sports and History

Let’s put the political stuff to bed from the outset. This article is about the Republic of Ireland which for most of sport’s governing bodies is synonymous with just “Ireland”. The Island of Ireland usually fields a single team, and many athletes born on both the Republic and the Northern part participate under the Republic of Ireland’s flag, but there are some notable exceptions. The main one is football, with both nations being part of UEFA, and the Northern Ireland also sends a separate representation to the Commonwealth Games (similarly to what happens with Wales and Scotland), but in many others a conjunct group is assembled for international participation, including in rugby, hockey or basketball. For the Olympic Games, Northern Ireland-born athletes can choose to be part of Team Great Britain or Team Ireland. Thus, for purposes of this article, I’ll limit myself to the intricacies of Ireland-based events and sports venues, and focus on the sports of interest for the people of the Republic of Ireland. As for the athletes, those that represent the Irish teams are included even if they hail from the North. Sometime in the future, I may get back to the “Emerald Isle” to recognize the traditions and achievements of the people that wear Northern Ireland’s colours.

If politics couldn’t stay out of this article, geography also plays a key part, since Ireland’s distance to mainland Europe is one of the reasons the continent’s main game gets pushed to a secondary role on the nation’s sports pyramid. Indeed, the top headlines stirring the passions of the people are pretty much unique to the island, with the Gaelic games taking centre stage. From the group organized by the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association), Gaelic Football and Hurling are the most relevant, dominating Ireland in terms of match attendances (together hog 60% of total live sports spectators), community involvement and popularity, galvanizing entire counties in support of their local heroes and team representations. Both sports are strictly amateur, with players, coaches, and managers prohibited from receiving any form of payment, thus the love for the game and pride in representing their own fuel the artists.

The teams from Dublin and Kerry took part in the 2015 All-Ireland Gaelic Football Championship Final

The similarities extend to much terminology and the field, as both sports pit two squads of 15 players on a rectangular pitch trying to score points by putting the ball into the other team’s goal (3 points), or between two upright posts above the goals and over a crossbar 2.5 metres (8.2 ft) exceeding the ground (1 point). However, while in Gaelic football a leather ball bigger than a volleyball is carried, kicked or punched, in Hurling the players use a wooden stick, called a hurley, to hit a small ball, which results in the latter being considered one of the fastest sports in the world. Naturally, both games are also hits with the large Irish expats communities around the world, even if no country is strong enough to compete with the home nation.

In terms of competitions, the major ones operating every year include the National Football League and the All-Ireland Senior Championship, both disputed on an inter-county basis, and the All-Ireland Club Championship, which is contested by individual clubs. A similar organization (and adapted designations) is used in hurling. The All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Final is the pinnacle of Ireland’s sport season and the most watched match on the calendar, with more than 80.000 packing Croke Park to crown the best team in the country, but the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship enjoys almost the same buzz. The most dominant sides in both sports come from the provinces of Leinster and Munster, with Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary being considered “the big three” of hurling, while the assortments of Dublin and Kerry are the most successful in Gaelic football.

Players from Tipperary and Kilkenny chase the ball during an All- Ireland Hurling Championship match

Behind these two sports comes finally (association) football, whose fandom is more ingrained in Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland’s national team qualified for the third time for the European Championships in 2016, following presence in 1988 and 2012, and has also been in three World Cups (1990, 1994 and 2002), going past the group stage in every occasion and reaching the quarter-finals on their debut. Roy Keane, the irascible former Manchester United midfielder – and national team captain from 1997 to 2002 – is the most famous Irish footballer, alongside Robbie Keane (no relation), the current captain, all-time top goal scorer and most capped player.

Forward Robbie Keane is Ireland’s top goalscorer of all-time

The Irish football fans are fervent supporters of the national team, always travelling in droves to international tournaments (more than 250.000 have applied for Euro 2016 tickets..), and strongly sympathize with leading British clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool. However, the scenario isn’t as interesting on the domestic League of Ireland, one of the weakest in Europe, with most of the best talents leaving early to earn a living abroad, particularly in England and Scotland. Shamrock Rovers Football Club is the most important team in Ireland, holding a record 17 National Championships and 24 FAI Cups, but that wasn’t an impediment for a staggering 22-year-period (from 1987 to 2009) without a stable home ground, which speaks for the financial frailty of a league with an average attendance of less than 1600 spectators. Also based in Dublin are Shelbourne FC, Bohemians FC and St. Patrick’s Athletic, while Dundalk, the Champions in 2014 and 2015, are the most important side away from the capital region.

The other team sport enjoying widespread popularity throughout Ireland, especially in urban centres, is rugby, with the National Team regularly positioned on the top five in the World and able to get the best of every other squad except for New Zealand’s All Blacks. From the Shamrock’s laurels are part several Triple Crowns (awarded by defeating Scotland, Wales and England in succession) and thirteen Six Nations Championships (the last in 2015), of which two were Grand Slams (conquered by winning all five matches during the tournament). At the Rugby World Cup, Ireland has been tremendously consistent, advancing to the quarter-finals in six of eight tournaments, but never getting past that hurdle. The national team represents the entire Irish Island and eight former Ireland players have earned induction into the International Rugby Hall of Fame, including Brian O’Driscoll, former outside centre, captain and Ireland’s all-time leader in tries scored, widely regarded as one of the best rugby players ever.

