Opinion: In 2016, Sports Provided Needed Escape

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For decades, the sports section was known as the "toy department" of the newspaper, partially because not everyone held sports journalism in the highest esteem (shocking, I know), and partially because the sports pages were filled with entertaining stories of fun and games.

Then came performance-enhancing drugs, free agency, player strikes, owner greed, Munich, Jerry Sandusky, Ray Rice and so much more, and the sports section wasn't always fun anymore. It no longer was an escape from the real world. It had become the real world.

Enter 2016. In this year of all years, when sports escapism seems most necessary, the sports world came through big league. Or is that bigly? Whatever. It returned to its old self at just the right time.

We begin not on Jan.1, but on the evening of Nov.2, passing over to the morning of Nov.3 Eastern time. For 108 years, Chicago Cubs fans had been waiting for this day to arrive, so of course it took two days.

In a majestic Game 7 of the World Series with the Cleveland Indians, the Cubs went up 5-1 in the fifth inning, then lost the lead when the Indians tied it 6-6 in the eighth, then there was a rain delay, then finally, there was victory for the Cubs in the 10th.

From ABBlog: Cubs’ Victory One for the Ages

For all the joy in Chicago, there was sadness in Cleveland, which is on a 68-season World Series title drought of its own. However, Cleveland already was a winner. The Cavaliers, led by hometown hero LeBron James, won the NBA championship four months earlier to bring Cleveland its first major sports title in 52 years.

In a unique twist, both of these massive victories were as much triumphs for the long-suffering fans in those two cities as they were for the players on those winning teams.

Speaking of sports cities that won against all odds, how about Rio de Janeiro? Seriously, who saw that coming? There were fits and starts, for sure, but the 2016 Summer Olympics were anything but a failure.

A few friends from the United States pitched in to help: swimmers Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky and gymnast Simone Biles. Each in his or her own way triumphed far beyond our wildest dreams -- and perhaps theirs, too. There's always a rush to pick the athlete of the year, the Olympian of the year, the sportsman of the year, the sportswoman of the year. Those three? They all were terrific. Let's just leave it at that.

One of the few discordant notes in this sports year grew louder as the Rio Games approached. That was Russian cheating. The depth and breadth of Russia's diabolical plan to win world and Olympic medals while covering up the use of performance-enhancing drugs by its athletes was breathtaking.

It remains the travesty of the year in sports that the International Olympic Committee did not ban the entire Russian Olympic team from the 2016 Games.

But because two-thirds of the Russian team were allowed to compete in Rio, we also were treated to a rare sports profile in courage. It happened rather unexpectedly early in the Olympic swimming competition, when 19-year-old American Lilly King refused to back down from the gamesmanship of twice-banned Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova -- calling her out one day, then beating her for the gold medal in the 100-meter breaststroke the next.

Back at home, winners dotted the landscape. Alabama football was unstoppable. So was Connecticut women's basketball. Villanova's men's team won when it mattered most, on the buzzer-beater of the year.

There were epic retirements that were fitting of this memorable year, led by Kobe Bryant and Peyton Manning, who went out with one last, unexpected Super Bowl title. One of their peers showed up at the very end of the year to remind us he's not done yet. We see you out there on the driving range, Tiger Woods.

It's hard to believe one year contained all this: the Cubs and the Cavaliers, the Broncos and the Penguins, the Crimson Tide, the Huskies, the U.S. Ryder Cuppers and Ledecky, Phelps, Biles and the rest of Rio's winners.

But it did. Thanks, 2016. We needed that.

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December 22, 2016


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