Saturday, December 29, 2012

A sports-writer's year, part 2

Continuing a look back on the excuses I gave for not being a better parent in 2012...

May To Belgrade, where Britain's rowing squad won 12 medals in the season's first World Cup (and where they were distracted at the start line by the presence of a nudist beach, populated as they always seem to be only by fat middle-aged Serbian men); then my first and only visit to the Olympic Stadium, where Hannah Cockroft, despite various transport traumas that meant she had no time to warm up before a Paralympic test event, became the first athlete to break a world record in the arena.

I had that rarity for me of a scoop, in which a high-up bod in the IOC told me that there were big worries about transport chaos at the Olympics (which turned out to be unfounded) and slipped in a bit of county cricket reporting, before heading to Lord's for the Test match against West Indies.

Shoehorned a West Wing reference into a piece on James Anderson and asked why all West Indies fast bowlers sound like they are named after Dorset villages. Whatever happened to Shannon Gabriel? Also wrote a piece about cricket and Kenneth Clark's Civilisation. Probably didn't work for most people but I get bored by the straight up and down cricket pieces in other papers.

The month ended with more county cricket, but before that there was a trip to Lucerne for the second rowing World Cup, where the men's four smashed the world record. A good omen, but with 18 different countries winning medals in the end, it suggested the Olympic regatta would be an open affair.

June Began the month away from sport, doing a feature behind the scenes at In The Night Garden Live, the stage show for toddlers, but then it was off to Munich for the final rowing World Cup before the Olympics. The men's four lost to Australia, which boded well since, curiously, Jurgen Grobler's Olympic gold-winning crews, going back to 1992, have never won at the final regatta before the Games. The reason why they do so well, I explained in a feature a week later, was down to Jurgen's Alpine boot camp.

I was at the Oval for the one-day international, but the focus wasn't on the cricket. Instead, there was a sombre mood in memory of Surrey's Tom Maynard who had tragically died that week.

Then came Wimbledon, where I was on plucky Brit watch for the first few days. James Ward showed flashes of brilliance (this would be the last we'd hear of him in 2012), and Heather Watson looked instantly at home on Centre Court. I saw Caroline Wozniacki lose in the first round and sat next to the man from the Mail in her press conference as he tried a couple of times to get her to blame it on Rory McIlroy, and put cheese in my ears to block out Victoria Azarenka's squawking.

July Week two of Wimbledon seemed to be all about the Germans for a while, but normal service was resumed. I was on Centre Court for a magnificent semi-final between the ever-so-slightly smug Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic and was back to hoover up the sidebars for the final, where Federer beat Andy Murray.

A flying visit to a cricket match in Canterbury was followed by the drive up the M6 to Blackpool for the Open Championship. I wrote preview pieces on Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods and Luke Donald, but the interview I remember most was with Greg Owen, a journeyman pro who had briefly led the Open when it was last at Lytham but now, aged 40, sat outside the world's top 200. After back surgery and near-misses galore, he came through qualifying with a final round of 61 to reach his first major for six years and made the cut.

I was sent out to report on the last group of Adam Scott and Graeme McDowell on the final day, but Scott choked and McDowell never got going, handing the title to Ernie Els. And so we headed towards the Olympics, with people still saying it was going to be a huge failure and Tom James, the GB bow man in the four, suddenly missing training with a heart issue. Eep.

The regatta at Dorney began with New Zealand's men's pair smashing Matthew Pinsent and James Cracknell's world record, but the British crews progressed easily enough through their heats and hearts were warmed by the remarkably slow progress of Hamadou Djibo Issaka, dubbed the sculling sloth from Niger.

August A magical month, so hard to precis. Helen Glover and Heather Stanning won Britain's first gold; the men's eight almost sacrificed a bronze medal in a push to try and get gold; the lightweight men's four were pipped to silver by South Africa; emotions overflowed as Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins won gold and as Alan Campbell got Britain's first medal in the single scull for 84 years; Kat Copeland and Sophie Hosking and then the men's four completed the regatta with two more golds.

So that was week 1 of my Olympics, just the nine GB medals to witness, and more was to come down at Weymouth, where I saw Ben Ainslie win his fourth gold and Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson just knocked into second place in the Star by a cruel late gust. More silvers followed for Nick Dempsey in the windsurfing and for the men's and women's 470 classes. The contrasting reactions of Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark, gutted with their second place, and the jubilant Luke Patience and Stuart Bithell suggests the girls may have the determination to do better in Rio.

And that, I thought, was that for my Olympics, except at the death there was a delightful twist, an unexpected mission to cover modern pentathlon in Greenwich Park, where I saw Samantha Murray win Britain's final medal of the Games. Great sport, modern pentathlon, shame we only ever cover it once every four years.

But this marvellous month was only half-over. I had a eulogy to write on Sid Waddell and then the whole Kevin Pietersen farce, an unwelcome backdrop to an interesting Lord's Test, defeat in which cost England their No 1 ranking.

No time for days off, amid pieces on Thatcher, London Zoo and previews of the Paralympics, I ended the month back at Lord's, where Andrew Strauss announced that he was standing down as England captain. His press conference ended in spontaneous and heartfelt applause from the normally cynical press, who genuinely regretted his departure. It was a month of emotion and strange happenings, but September would bring some even more extraordinary stories...

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