Former Ireland’s captain Paul O’Connell lifts the 2014 Six Nations Championship trophy

At the club level, Ireland’s provinces field professional squads that compete with the best in the continent, and those teams have achieved relevant performances in recent years, in part boosted by sell-out crowds in decisive matches. They take part in the Pro12, the annual rugby union competition involving twelve professional sides from Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales – one of the three major professional leagues in Europe along with the English Premiership and the French Top 14 – and due to their performance qualify regularly for the European Rugby Champions Cup, a tournament won by Ulster in 1999, Munster in 2006 and 2008, and Leinster in 2009, 2011 and 2012.

Team sports that possess high popularity around Europe like basketball, volleyball or handball are rather inconspicuous in Ireland, whilst the Irish lineage is found on some eminent American sports stars like former NBA MVP Shaquille O’Neil or NFL quarterback Tom Brady. However, Pat Burke was the only Irish-native to have played in the NBA, suiting up for the Orlando Magic (2002-03) and Phoenix Suns (2005-2007).

Changing directions now, from Ireland’s 28 Olympic medals more than half were conquered in boxing, a sport whose popularity is resurging in the country due to a constant stream of international medals conquered at the amateur level and culminating at the London Olympics in 2012 (more on that on the next section). As for the professional ranks, it stands out former WBO middleweight and WBO super-middleweight champion Steve Collins, who piled up victories during the 90’s.

A Champagne-soaked Darren Clarke (L), Paul McGinley (C) and Padraig Harrington (R) celebrate under the Irish flag after Europe’s Ryder Cup win in 2006.

Set to return to the Olympic calendar in 2016, Golf is not only of major importance on a touristic level, with over 400 golf clubs dotted throughout the island, but also as a competitive sport because Ireland produced several top golfers since the turn of the century. Look no further than Pádraig Harrington, Paul McGinley and Darren Clarke, who achieved significant success internationally and were all part of the European team that secured the 2006 Ryder Cup held at the Irish club of Kildare. However, the best golf talent unearthed in the Island over the last few years is Rory McIlroy, who represents Northern Ireland.

Not as followed but equally relevant for historical reasons is cycling, with Ireland producing two of the leading racers of the 1980’s. Stephen Roche won the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia in 1987, and later that year added the World Championship title to cap an incredible triple crown, while Sean Kelly picked up almost two hundred professional triumphs from 1977 to 1994, including the 1988 Vuelta a España, the green jersey of the Tour de France in four separate occasions and a stunning nine monument classics (3 Giro Di Lombardia, 2 Paris-Roubaix, 2 Milan-San Remo and 2 Liège-Bastogne-Liège).

Cycling legend Sean Kelly represented Ireland in multiple occasions

After Boxing’s sixteen medals, Athletics has contributed with the largest share of Olympic credentials, with six, even if only one after 1984, courtesy of Cork-native distance runner Sonia O’Sullivan, second in the 5000 meters at the 2000 Sidney Olympics. O’Sullivan was also the event’s 1995 World Champion, the highlight of a decade when she was at the top of the pack internationally, whereas Derval O’Rourke was a leading 60m and 100m hurdles sprinter at the European level from 2006 to 2011.

Swimmer Michelle Smith was a triple gold medallist at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games (200m and 400m individual medley, 400m freestyle), to which she still added a bronze medal on the 200m butterfly, and such a haul earmarked her as the most successful Irish Olympian to date, but the results have been tainted with unproven allegations of doping.

Of the five sports that brought back Olympic medals to the Island, we still have to mention sailing, which contributed with silver in 1980, and equestrian sports, conventionally an Irish stronghold. Events such as show jumping, dressage and endurance races are strongly attended, and the excellence is certainly facilitated by a great tradition in breeding and training horses. Some of Ireland’s tracks are also used for greyhound races, since the country also exports racing dogs. Finally, the Irish have also gained notoriety in snooker, even if the biggest names were born and represented Northern Ireland, including the “Hurricane” Alex Higgins.

In terms of winter sports, they are utterly residual in Ireland but the country has managed to send a representation composed of a handful of athletes to every Winter Olympiad since 1992, except for Lillehammer 1994.

Star Athletes

Jonathan Sexton (Rugby)

Johnny Sexton converting a penalty for Ireland during a 2011 World Cup match

The career of Jonathan “Johnny” Sexton has been defined by his ability to rise up when called upon to deliver in key situations for both his country and provincial team. After joining Leinster in 2006, Sexton had to wait patiently for the opportunity to leave his mark and it would come on the biggest of stages: the 2009 semi-final of the Heineken Cup against rivals Munster. Summoned early to replace the incapacitated starter, the fresh-faced fly-half coolly steered his team to the final, and was truly inspired on the decisive encounter, adding 15 of Leinster 19 points – including an outrageous drop goal from the halfway line – to secure his team’s first European title. Two years later, he was once again the man on the spotlight, lighting the field with 28 points to complete a stunning comeback for Leinster and collect a second Heineken Cup, with 2012 fetching a third triumph in four seasons. The composure of Sexton powered the new-found European dominance of Leinster and he was already entrusted as one of the finest fly-backs in the game.

