Before the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year awards on Sunday celebrate the best of 2016, here are our anti-heroes from the sporting world this year
Shortly before the Rio Olympics Lochte gave an interview to GQ in which he said: “Now that I’m more mature, it’s time to focus on the swimming part [of his life] and less on the outside part.” Sadly it turned out he wasn’t more mature after all. He won one relay gold, but also caught the eye when his freshly bleached hair reacted to the chlorine in the Olympic pool by turning a fetching shade of mint green.
If that was a let-down involving his hair, worse was to follow when he let his hair down. After a night out he told an interviewer – NBC’s Billy Bush, later to find himself at the centre of another controversy when a recording of some “locker-room banter” with Donald Trump was leaked – that he had been robbed at gunpoint on a night out in Brazil – “the guy pulled out his gun, he cocked it, put it to my forehead and he said: ‘Get down.’” – when in fact he had got drunk and urinated on and then vandalised a petrol station before fleeing first the scene and then the country.
In the ensuing controversy he was painted not just as a somewhat juvenile young man who got drunk once after four years of total dedication and made a few regrettable decisions – though that was certainly true – but as the epitome of white privilege, which probably had some elements of truth about it as well. “I was highly intoxicated,” he later said, “and I made some immature accusations. If I had not done that, none of this would have happened.”
Still, Lochte’s year has had some redeeming features, such as having a go at Dancing With the Stars (he wasn’t very good) and his engagement to the former Playboy model Kayla Rae Reid, who he met on Tinder in January, wooed by taking her as a first date to a Justin Bieber concert, and who steadfastly remained by his side throughout the fallout of heistgate.
“You kind of felt violated, in a way,” she said of the furore. “Yes, he did let down a lot of Americans, and Brazilians as well, but at the same time, it felt like it was a murder case or something. It was just something completely, I don’t know, catastrophic.”
We tried very hard (quite hard) to find a miscreant to represent the sport of racing on the list but it seems the most badly behaved people at a racecourse this year were also footballers. At the Cheltenham Festival in March a group in the hospitality area were seen – and videoed – relieving themselves into pint glasses while standing on a balcony, and pouring their urine on to the grass below.
MK Dons’ Samir Carruthers and James Collins, now of Crawley but then on loan at Northampton from Shrewsbury, were later fined two weeks’ wages by their clubs and banned from all British racecourses, as were Katie Salmon and Jessica Hayes, two former contestants in the ITV2 reality show Love Island, who were photographed exposing their breasts at the same meeting.
Gloucestershire police described the footballers’ behaviour as “disgusting and thoughtless”, while the racecourse said it was “unacceptable”. Collins admitted his behaviour had “only emphasised the negative stereotype of the modern footballer”, while Carruthers said he had “let down the whole team, my team-mates, everyone”. “I’m really sorry to Cheltenham as well because they let me in and stuff,” he added. “I’ve let the community down and I’ve let Milton Keynes down and I have to take the criticism that comes with it. I don’t want to be known as the idiot that urinated in a pint glass.”
Another urination-related entry, sadly. Aurélie Tourte, the French tennis umpire, lives in Plaisir, the town near Paris whose name translates as “pleasure”. Not, to be sure, the emotion she always arouses in the players whose matches she officiates. At the 2015 US Open Victoria Azarenka, unhappy with her decision-making, asked her if she had ever played any tennis herself. “You did?” she continued, after Tourte responded. “You probably weren’t very good.”
We’ve got no doubt that Tourte is an extremely competent chair umpire, but she earns her spot here because of her role in the unhappy conclusion to a doubles match at Wimbledon in July when, with the score delicately poised at 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 3-6, 8-9, one of the participants, the Uruguayan Pablo Cuevas, asked for a toilet break and Tourte refused, on the grounds that the maximum two breaks had already been taken and you’re not allowed any more no matter how long your match is. The ensuing discussion became heated and ended with the player receiving a code violation and one eyewitness insisting that Cuevas had relieved himself into a ball can – a Wimbledon official later reassured concerned reporters that “no urination was involved”.
