Courage was the key word on the international sports scene in 2019.
Competitive courage, like the grit alpine skier Lindsey Vonn showed in making her final race a triumphant World Championships downhill bronze medal only five days after her landmark career seemed on the verge of ending with yet another frightening crash.
Emotional courage, like two-time U.S. champion Gracie Gold’s decision to pursue a figure skating comeback on her own terms while battling the mental health issues that seemed to have ended her career in 2017. Or one-time running phenom Mary Cain’s decision to go public with allegations of psychological and physical abuse against a sulfurous coach, Alberto Salazar, and others at the since-disbanded Nike Oregon Project running team.
Ethical courage, like the perennially outstanding U.S. women’s soccer team pushing a suit for pay equal to that of the perennially underachieving men despite the potential for having the issue become a distraction before and during the 2019 World Cup.
Moral courage, like soccer national team captain Megan Rapinoe speaking out for gay (and human) rights and giving a verbal smack down to the sulfurous U.S. President in her insistence before the World Cup that she would not be going to the “[expletive deleted] White House” if the team was invited,
But there was, as has often been the case, another “c” word prominent in international sport again in 2019.
Russia added another chapter to its interminable doping story with revelations that it had apparently tampered with and/or altered Moscow anti-doping lab data before turning it over to the World Anti-Doping Agency. Once again, it risks going to another Olympics as a no-name country – or one that should have SHAME in the place of a national logo.
Kenyan distance runners continued to get busted or provisionally banned for doping offenses – nearly 50 at present, according to insidethegames.biz.
The Kenyan question affects what follows in this column, Globetrotting’s 33rd annual international sports awards to athletes for whom an Olympic gold medal is the ultimate prize.
That caveat about the highest goal and the development of the World Cup into the most important event in women’s soccer means Team USA’s brilliant championship performance in France, with Rapinoe the high scorer (Golden Boot) and best player (Golden Ball), is outside the parameters applied since I began these awards in the pages of the Chicago Tribune.
But it goes without saying that the soccer team deserves a loud shout-out.
And now the medalists:
WORLD MEN’S ATHLETES OF THE YEAR
Gold – Caeleb Dressel, United States, swimming. At the 2019 worlds, Dressel won six gold medals (five in events on the Olympic program, four in individual events) and two silvers (one in an Olympic event.) In the process, he broke Michael Phelps’ 10-year-old world record in the 100-meter butterfly, his own U.S. records in the 50- and 100-meter freestyles and the meet record as part of the 4 x 100 free relay.
Silver – Nathan Chen, United States, figure skating. While a full-time student at Yale, Chen won a third straight U.S. title, a second straight world title and a third straight Grand Prix Final title with six flawless performances that got progressively more remarkable, reaching a level of extraordinary brilliance. No previous U.S. man ever had won two GPF titles, and none had won consecutive world titles since Scott Hamilton’s fourth straight in 1984.
Bronze – Marcel Hirscher, Austria, alpine skiing. He etired at age 30 after having won a record eighth straight World Cup overall title, three more than anyone else; his sixth season titles in slalom and giant slalom; and nine races, giving him a career total of 67, second best in history. Hirscher also won gold (slalom) and silver (giant) at the 2019 World Championships.
WORLD WOMEN’S ATHLETES OF THE YEAR
Gold – Simone Biles, United States, gymnastics. The most dominant athlete in her sport’s history, Biles could have kept winning world titles with the same repertoire of tricks. But in winning her fifth all-around world title as well as 2019 world golds in team, vault, balance beam and floor exercise, becoming the most gilded and decorated gymnast in worlds history, Biles included two new and ridiculously difficult moves.
Silver – Brigid Kosgei, Kenya, marathon. In an era when all jaw-dropping performances in distance running are questioned, Kosgei delivered one at the Chicago Marathon, and it deserves recognition. Her winning time of 2 hours, 14 minutes, 4 seconds lopped 1 minute, 21 seconds from the 16-year-old, oft-questioned world record set by Great Britain’s Paula Radcliffe. Kosgei also won the London Marathon in 2:18.20, joining Radcliffe and Tirunesh Dibaba of Ethiopia as the only women to have run two sub-2:20 marathons in the same year.
Bronze – Mikaela Shiffrin, United States, alpine skiing. Shiffrin won her third straight World Cup overall and slalom season titles (her sixth slalom title in all) and her first in both giant slalom and Super-G. She won world championship golds in slalom and Super-G. Her record-breaking 17 World Cup race wins (2018-19 season) included three in Super-G, making her the only alpine skier to win in all six disciplines currently contested on the circuit. Her 63rd World Cup career win in the penultimate race of 2019 (followed a day later by No. 64) left her second only to Lindsey Vonn (82) among women.
U.S. MEN’S ATHLETES OF THE YEAR
Gold – Caeleb Dressel (see above)
Silver – Nathan Chen (see above)
Bronze – Christian Taylor, track and field. His event, the triple jump, may not command attention, but Taylor should for the way he commands the event. Eight years after becoming at age 21 the youngest world champ in the triple jump, Taylor won his fourth world title, double the total of anyone else in history. He seeks a third straight Olympic gold next year.
U.S. WOMEN’S ATHLETES OF THE YEAR
Gold – Simone Biles (see above)
Silver – Mikaela Shiffrin (see above)
Bronze – Simone Manuel, swimming. Manuel won a second straight world title in the 100 free with a U.S. record time (52.04), her first world title in the 50 free and swam anchor with her fastest split ever as the U.S. won gold in the medley relay in world-record time. Her overall 2019 worlds medal count: 7, most ever by a woman.
WORLD MEN’S PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR
Gold – Eliud Kipchoge, Kenya, marathon. In a contest more contrivance than competition, the 34-year-old Kipchoge became the first to break two hours in the marathon. He covered the distance on a Vienna, Austria course in a time, 1 hour, 59 minutes, 40 seconds that was historic but will not count as a world record (he has that at 2:01:39) because it was a time trial, not a race, in which a pack of professional pace-setters aided his effort. Kipchoge will forever be known as a barrier-breaker with an asterisk*.
Silver – Mutaz Barshim, Qatar, track and field. He was the home-town hero high jumper at a World Championships foisted upon a home town that could have cared less about it. Some Qataris finally showed up at the Doha stadium to watch Barshim, who had overcome a career-threatening ankle injury from 2018, become the first man to win consecutive world titles in the event.
Bronze – Great Britain men’s medley relay, swimming. Anchor Duncan Scott overtook the favored USA with the second fastest relay split in history, and the Brits set a European record for their first world title in the event.
WORLD WOMEN’S PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR
Gold – Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, track and field, Jamaica. After missing the 2017 worlds while giving birth to her first child, Fraser-Price, 32, won the 100-meter world title in 10.71 seconds, matching the fastest time in the world since 2017. It made her the first to win four world titles in the event.
Silver – Dalilah Muhammad, United States, track and field. At the U.S. Championships in June, Muhammad’s time of 52.20 seconds in the 400-meter hurdles lowered the 16-year-old world record by .14. She dropped it again (to 52.16) in winning the world title.
Bronze – Regan Smith, United States, swimming. Became the first woman to go under 2 minutes, 4 seconds in the 200-meter backstroke with a tine of 2:03.35, breaking a seven-year-old world record, in the semifinals at the World Championships. Went on to win the event and break the 100-meter world record leading off the victorious medley relay.