The 30-year-old reign on Ireland’s squad took a bit more to consolidate, since Sexton and veteran Ronan O’Gara, one of the most capped rugby players of all-time, alternated the hold on the Nº10 shirt from 2009 to 2012. Nevertheless, ultimately the position became his and under the Dublin-native’s guidance and masterful play from the back line the Irish collected the 2014 and 2015 Six Nations Championship.

By then, Sexton was already enjoying a lucrative two-year stint for French giants Racing Métro 92, but he has since returned home to pursuit a fourth European Champions Cup and a third Celtic League/Pro 12 victory. With 540 points (including 9 tries) amassed in 61 appearances for his country, Sexton’s passing, defensive expertise and proficiency on spot-kicks have made him almost irreplaceable for Ireland and Leinster.

Katie Taylor (Boxing)

August, 9th, 2012. The Excel Arena in London is brimming as the sea of fans draped in green bellows while a national hero strides towards the boxing rink. Some 450km Northwest, in Bray, on the east coast of Ireland, a crowd can’t control the nerves in front of giant TV screens set around town, expectant to see one of their own deliver Ireland’s first Olympic gold medal in 16 years. A few minutes later, Katie Taylor’s right arm is elevated as the decision is announced and the whole of Ireland explodes. The most outstanding Irish athlete of a generation has added the inaugural women’s lightweight (-60 kg) Olympic title to a plethora of European and World honours, and on her way became one of the faces of the 2012 Olympics as her aura of invincibility was elevated by her raucous, record-setting countrymen.

Katie Taylor and the Irish Flag on the victory lap in London

Born in 1986, Katie Taylor balanced her dreams of staring in both boxing and football for so long that she managed to represent the senior national football team in 11 occasions before hanging the boots in 2009. However, no matter how talented a footballer she was, it was improbable that she could go as far as her boxing career has taken her. In fact, since taking off by becoming an Amateur Boxing European Champion in 2005 and losing in the quarter-finals of the World Championships on the same year, this sport has never been the same. One year later, New Delhi saw Taylor turn into a World Champion for the first time and step into the World Rankings’ lead, and both labels haven’t been relinquished almost a decade later. The 29-year-old’s résumé is composed of a staggering 18 gold medals, 12 conquered in European competitions, 5 World titles in a row, and that Olympic award she will try to replicate at Rio de Janeiro this summer. Instrumental in getting women’s boxing into the Olympic calendar, this is a run of domination few can claim to equal in any sport and inevitably makes the girl from Brady the ultimate flag bearer of Ireland’s sport.

Daniel Martin (Cycling)

Born in Birmingham, England, but representing Ireland since age 20, Dan Martin has carried – alongside his cousin Nicholas Roche – the expectations of a country that followed passionately the sport of cycling in the 80’s. The nephew of Stephen Roche first turned some heads in 2008 by winning the Irish Road Race Championship, but would have to wait for his place at the sun. The first successes amongst the best would arrive in 2010, namely on the general classification of the Tour of Poland, yet 2011 was Martin’s true breakthrough season, highlighted with a triumph on the 8th stage of the Vuelta a España and a 2nd position on the Giro di Lombardia. The Irish rider was quickly establishing a repertoire on hilly, punchy finishes and bumpy one-day classics, and 2012 confirmed his potential both as a future monument winner, with a top-five position at the Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and as top-ten Grand Tour hopeful by virtue of a debut at the Tour de France.

The 2013 Volta a Catalunya triumph preceded the biggest victory of his career, conquered at the Liège, and he was fighting at the Tour de France before an untimely illness cracked his flying chances a few days after winning a stage. This up-and-down path knew more chapters in 2014, with a crushing fall on the roads of Belfast on the initial time-trial of the Giro d’Italia coming right after a devastating mishap on the last meters of the Liège. Rising from the tarmac, Martin gutted out a 7th overall position at the Vuelta a few months later and his luck completely spun on the Giro di Lombardia, ending the year on a high with a famous triumph.

Dan Martin, at the time racing for Garmin-Sharp, crosses the line at the 2013 Liège-Bastogne-Liège

Last year, after no wins and several near-misses on high-profile occasions (including two runner-up finishes at the Tour), the 29-year-old said adieu to his only professional organization, leaving Slipstream/Garmin to join Etixx-QuickStep, where his aggressive, risk taking racing style may thrive even more. At the peak of his physical abilities, Martin should look at the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games as a chance to increase his profile among the Irish public, and the route certainly seems suited to incarnate the role of an outsider for gold.