Not long later, with the score 12-13, 0-30 in the final set, either Cuevas or his partner, Marcel Granollers of Spain, slammed a ball out of the court in frustration and received a second code violation, resulting in a point penalty and thus three break and indeed match points, and also a sit-down protest lasting more than 10 minutes and another argument, this time with a tournament supervisor.
Eventually, with one of their opponents, Adil Shamasdin, reporting that he now also needed the bathroom and with the threat of forfeiture now hanging over them, the pair resumed and, two points later, lost. “You’ve got to respect the officials, regardless of what’s gone on in the match,” said the victorious Jonny Marray, “but I don’t think the chair umpire handled it correctly either. She tried to tell them to carry on but they wouldn’t do it. I think you should be allowed an extra toilet break if it goes to five sets.”
Even allowing for the fact they actually lost a match, against Ireland in Chicago, the second half of 2016 has been particularly ugly for New Zealand rugby. There was the case of Losi Filipo, initially backed by NZR despite being charged by police for four counts of assault, including two against women and one that involved him allegedly stamping on the head of an unconscious man, described by a judge as “a chilling act of violence” but eventually sacked by his club, Wellington.
And there was the alleged assault on a stripper hired by Waikato Chiefs for their end-of-season celebrations, about which there is nothing remotely humorous except the repercussions for one of the players: “I am well trained in martial arts and I kicked his head into the ground, put his head into a choke hold, kicked him in the genitals and said: ‘You don’t touch me there please,’” that ended with the stripper getting sacked by her agency and the players getting cleared by their club following an inquiry.
Then a family waiting to use a disabled toilet at Christchurch airport while the All Blacks were preparing to leave for a tour of South Africa were surprised when a young woman pushed in front of them, and even more surprised when All Black Aaron Smith followed her into the toilet 30 seconds later. “The pair were inside the bathroom for about 10 minutes and from the noises coming out of the bathroom there was absolutely no question what they were doing in there,” an eyewitness reported. “I myself did not have a problem with this … my wife, however, is protesting that this is disgusting.”
In the aftermath the New Zealand coach, Steve Hansen, said the player’s behaviour was “not of All Blacks standard”, the country’s prime minister, John Key, declared that Smith “has let himself down, and frankly he’s embarrassed himself a bit” and Smith admitted to “a huge mistake, a huge error in judgment” before he headed home prematurely for “breaching team standards regarding behaviour”.
Even before the Olympics began there was talk in the boxing community that corruption of officials was likely, if not inevitable. Then the odd results started: Russia’s Evgeny Tishchenko was booed by an incredulous crowd when he was awarded gold, America’s Gary Antuanne Russell was “robbed” against Uzbekistan’s Fazliddin Gaibnazarov, and Michael Conlan pledged never to box under the Amateur International Boxing Association again following his defeat on a unanimous points decision against Vladimir Nikitin, another Russian.
The Irishman insisted he was “in first gear and I was boxing the ears off him”, while an Aiba spokesman sniffed this was “his personal judgment”, ignoring the personal judgments of everyone else in the arena. At the end of the Olympics an Aiba review concluded that “less than a handful of the decisions were not at the level expected” and Tom Virgets of Aiba blamed Conlan’s fury on ignorant journalists: “I can understand that frustration is heightened when there is a significant amount of media who also believe that he should have won,” he said. “We will continue to evaluate where the media is educated, the coaches are educated as to the criteria better.”
But in October, as they initiated a belated investigation into the handling of the tournament, all 36 of the referees and judges from Rio were suspended. Nearly three months later, the investigation continues.
On the plus side, and it really is a significant plus, Smith won a pommel horse silver at the Rio Games. On the down side, he missed the big Olympic celebrations in London in October and spent the day learning about the British Muslim community instead after he and the former gymnast Luke Carson appeared to mock the religion in a video widely shared on social media. He described his actions, for which he received a two-month ban from British Gymnastics, as “incredibly offensive and very ignorant”.
The 27-year-old also claimed that one key reason for his juvenile behaviour was that “I haven’t had the chance to act like an idiot before as I’ve been so busy”, but eventually became genuinely apologetic. “I’ve worked my whole career to make people proud of me and I’m ashamed to have let everyone down,” he said, adding: “I spoke to my mum for two minutes and said sorry to her as well.” That’s right, two minutes. That’s the kind of dedication that takes you to Olympic glory.
