As 2019 comes to a close, there were people, places and events that made a bid impression in this pre-Olympic year. We’ll bring you our top 10 here and next Monday; there are a lot of stories that could have made the cut, but here are no. 10 through no. 6:
● 10: Boxing will go on in Tokyo, but without AIBA for 2020 and beyond ●
Known for decades as one of the most inept of the international federations, the International Boxing Association (AIBA) was pushed aside by the International Olympic Committee, which will itself run the boxing tournament at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan.
After the ridiculous judging at the 2016 Games in Rio, after which all 36 of the judges were suspended two months later, AIBA went from bad to worse. It pushed out its president, IOC member C.K. Wu (TPE) over financial mismanagement that left it deeply in debt, then elected Uzbek Gafur Rakhimov in 2017, who has been identified by the U.S. Treasury Department as involved in international drug trafficking.
The combination of Rakhimov, debt, judging and other issues led the IOC Executive Board to suspend AIBA as the international federation for boxing last May, a decision confirmed by the full membership in June. There is a “roadmap” for redemption for AIBA, monitored by a special IOC working group, but in the meantime, the IOC appointed its own team to operate a series of Olympic qualifying tournaments and the Olympic events in Tokyo in 2020.
AIBA nevertheless held World Championships for men and women in Russia late in the year, dismissed most of its staff, and has called an Extraordinary Congress for next March to revamp its governance procedures and so elect a new president. Is this the beginning of the end for AIBA, or the start of its re-emergence?
What is clear is that the IOC is monitoring the situation closely and appears more than ready to shut the federation out forever, which would require a new body to be formed. Stay tuned.
● 9: Marathon magic from Kenya’s Kipchoge and Kosgei ●
Running history was made on consecutive days in October as two Kenyan stars re-wrote the marathon record books. The first was expected, but the second was not.
Rio Olympic Champion Eliud Kipchoge tried for a second time to run a sub-2:00 marathon in a special time trial, this time in Vienna, Austria, on Saturday, 12 October. The “INEOS 1:59 Challenge” followed up on his 2:00:25 run in a similar time trial at the famed race track in Monza (ITA), but this time was held in a park with the public able to see him and cheer him on.
The conditions were good and Kipchoge was led by rotating teams of pacesetters, who also shielded him from the wind. He was the only one to run the entire distance, and with the special pacing set-up and other aides, the run was not record-eligible. But it was a magnificently-staged time trial and he finished with plenty of speed in a stunning 1:59:40.2, the fastest time ever recorded for the 26.2-mile distance.
Kipchoge also holds the world record, made in an actual race, of 2:01:39 from the 2018 Berlin Marathon, but Ethiopian star Kenenisa Bekele ran 2:01:41 in the 2019 Berlin Marathon, just two seconds short of his mark. Look for them to meet up in Tokyo, with both realizing that the next barrier to be broken will be 2:00 in an open race.
One day later, Kenyan Brigid Kosgei had the idea to challenge the women’s world record of 2:15:25 in the Chicago Marathon. Set by Britain’s Paula Radcliffe in 2003, that mark had been thought almost untouchable and Radcliffe was there as a television commentator (and the world-record holder).
But Kosgei felt good and ran hard from the start, had strong pacesetting help and smashed Radcliffe’s mark by 81 seconds in an unexpected 2:14:04. She won by almost seven minutes and showed that the ceiling for women’s marathoning has hardly been reached.
Two days, two “records,” two favorites for Tokyo.
● 8: U.S. dominates the World Champs, as Caeleb Dessel wins eight medals ●
The United States is the world’s swimming powerhouse and demonstrated it again by winning 27 medals to lead all nations at the 2019 World Swimming Championships in Gwangju, South Korea. But the American team had a different look than in past years.
With U.S. Freestyle superstar Katie Ledecky suffering from a virus, she was overtaken on the final lap of the 400 m Freestyle by Australia Ariarne Titmus, 3:58.76-3:59.97, then had to skip the 200 m Free. She did come back to win the 800 m Free, but in a modest – for her – 8:13.58.
Meanwhile, sprinter Caeleb Dressel, who had won seven golds at the 2017 Worlds, showed that he is going to be one of the faces of the American Olympic team in Tokyo. He smashed Michael Phelps’ world record in the 100 m Butterfly, finishing in 49.50 and went on to win six gold and two silver medals (both on relays) for a total of eight. That’s the most medals ever won at a single World Championships, and he will be able to swim in six of those events in Tokyo in 2020 (the 50 m Butterfly and Mixed 4×100 m Free are not contested).