Other Athletes: Robbie Keane (Football), Mark English (Athletics), Ken Doherty (Snooker), Paddy Barnes, Michael Conlan (Boxing), Fionnuala Britton (Athletics), Robert Hefferman (Athletics), Annalise Murphy (Sailing), Caroline Ryan (Cycling), Nicolas Roche (Cycling), Aileen Reid (Triathlon), Henri Shefflin (Hurling), Sanita Pušpure (Rowing)

Venues

The heart of Ireland’s sport and the country’s largest venue is the emblematic Croke Park in Dublin. Up to 82,300 people (73,500 seated) can watch the biggest events on the calendar, including the All-Ireland Senior Football and All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship Finals, days when the stadium throbs with excitement. Also doubling as the headquarters of the GAA, Croke was first opened in 1884 and experienced the latest renovation in the 90’s, reaching the current capacity, which makes it the third largest stadium in Europe after Barcelona’s Camp Nou and Wembley Stadium, in London. It is, thus, in a place of its own as a venue that isn’t usually used for football, even if in the last decade the rugby and football national teams played there while the Aviva Stadium was being erected. Croke is also sporadically used for concerts, especially since 2007, when floodlights were installed, with local boys U2 (you may have heard of them…) having performed there on four different occasions.

Croke Park brimful on an All-Ireland Championship Final day

Also located in Dublin, the modern Aviva Stadium holds 51,700 spectators since being opened in May 2010 on the grounds of the demolished Lansdowne Road. The former home of the Irish Rugby Football Union opened in 1872 and could welcome 48,000 (36,000 when all seated for football), but the advance of time deemed necessary the construction of a new arena to receive the rugby and football national teams. Therefore, the Aviva Stadium, adorned with a beautiful undulating roof, was assembled and has already received several high-profile events, including Six Nations Championship fixtures’, European and World Cup qualifiers’, the final of the 2011 UEFA Europa League, and the most important rugby matches of Leinster.

Aerial view of the stunning Aviva Stadium

The relatively modest capacity of the Aviva Stadium in comparison with Croke Park has been the subject of some criticism, and the truth is that the new infrastructure pales behind another venue used for Gaelic games, the Semple Stadium, which can accept 53,000 fans, half of them properly seated. The home of Tipperary GAA, a hurling powerhouse, is located in the city of Thurles, part of the province of Munster. Also boasting capacities above 40,000, even if significantly bloated by standing sections, are the Gaelic Grounds (49,500) in Limerick, the Páirc Uí Chaoimh (45,000) in Cork (currently closed for a redevelopment), and the Fitzgerald Stadium (43,180) in Killarney, incidentally all located in Munster and “dual” Gaelic football/hurling venues. The McHale Park, situated in Castlebar, on the province of Connacht, is the second GAA venue by seating capacity, with 38,000 seats.

Scrolling down the list ordered by capacity, the GAA teams dominate as the main tenant of the largest stadiums, with the next football/rugby arena being Limerick’s Thomond Park, where Munster Rugby usually lines up in front of close to 26,000. Meanwhile, their foes of Leinster mainly use the multi-purpose RDS Stadium in Dublin, where sell-out crowds can reach around 20,000 people. Football’s Irish Cup Final was contested there in 2007 and 2008, while the Aviva Stadium was under construction, but originally the venue was built to host show-jumping events, dating back to the XIX century, when the Dublin Horse Show competition was first organized. Today, the stadium’s demountable north and south stands are removed for equestrian occasions.

Munster’s Thomond Park prepares for a rugby match

In terms of racing grounds, the most traditional are the Fairyhouse Racecourse, a premier horse racing venue situated in Ratoath, Country Meat, on the province of Leinster, and Galway Sportsgrounds (capacity 7,500), which doubles as a greyhound racing track and stadium for Connacht Rugby’s matches.

Moving inside, Ireland lacks a state-of-the art national indoor arena, with the 3Arena, a 14,500-capacity amphitheatre located in the Dublin Docklands, functioning as the closest approximation. However, it is not a sports venue but a Music Hall erected on the site of the former Point Theatre, a versatile building that functioned from 1988 to 2007, a period when ice skating, boxing and wrestling events were part of the calendar alongside a multitude of cultural appointments.

The project of the so-called National Indoor Arena – in reality more of an indoor sports campus – based in Blanchardstown, a suburb of Dublin, is in the works, with the final configuration expected to include athletics and gymnastics training centres and multi-purpose sports facilities capable of receiving national and international competitions.

Dublin’s unique National Boxing Stadium on fight night

Nowadays, from the capital’s menu of sports venues deserve nomination the National Boxing Stadium (capacity: 2000) – the only purpose-built boxing stadium in the world – which dates back to 1939, and the National Basketball Arena (capacity: 2500), also known as Tallaght Arena, which is chiefly used by Ireland’s national basketball team. Else, the National Aquatic Centre is the main indoor aquatics facility in Ireland, housing a 50m swimming pool which hosted the swimming events of the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games, the 2003 European Short Course Swimming Championships, and a number of international water polo events.

Yearly Events

As referred early, the most awaited sports events in Ireland are the All-Ireland Senior Football/Hurling Championships, tournaments that are contested throughout the summer and culminate in the finals being held in late summer/early autumn. The hurling decider takes place in the first (or second) Sunday of September at Croke Park, while the correspondent gaelic football encounter is played later in the month, on the third or fourth Sunday. Additionally, the women’s finals (taking into account that camogie is the female variant of hurling) take place on the ensuing Sunday to the men’s correspondent event and are also held at Croke Park.