The Aston Villa striker and former club captain gave us perhaps the least distinguished season in the history of Premier League football as his team slumped out of it, and has failed to redeem himself since. So far in this calendar year he has started six games, scored one goal, been stripped of the captaincy, been booked once, and been the subject of one club inquiry after he was photographed smoking from a shisha pipe during a holiday in Dubai, and almost immediately another after photographs emerged of him, hours after Villa’s relegation was confirmed, apparently downing shots of alcohol in a London hotel room strewn with used vials of laughing gas.
Then in April he was placed on a two-week fitness regime after reporting a stone overweight, and by October there had been so little improvement in his condition that he was put into a six-week fitness regime. Since then there appears to have been something of a transformation, with Agbonlahor losing over six kilos in those six weeks and returning at least to the fringes of the Villa team. “He’s desperate to go and prove that he’s got something to offer,” says Steve Bruce. It’ll take a lot more hard work for his reputation to recover from the horrors of 2016.
It’s been a relatively good year for Fifa, who brought the Sepp Blatter era to a definitive close when they elected a new president in Gianni Infantino in February. The new man at the big desk has proved a fairly steady pair of hands, though his predilection for private aeronautics did land him in hot water. “I came with easyJet today because it was the best option,” he said on arriving in Cardiff via Bristol airport for the International Football Association Board AGM in March. “I always take the easiest and best option.”
It turned out that the easiest and best option when he looked into getting home from the Champions League final was to fly with his wife and mother on his own plane to Rome for a meeting with the Pope and then take the jet back to Geneva again. Fifa’s ethics committee investigated and were happy enough to absolve him of blame.
Enough of the bad news, though. On the positive side, Infantino has proposed expanding the World Cup to 48 teams, very nearly a quarter of their total membership of 211 nations and another happy step on the way to complete inclusivity (Anti-Spoty proposes a single two-leg play-off to bring the number down to a more manageable 210, followed by a final tournament consisting of 42 five-team groups, from which the winners and the 22 best runners-up progress to the first of six knock-out rounds, for a broadcaster-friendly total of 484 fixtures including the third-place play-off).
But Fifa’s very finest achievement of 2016 was to finally cure racism, allowing them to disband its anti-racism task force on the grounds that it had “completely fulfilled its mission”. Which was nice.
Since signing for Southampton for £12.8m in 2013 nothing has quite gone as planned for the controversy-courting Argentinian striker, whose spell at St Mary’s lasted 166 days, until he head-butted his captain, José Fonte, in training and was told to leave again. For all that, nothing quite prepared the world for what was to come this year, particularly given that it started with him returning to Argentina to sign for Boca Juniors, the club of his juvenile dreams and where he had spent an often eventful but not unsuccessful (seven goals in 16 games) loan spell last year.
Having learned from experience – last year he turned up at the airport sporting a River Plate-baiting T-shirt – he demonstrated what the Argentinian newspaper La Nación referred to as “a commitment to good behaviour” by avoiding public statements on his return, but this commitment was not to last long. Among the things he did not avoid were arguments with his long-term on-off partner, the singer and actress Jimena Barón, who accused him of verbal abuse, and the taking and sending of a couple of nude selfies which ended up on Twitter.
In May, having just returned from two months out with a foot injury, he travelled to Uruguay for the first leg of a Copa Libertadores quarter-final against Nacional, was given only a place on the bench, spent much of the game arguing with his coaches, and when he finally came on with six minutes to go and the teams tied at 1-1 failed to make a significant impact. At the final whistle he disappeared straight down the tunnel, ignoring both team-mates and supporters, and when the rest of the squad returned to the dressing room they found him smoking a cigarette in the toilet. When his coach, Guillermo Barros Schelotto, told him to put it out, he suggested a creative and impolite method of doing so, and was promptly sacked.
His second spell at the club featured 322 minutes of action and no goals. He has since turned his back on football altogether – only a minor downgrading of his commitment to sporting excellence, really – and dedicated himself to music. “I loved playing football, and I was lucky enough to do it with Boca Juniors, the club of my heart,” he said. “Now I’m realising this dream, and I’m happy.”