Top Olympic sports stories of 2011
Usain Bolt's false-start DQ in the 100 at the world championships was a letdown
Swimmer of the year Ryan Lochte got the best of Michael Phelps at the worlds
Jordyn Wieber, 16, dazzled; Lindsey Vonn narrowly missed another World Cup title
1. Bolt disqualified. It was a bit like seeing Old Faithful oversleep or Big Ben lose track of time. At the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, in August, Jamaica's Usain Bolt, the Olympic champion and world's fastest man, false-started and watched the final of the men's 100 meters from the sidelines. In his absence, Bolt's 21-year-old teammate, Yohan Blake, won the race in 9.92 seconds (Blake would follow up a few weeks in Brussels by running the second-fastest 200 in history, .07 seconds behind Bolt's record of 19.19). But a sprint race without Bolt is really Christmas without Santa. His explosions out of the blocks are among the few athletic viewings that can leave spectators in awe. Instead, his mistake left the running world in a state of aw-shucks.
2. Lochte looks like a lock. Never count Michael Phelps out of anything, especially in an Olympic year, but for 2011, his U.S. teammate Ryan Lochte cemented himself as the world's top swimmer. Lochte won six medals, including five golds, at the world championships in Shanghai in July. In the 200-meter individual medley, Lochte surpassed Phelps, the defending Olympic champion, to win the event in a world-record 1:54.00, just .16 seconds ahead of Phelps, who dominated the event throughout most of his career. Lochte had also finished .35 seconds ahead of Phelps to win the 200-meter freestyle, another event in which Phelps won gold at the Beijing Games. With his performance, Lochte took honors as swimmer of the year as named by Swimming World and FINA Aquatics World magazines. He also won the Golden Goggles award as the top male swimmer in the U.S. for 2011.
3. Wieber doesn't wobble. Though she was merely a rookie in senior-level competition, Michigan's Jordyn Wieber, 16, established herself as the early Olympic favorite by winning the all-around title at the world gymnastics championships in Tokyo in October. Despite some mistakes on bars and floor, Wieber became the sixth American to win the world title. She also led her team to gold and took home a bronze in the balance beam. Leading up to Japan, Wieber had edged 2010 world champion Aliya Mustafina of Russia to win the American Cup title and captured the U.S. national all-around crown by a full six points. Following the gold-medal efforts of Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin at the last two Olympics, Wieber may well give the U.S. a three-peat in London.
4. The long run. Even with an encyclopedia, it may not be possible to keep up with what constitutes a world record or world best or merely a really fast time that doesn't count for anything official in the marathon. So simply say this for the 2:03:02 that Kenya's Geoffrey Mutai turned in on April 18 in Boston: It was possibly the greatest marathon ever run. While Mutai's time stands as the fastest in history, it cannot be considered an official world record because the Boston course has an elevation drop of roughly 450 feet from the start in Hopkinton to the finish in downtown Boston. Still, anyone who has run or been around the race knows that the particulars of the course -- unnecessary downhills at the start and demanding uphills, including the so-called "heartbreak hill," over the last portions of the race -- make it more difficult than many that are flatter, faster and legal for record purposes.
5. Alpine rivals. Germany's Maria Hoefl-Riesch and the U.S.' Lindsey Vonn are such fast friends that they sometimes vacation together. They are also such fast alpine skiers that they often chase each other down the slopes with big prizes at stake. The race between them for the overall World Cup title in 2011 was filled with drama -- but had an anticlimactic finish. Riesch ultimately topped the standings with 1,728 points to 1,725 for Vonn, after the season-ending giant slalom was canceled because of dangerous course conditions. The American, who had was the top racer the previous three years, took home individual season titles in the downhill, super-G and combined events. The German actually failed to collect individual season titles in any of the five ski disciplines, but was remarkably consistent in all of them, placing second behind Vonn in the downhill and super-G and third in both the slalom and combined.
6. China makes no splash. China's divers are so far ahead of the world on the springboards and platforms that it is nearly only news when they don't blow their competition out of the water. But they were simply overwhelming before their home fans at the world championships, sweeping all 10 gold medals in commanding fashion. Wu Minxia and He Zi rolled in the women's synchronized 3-meter springboard event by a whopping 40 points. In fact, with two entries per event allotted each country, it took until the sixth day of competition before a non-Chinese diver managed to sneak in for as much as a silver medal, when Russia's Ilya Zakharov took second, behind champion He Chong.
7. Knight in shining armor. It took until 7:48 of overtime for the U.S. team to top bitter rival Canada 3-2 in the final of the women's world ice hockey championship in Zurich in April. Wisconsin star Hilary Knight scored the winner for the Americans, who have faced Canada in the finals of each tournament since the championships were first held in 1990. Knight won her fourth world medal, including her third straight gold with the U.S. team even though she was just 21. She led the tournament in goals (five), assists (nine), points (14) and plus-minus rating (+11).
8. Digging deep. With the sustained success of Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh on the sand, the U.S. women's indoor volleyball team has taken a back seat for years. The Americans have never won volleyball gold on the court at either the Olympics or world championships. But in 2011, the U.S. supplanted Brazil as the world No. 1, repeated as World Grand Prix champion and finished second at the FIVB World Cup. The team has a chance to break its drought at the Olympics next summer. The MVP of the Grand Prix competition was Destinee Hooker, who could just as easily be looking at an Olympic berth in a different sport. When she left track and field in 2009, Hooker, a four-time NCAA champ, was ranked No. 3 in the country in the high jump.
9. USOC on track. For years, the USOC's changing leadership and some of the committee's ill-conceived decisions hurt the country's interests within the international sporting community. In particular, the bids of New York and Chicago to host the Olympics in 2012 and 2016 were damaged by the committee's poor standing with IOC members, and U.S. candidates were consistently overlooked for positions as heads of international sports governing bodies and members of working committees. The USOC's decision to pursue its own television network, against the warnings of the IOC, drew rebukes from Lausanne and beyond. But over the past few years, the steadying hands of CEO Scott Blackmun and chairman Larry Probst have healed many wounds and improved international relations. Negotiations over revenue sharing from U.S. television rights are ongoing, but a resolution could be a critical step in calming years of animosity.
10. NBC retains rights. After Comcast's acquisition of NBC earlier this year, the bidding for U.S. television rights to broadcast the next few Olympics was uncertain. But the network that has aired the Olympics in the United States since 2000 outbid ABC/ESPN, CBS and Fox to win the rights to show the Olympics through 2020, when the host city is still unknown. Comcast bid a reported $4.38 billion, or roughly a billion more than Fox, for the rights to host four Olympics, including those in Sochi, Russia; Rio de Janeiro; and Pyongchang, South Korea.