Football’s main division, the feeble “League of Ireland” is classified as a summer league, with the seasons beginning in March and rapping up in November, while the Pro 12 competition, the rugby league that includes the four professional teams in Ireland (Leinster, Ulster, Munster and Connacht) is disputed between September and May, with an interregnum in February and March for the Six Nations Championship. Ireland’s annual pair (or trio) of home matches for this competition is held at the Aviva Stadium.

For a summary of Ireland’s main sporting events yearly scheduling, look below:

Six Nations Championship, Rugby
Dublin, February and March

Fairyhouse Easter Festival, Horse Racing
Ratoath (County Meath), March

The Irish Grand National is a popular Steeplechase horse racing event held every Easter Monday at the Fairyhouse Racecourse

Irish Open International, Martial Arts
Dublin, March

Irish Open, Golf
Location varies every year, May

Dublin Horse Show, Show Jumping
Dublin, July

The Galway Races, Horse Racing
Galway, July

All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship, Hurling
Dublin, September

All-Ireland Senior Football Championship, Gaelic Football
Dublin, September

Dublin Marathon, Athletics
Dublin, October

Seven (err…twelve) indelible sports moments in 2015

Another year has gone, which means we can now snoop over a bin full of sports memories to cherish and remember. The turn of the calendar is as good a time as any other, so I decided to empty my brain and select what sports fans will take with them from 2015, including instances when athletes overcame their physical and mental limitations, superstars were born or regained some of the respect lost along the way, history books were re-written, or stunning upsets left fans agape.

The screening process was, obviously, enormously dictated by my own preferences (read more about it on the “About” page linked above), and the reader will disagree with a lot of my choices, but I tried to instil as much diversity as possible on the final list. I touched base on a variety of sports, even if, naturally, can’t recognize them all, and searched for a balance between individual and team-based achievements (or failures). An assortment of time frames was also pursued, with the action that enveloped the “moment” being reviewed ranging from a matter of few seconds, to entire matches or even week-long struggles.

I wrote about the seven moments of 2015 that left a deeper mark on my memory and – I believe – in that of the many fans which follow the sports world on a daily basis. In addition, I later appointed five more which also stood out among the numerous monitored live throughout the year.

(By the way, absent is any reference to the heroics of a racing horse on some posh trio of events held in the Spring, or a famous defensive play that occurred with forty something seconds to go on a Championship match that enjoys an unparalleled television audience)

So, without further delay, my breakdown of the main sports moments of the year in no particular order of appearance.

Usain Bolt dodges Justin Gatlin’s challenge

There’s just no way around it. Every time Usain Bolt steps on the track for a major final, the World stops and waits to be amazed. However, before Beijing’s 2015 World Athletics Championships kicked off, the question marks surrounding the Jamaican were at an all-time high since Bolt was unable to surpass a really average (for his standards) 9.87 seconds showing obtained earlier in the year. He was definitely harassed, listening to the same type of discussion produced in 2011 and 2012, when his compatriot Yohan Blake posed a major threat, and rival Justin Gatlin, enjoying a third chance after two suspensions for doping, had been simply outstanding, putting together a 28 races unbeaten streak highlighted by a time of 9.74 seconds and several 9.8 postings.

On the Birds Nest, the American further increased is favouritism with a smashing triumph on his semi-final heat while Bolt had to cover ground on the end just to go through. However, with the stakes at the highest point, the pressure proved too much for Gatlin to handle. Bolt exited the blocks better than expected, and kept the rival in check throughout the race to narrowly defeat a stumbling Gatlin, crossing the finish line in 9.79 seconds. The winning margin was just 0.01 seconds, the tighter victory since Bolt broke through, and more than 0.2 ticks off his World Record (9.58).

Usain Bolt’s patented celebration emerged again in Beijing

The same stadium and city that 7 years ago saw the emergence of a myth wouldn’t see the start of his downfall like many expected, and some days later the 29-year-old doubled down, comfortably sweeping off the speed events with the titles on the 200-meters (with a “normal advantage” over Gatlin) and 4X100 relay. Bolt was ran over by a Segway-ridding cameraman as he was celebrating the double hectometre triumph but, just like during the competition, was able to walk away unscathed.

We’ll see if he can say the same after the Rio Olympics next year, where he’ll fight for a preposterous triple/double collection of gold medals, looking to cap off his legendary career with a third consecutive Olympic triumph on the 100m and 200m events.

Robert Lewandowski nets five goals in nine minutes

Ok, this one is a bit of a cheat, since I wasn’t actually watching the act as it occurred, but following on twitter is close enough, right? A middle-of-the-week league tie, even if contested between the German Champions and the runner-up, can’t be considered appointment viewing, and there was a reason Bayern’s spearhead was on the bench to start the match. However, the half-time disadvantage for the hosts convinced Pep Guardiola that Lewandowski had to go in and the rest is history. Actually, four fresh entries on the Guinness World Records book were added after that night on the Allianz Arena.

The Polish striker needed just five minutes to tie the contest with an opportunistic tip after a superb assist by (former) teammate Dante, and off he was. Two minutes later, and just five touches on the ball in, a creeping shot from distance gave him a brace, and the hat-trick goal soon followed after he buried an attempt that initially found the post. By this time, social media was already exploding with an incredible achievement on a top-level competition, and no one really understood what was happening after the fourth strike in seven minutes!