Dressel won the 50 m Free, 100 m Free, 50 m Fly, 100 m Fly and golds on the 4×100 m Freestyle and Mixed 4×100 m Free relays; he won silvers on the men’s 4×100 m Medley relay and Mixed 4×100 m Free relays.
The U.S. also got four gold medals from Freestyle sprint star Simone Manuel and three golds from Breaststroke queen Lilly King on the was 27 total medals, well ahead of Australia (19) and Russia (16). The American power was shown by its 14 golds, with the Aussies next highest with just five.
● 7: More World Cup magic from Mikaela Shiffrin and Marcel Hirscher ●
One era ended and another continued in alpine skiing, as Austrian star Marcel Hirscher and American Mikaela Shiffrin both repeated as seasonal winners of the FIS Alpine World Cup.
For Hirscher, it was his eighth straight overall title in a row – a record – and capped his brilliant career as he retired at the end of the season at age 30. He won nine races and had 15 total World Cup medals, taking the season title by 1,546-1,145 over France’s Alexis Pinturault.
He finished with 68 career World Cup wins, second among men only to all-time leader Ingemar Stenmark (SWE: 86). He won the discipline titles in Slalom (6th) and Giant Slalom (6th), giving him a total of 20 World Cup championships.
He also won a Slalom gold at the 2019 World Championships, tying countryman Toni Sailor for the most career golds won at the Worlds. He retired in September, with essentially no more goals to conquer.
Shiffrin, 24, is still on the rise and might break all of the records still standing if she remains healthy. In the 2018-19 season, she did nothing less than smash the record for the most wins in a single season with 17, flashing past Swiss Vreni Schneider’s mark of 14 from way back in 1988-89.
The American star won not only the overall title for the third straight year, she also won the discipline titles in Super-G (1st), Giant Slalom (1st) and Slalom (6th). She finished the season with 60 wins, now no. 5 on the all-time World Cup list (and climbing).
Consider this for dominance: in the final six weeks of 2018, she won eight of the 14 races held on the circuit and – at one point – five out of seven in December. And she is still going strong, having won two of the first four races of the current season and medals in an additional four races through mid-December.
● 6. Iranian anti-Semitism sends World Champion Saeid Mollaei to Mongolia ●
One of the truly insidious elements in international sport has been the practice of avoiding, or refusing to contest, games and matches against athletes from specific countries. This has involved Kosovo and Pakistan, but this action is most often taken against Israel.
This flared up into one of the most talked-about incidents of 2019, at the World Judo Championships last August in Tokyo, Japan. There, one of the most anticipated bouts was between reigning World 81 kg Champion Saeid Mollaei of Iran and challenger (and no. 2-ranked) Sagi Muki of Israel.
Both got to the semifinals, when Mollaei was instructed by Iranian officials to withdraw from the tournament in order to avoid competing with Muki. Instead, Mollaei contested his semifinal, but lost in a stunning upset to Belgium’s Matthias Casse. Mollaei then lost again in his bronze-medal match, to Georgia’s Luka Maisuradze. These results ensured that he did not have to stand on the podium as the Israeli flag was raised for Muki’s victory over Casse in the final.
In fact, Mollaei had been threatened and with the assistance of the International Judo Federation, left Tokyo and went to Germany as a political refugee.
While Mollaei was contemplating asylum and possibly competing as a refugee in the 2020 Games, the IJF Disciplinary Commission suspended the Iranian Judo Federation on 22 September from all competitions until “the Iran Judo Federation gives strong guarantees and prove that they will respect the IJF Statutes and accept that their athletes fight against Israeli athletes.”
In early December, it was announced that Mollaei had been granted citizenship in Mongolia and can qualify for Tokyo 2020 under the Mongolian flag.
Iran, meanwhile, remains suspended and the issue was noted in the declaration of the eighth Olympic Summit, hosted by the International Olympic Committee in December:
“[T]he participants expressed serious concerns over the growing politicisation of sport. Examples include: governments calling on athletes and teams not to participate in competition in specific countries; calls for boycotts; the non-issuance of visas for athletes wanting to participate in international competitions; the resistance by organisers to raising particular national flags and to playing national anthems; and the repeated interference of governments in the basic operations of national sports bodies.”
This sends a signal to the Iranians and others that their continued presence in the Olympic Games could be in jeopardy if such behavior continues. That too is noteworthy as 2019 ends and 2020 starts.
Look for our picks for the top five moments of 2019 on Monday! Happy holidays to all of our readers, with thanks for your interest and support.