Pep Guardiola’s reaction to Robert Lewandowski’s wonder night was one of the images of 2015

The fifth, exactly 8:59 min after the ball first found the back of the net, came on a marvellous acrobatic volley from just inside the edge of the box, and became the cherry on top of a remarkable moment for the forward and the sport. Certainly, the type of performance for the ages football fans are lucky to watch once in a lifetime, and an impact substitution not even a master like Guardiola will be able to repeat. Eventually, his face on camera told it all.

As for the poor Wolfsburg side that was on the wrong side of the achievement, well…why did you sign Dante? (Sorry…but not really).

Roberta Vinci shocks Serena Williams at the US Open

Many, if not all, of the events on this list will linger on fans’ minds for a long time, but very few are in the running for the recognition as the greatest upset of all-time on its sport. This one happened because an “undistinguished” 32-year-old Italian decided “to play literally out of her mind” on the biggest stage and moment of them all, and thus spoil part of the legacy of one of the greatest figures in the history of tennis.

So many superlatives? Yes, it was that relevant, that unexpected and, so, so baffling. Serena Williams had already secured three quarters of a lifetime achievement, the calendar Grand Slam, adding her sixth Australian Open, third Roland Garros and sixth Wimbledon to stand on the verge of becoming the sixth human to manage something last seen in 1988. It seemed like a foregone conclusion that only Serena could stop Serena from lifting the trophy at the end of the fortnight on the Artur Ashe Stadium. Eventually, even the top players that could remotely hang on with her were on the other side of the draw (Muguruza, Kvitova, Azarenka, Halep) and dropping like flies.

Roberta Vinci reacts after the match of her life

The American was tested by Bethanie Mattek-Sands and her sister on the early rounds, but was never actually close to losing, and absolutely no one believed Roberta Vinci, the No 43 in the World, could go further than every other Grand Slam adversary in 2015. Serena breezed to take hold of the first set with a 6-2 score line and then the astonishing outcome took form. The crafty, experienced, yet Grand Slam semi-final debutant taking the 2nd set? No reason to panic, Serena had been there countless times before.

Vinci serving for the match? WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE? Can’t, won’t happen, right?

The crowd stood in disbelief as the Italian reached the 40-0 lead and the legend eyed the abyss. Serve, cross-court attack, half-volley…Veni, Vidi, Vinci. The unthinkable had materialized. The pressure weighted too much. A career dream was crushed on the finish line. Forever?

Vinci would lose the final to compatriot Flavia Pennetta the next day, on another emotional encounter, but the story was Serena’s choke. The 34-year-old undisputed Queen of women’s tennis came oh so close and blew it. She didn’t took the court again for a WTA match in 2015, and, even for someone like her, it’s tough to muster the strength to come back and push for the same feat again. If it happens, it would probably be as remarkable as whatever occurred in New York on that September evening.

Katie Ledecky obliterates the competition at the Swimming World Championships

An American dominating an edition of Swimming World Championships is far from a unique circumstance. Michael Phelps took five gold medals from the 2009 meet in Rome and Ryan Lochte equalled the feat in Shanghai 2011, while Missy Franklin stepped it up a notch in Barcelona 2013, gathering six titles. Thus, Katie Ledecky’s performance in Kazan, Russia, last August might be a bit undervalued. Don’t be fooled though.

None of her compatriots had to swim as much as the 18-year-old freestyler on a frenetic week of competitions. No less than 6.2 km, 124 laps, and 63 minutes of racing as she navigated the heats, semi-finals, and finals of four individual events, including the gruelling 800m and 1500m, with the final of the last race, the longest on the calendar, preceding by just 20 minutes a close, highly-competitive 200m semi-final.

Katie Ledecky, the podium, trophies and medals. An acquaintance process in full swing

The Washington DC native kicked off her campaign with the triumph on the 400 meters, with a 3.89-seconds advantage never seen before, but was just getting started, showing clear signs of disappointment at the end after missing out on breaking the World Record. Lauren Boyle, the runner-up on the 1500m, touched the wall almost 15(!) seconds after Ledecky set her second World Record on consecutive days at the distance, and she also smashed the 800m mark by 3.61 seconds and her competitors to the tune of a 10-second gap. Because savouring triumphs on longer events is getting boring, Ledecky has added the 200 meters to her repertoire, and she was also successful despite all the miles on her body, gathering the speed to beat the last two world champions on the race. She, thereby, finished up a sweep of the 200, 400, 800 and 15000 meters free events, or the now called “Ledecky Slam”. Amid all this, anchoring the USA’s 4×200 meters relay win was just icing on the cake.

The four individual gold medals represent a unique feat for a female swimmer on the history of the World Championships, and only trail Phelps’ record of five in Montreal 2007. Back in 2012, Ledecky caught the World by surprise winning London’s 800m as a 15-year-old, and the youngest member of the entire US Olympic squad composed of more than 500 athletes. In 2016, she may well be the singular face of the entire Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games.

Carly Lloyd erupts to take down Japan in 16 minutes

With no FIFA men’s international competition on the calendar in 2015, football’s brightest eyeballs shifted attention to the Women’s World Cup. Another stepping-stone tournament for the sport on the female side saw the USA and Japan clash for the third consecutive time in major competitions’ finals, four years after a dramatic World Cup final in Frankfurt, and three following Wembley’s Olympic decider. On the BC Place of Vancouver, the story ended up being way different from 2011, when the four goals were scored on the latter half of regulation and overtime, before the penalty shootout separated the parts.

Carly Lloyd carried out one of greatest World Cup performances ever against Japan

This time, inside just 16-minutes, the heavily-supported Americans were well on their way to victory after mounting a four-goal blitz that stunned the reigning Champions. Carly Lloyd deflected in a low corner three minutes into the game, and one hundred seconds later found the ball inside the box to chip it past the Japanese goalkeeper for the second time. With the Nadeshiko dazed, Lauren Holiday took advantage of a terrible clear on the 14th minute to dash with an over the top, classy finish, while Lloyd completed the hat-trick with an astonishing strike from the halfway line that beat a reeling Kaihori. Things slowed down a bit after that, with the final result settled at 5-2 because a brave Japanese team never gave up on the match, but the day undoubtedly belonged to the Americans and to Lloyd.

The USA’s #10 midfielder propelled his side to a magnificent start, one rarely watched before at this level of competition, and completely decimated the opposition, leaving her mark on a major final like she had done in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. Her inspired performance throughout the tournament merited the Golden Ball for best player of the tournament, and she will surely welcome another individual accolade in a few days, the FIFA Women’s Player of the Year award.

Fabio Aru and the improbable Tom Dumoulin go head-to-head at the Vuelta

Selecting just a moment from a whole cycling season comprised of numerous races can be a monumental task. Others may answer with Alberto Contador’s epic recovery on the Mortirollo ascent during the Giro, Chris Froome’s irresistible (and much discussed) attack on the climb to La Pierre Saint Martin during the 10th stage of his second Tour de France triumph, or even Peter Sagan’s coup d’état, with the Slovak finally getting the best of an entire peloton to punch a signature victory on the World Championships.

However, I believe no other battle symbolized what cycling racing is about like the up-and-down affair between Fabio Aru and Tom Dumoulin at the Vuelta, which culminated on the Dutch clinging to the dream until the last day, only to see it vanish through the fingers. The Giant-Alpecin rider was the talk of the first half of the competition alongside Colombian Esteban Chavez, with the pair alternating the ownership of the red jersey while in discussion of the plethora of stages culminating on steep terrain, but not many predicted the 25-year-old could keep up with the best as the difficulties accumulated. Not even after a superb victory over Froome at the end of stage nine.

Fabio Aru (white jersey) and Tom Dumoulin (in red) excelled at the 2015 Vuelta a Espana

Dumoulin would lose ground on a diabolic stage 11 at the Pyrenees, but his feverish fighting spirit provided for terrific moments of cycling as he almost strapped himself to the Vuelta GC contenders over the next few days on the mountains, managing to stay within striking distance while all his teammates lagged way behind unable to support him. Fabio Aru would command the race lead until Dumoulin shattered the opposition on the individual time trial at Burgos, turning the overall classification into a 3-second stranglehold between Dutch and Italian.

Despite Astana’s push over the next two days, Dumoulin resisted stoically, even showing his muscles on the cobbled end at Ávila, before finally succumbing in dramatic fashion on stage 20, at the Puerto de la Moncuera, as Aru and friends were getting antsy and frustrated. The Maastricht-native, on his own, completely empty and defeated, sank further on the final kilometres to finish the Vuelta in sixth, but the fortitude and drive he displayed by leaving it all on the road against the odds impressed every observer. And were well worth of a reference here.

Stan Wawrinka ends Novak Djokovic’s Roland Garros bid

A truly significant season for tennis saw two players end the year with three Grand Slam titles on their bags, and it could have been even more incredible had Novak Djokovic joined Serena Williams on the quest to complete the calendar Slam at the US Open. He couldn’t because the only stain on a brilliant 2015 season came in June, at the final of the only big tournament that still eludes the Serbian.

The 27-year-old entered the Court Phillipe Cartier still riding the wave of a drubbing over Rafael Nadal on the quarter-finals, only the second time (and first when healthy) that the King of Clay got beaten at Roland Garros, but also feeling the effects of a nervous five-setter against Andy Murray on the semi-finals. A match where the pressure of clinching the trophy that is missing on his curriculum started opening some cracks on the armour.

Stan Wawrinka came out ahead of Novakj Djokovic at Roland Garros

Like happened to Roger Federer until 2009 – and to other tennis greats that never grasped success at the French Open – Djokovic may have shrunk with the tension and indomitable desire to win he had to cope with, but the final was much more than a favourite throwing out a golden opportunity. Stan Wawrinka had already backed up his candidacy to a second Grand Slam title with a straight sets victory over Federer, and was completely “in the zone” on that afternoon, unleashing his patented one-handed backhand with devastating precision left and right after “Nole” took the inaugural set.

Djokovic had to settle for the finalist’s plaque and a deserved rising ovation from the crowd after a crushing defeat, but snapped out of it pretty quickly. Wimbledon and the US Open would later join his other nine titles amassed in 2015, and that loss to the Swiss was the only in 28 matches at Majors and one of just six during the best season of the Serbian’s career. The setback in Paris just fuelled his hunger for more, and he figures to come back in 2016 even more prepared to complete his own career Slam and equal Nadal and Federer, his contemporaries that figure on a shortlist of just seven names.

And, on a quicker sequence, five more moments that just missed the main cut:

Lionel Messi gets back to marvelling the world

Football fans around the world blessed 2014-15 for the return of the best Lionel Messi. The Argentinian wizard used the motivation after a crushing World Cup Final defeat to power Barcelona to a second treble in four seasons, as the Blaugrana hoarded the Spanish League, the Spanish Cup and the Champions League. Messi’s brilliance was at its peak on two key moments.

First, on a monumental goal against Bayern Munich on the 1st leg of the European Cup semi-final, turning Jerome Boateng into a bowling pin before chipping the ball beautifully over Manuel Neuer. A few weeks later, he embarrassed Athletic Bilbao’s defence on the Copa Del Rey decider with a preposterous slalom which started near the convergence of the sideline and center circle and ended with him slotting the ball home.

The Ski Flying World Record falls twice on a weekend

Slovenia’s Peter Prevc flew like never before at Vikersund

Humanity’s enduring fascination with flying finds resonance on ski jumping and especially its more risky offshoot, ski flying, where athletes really push the limits of audacity. 2015 brought the first jump over the 250 meters barrier, as Peter Prevc flew exactly that in February, 14th, during a World Cup event held in Vikersund, Norway.

The Slovenian broke by 4 meters the mark set on the same venue, in 2011, by Norwegian Johan Remen Evensen, but his reign would be really short. To the delight of the home crowd, Norway’s Anders Fannemel soared 251.5 meters the following evening under perfect conditions and stole the record back. The next few years promise new heights, since Vikersund and the “rival” infrastructure in Planica, Slovenia, have suffered renovations and extensions, so expect more superlative images of sportsman gliding on air for what appears like an eternity. After all, the 300m may be just around the corner.

The Golden State Warriors complete a fairytale season with first NBA title in 40 years

The gang of Stephen Curry had shown flashes of domination in years past, but only after Steve Kerr took over the bench everything clicked into perfection. The Golden State Warriors won 67 games on the NBA Regular Season led by an unique sharpshooter enjoying an MVP-worthy performance, an incredible sidekick (or should I say Splash Brother?) in Klay Thompson, and Mr. Everything Draymond Green, and then weaved through the minefield that are the Western Conference playoffs to reach the NBA Finals.

The 2015 NBA Champions, the Golden State Warriors

Against LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, the most exciting team in basketball conquered the ultimate prize in six fascinating games, undoubtedly benefitting from an opponent that was weakened by substantial injuries to star actors, and had to place too much of a burden on the planet’s best player over the last decade. Nevertheless, with or without the injury bug, no team lighted out arenas all over North America throughout the season like the Warriors, and the series may well be reminisced before long by the passing of the torch from James to Curry as the world’s finest player.

Japan stuns South Africa at the Rugby World Cup

England welcomed what can probably be considered the biggest sports competition of 2015, and beyond the hosts’ lacklustre performance, and New Zealand’s uncontested supremacy towards reclaiming the spot at the top of the mountain, there was time for a completely unexpected result. Rugby’s history places the sport amongst those where the minnows stand lower changes of humbling the giants, whereby Japan’s courage and faith belied the norm and they were deservedly rewarded for it.

The moment Japan dreamed with

On that afternoon at Brighton, the “Brave Blossoms” did justice to their name, deciding to press for the winning try as the final whistle approached instead of settling for a potential equalising kick. The Springboks had already sweated way beyond their expectations to conjure a narrow lead, were left to crawl in order to protect it, but they probably never realized a team with only one World Cup triumph could pull off the tournament’s greatest shock ever.

That is, obviously, until New Zealand-born Karne Hesketh finalised the 34-32 score in injury time, with what looked like a bunch of folks helping launch him forward so the ball could touch South Africa’s area. It was goosebumps-inducing stuff. In 2019, at home, can Japan do an encore, please?

Jamie Benn clinches NHL’s Art Ross Trophy at the buzzer

You really thought I would go away without a hockey reference? At the end of 2014, I had two moments lined up for the “would be” review list of the year, but this season was leaner in worthwhile memories. The Chicago Blackhawks collecting a third Stanley Cup in six seasons was kind of boring (for neutral fans), and the playoffs lacked striking scenes, even if the Hawks and Ducks on the West, and the Rangers and Caps on the East, weren’t far from the level of excitement provided by that Hawks-LA Kings matchup of a year ago.

Thus, my choice was the theatrical and improbable late charge that delivered Dallas Stars’ captain Jamie Benn his scoring title. With his team out of the playoff race, he put up 15 points in the last 6 games to leap John Tavares on the 82th and final contest, grabbing 4 points, including an assist with just 8.5 seconds remaining, to reach 87 on the season. On a game with no implications table-wise, the buzz, voltage and elation on the American Airline Center, as time ticked away and the team pushed for the tally that Cody Eakin ultimately delivered, made for a stunning sports instant that few won’t relish.

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And that’s all I have for you from 2015. Thanks for reading, and let’s hope for even better in 2016!