I started these awards last year because so much happened in the world of sport that we at SKINS care very deeply about. After thinking that 2015 might be about as big as it could get in terms of sports corruption and governance, 2016 didn’t really give any respite – so here we are again!
The big story of the year, of course, was the McLaren Report and its continuing repercussions that extend throughout world sport.
But there have been others as well. For example:
- FIFA only narrowly avoided losing its ‘victim’ status with US and Swiss authorities when they elected the more ‘acceptable’ Gianni Infantino of Switzerland rather than Shaikh Salman of Bahrain. As so many predicted, Infantino has not yet proven himself to be the game-changer that FIFA needs but he’s 30 years younger than his predecessor Sepp Blatter, he smiles a lot and is careful not to upset anyone – and that seems to do for now. However, regardless of who’s in charge, there still should be a way to go in the football story.
- Cycling is never far from the news either and no-one would have predicted at the beginning of this year that Bradley Wiggins, Dave Brailsford and Team Sky would come under such intense scrutiny.
- Did we think we’d know so much about meldonium by the end of this year? It might be something athletes were aware of but the rest of us have had to become rapid armchair experts.
- Of course, there have been big events also with the biggest of the lot being the Rio Olympics. As always, so many athletes thrilled us. The city itself is beautiful and colourful – for some; which is principally the reason why Rio 2016 was also at times chaotic and mired in political and economic controversy; as well as being the focus of security and health concerns.
The SKINS Watercooler awards are merely ‘virtual’ awards, but it’s my way of acknowledging some of the people who I think deserve acknowledgement and warrant our thanks.
Drum-roll please for the 2016 winners!
Team: Leicester City
The ‘underdog’ story to end all underdog stories. In 2014-15, after they had played 29 games, they were in the 20th spot with just 19 points and heading for relegation. One season later after the same number of games, they were leading the Premier League and – while they may have given their supporters a few heart flutters – looked by this stage that they were always going to go on and win it.
What a great example of a ‘never say die’ attitude.
Athletes: Colin Kaepernick
Colin Kapernick decided not to stand for the national anthem at American gridiron games as a means of bringing attention to police violence and injustice as part of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. His protest came after several high-profile police shootings. Was his gestured greeted warmly by American crowds? No. He was booed; he was derided; opposition team management were openly critical and insulting; there were protests against him (and some for him); and he was called ‘unAmerican’ … all of which proved what he was protesting about! However, Kaepernick was joined by other athletes, and it also started a debate – about “privilege, pride and patriotism” which Time magazine had as an excellent cover story in October.
I would have Colin Kaepernick on my team any sport, any time.
Just being there was enough for the supporters of Iceland’s football team at Euro 2016 (which was about 80% of the nation). In what was a successful tournament in my view – I know some football intelligentsia may disagree with this – Iceland supporters were the standout – in terms of their joy, their passion, their commitment, their togetherness. In fact, you almost wonder whether I’m talking about just the fans or the team and the fans. That’s the point: it doesn’t matter.
#TeamIceland was truly one.
The off-the-field awards are specifically focused on those whose efforts have helped make sport even better.
I don’t mean those who swan-around in colour-coded jackets, staying at VIP hotels, flying in private aircraft, never having to pay to see a game of anything, and who have lost touch with what sport is all about. But those who love sport for all the great things it offers and, like SKINS, want to see the true spirit of competition in action. Every time.
- Football – David Conn in relation to Hillsborough. David’s work kick-started Parliamentary inquiries into Hillsborough in 2009. His continuing comprehensive, sensitive and expert coverage of the issue over many years, including the inquest this year, has been exemplary. I hear that David has a book coming out next year on the infamous World Cup bids for 2018/2022, which is sure to be a best-seller.
- South Africa – Graeme Joffe is metaphorically and literally alone as a sports journalist who had the courage to expose corruption and cronyism in what is otherwise an outstanding sporting nation, South Africa. Like so many people prepared to stand-up, Graeme has been vilified and threatened, and was forced to flee his home country to live in the USA. He has written a book about his experiences which I am looking forward to sharing with you when it is published next year.
- Following his great work of 2015, Hajo Seppelt has continued in the same vein with a series of short documentaries this year for Germany’s ARD and France’s Le Monde. Take a look at them here.
- Benjamin Best’s 90-minute documentary entitled Dirty Games covers a range of sport and issues. Read more about it in this review from A/Professor Daryl Adair of UTS and watch the trailer. It’s won a heap of film awards in Europe, the UK and the USA and is now available for purchase.
- Athletics – I named Vitaly & Yuliya Stepanov last year also, but they must be acknowledged again this year as the scale of what they spoke out about has become more widely known and understood.
- Official – The person who played a crucial role in clarifying, explaining and exposing the extent of the Russian doping regime is former senior anti-doping official, Grigory Rodchenkov. He showed enormous courage and took enormous risks to turn whistleblower. He is now exiled in the US and, as always happens when someone dares to upset the status quo, he has been vilified in his home country – never to return.
- International Paralympic Committee for showing leadership and having the guts to ban Russian Athletes from the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. It was the right call; and it was a brave call – and was especially notable in comparison to the weakness shown by the ‘big brother’ IOC. It’s good to see other sporting bodies now making the decision not to hold events in Russia.
- Damian Collins MP, Member for Folkestone and Hythe in the House of Commons for his continuing global leadership on anti-corruption in sport. He thoroughly deserves his appointment as Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee.
And the Platinum Watercooler Award for the greatest contribution to world sport in 2016?
Professor Richard McLaren.
I had the pleasure of meeting him three years ago. He is a quietly spoken, unassuming, thoughtful academic, lawyer and arbitrator who has been involved in advancing clean sport both in Canada and, as we know, internationally.
He has become prominent through the ‘McLaren Report’ that lifted the lid on the state-sponsored doping regime in Russia, but his previous involvement in sport includes as a long-standing member of the Court of Arbitration for Sport; a member of the US committee that looked into the use of steroids in Major League Baseball; and investigation into possible cover-ups by the USA track and field team after Sydney 2000. While he has a corporate law practice, he is also a teacher and mentor to many young lawyers and others who may need legal input to an issue.
Richard would have understood the enormity of the task before him when he started on the investigation on behalf of WADA, as well as the potential implications for athletes, athletics, for sport more broadly, for the major events that took place in 2016 and for sports geopolitical issues. But knowing all that, it didn’t deter him from investigating and delivering a report that was, in the best traditions of the concept, frank and fearless.
Well played Richard McLaren.
Finally, I can’t let 2016 go by without tipping my hat again to The Greatest. He is universally recognised under that title so I don’t need to say who I’m talking about. I wrote about him here in my Olympic series. Rest in peace.
Congratulations to all the SKINS Watercooler Award winners for 2016. Please know that for Team SKINS, you, and others like you, are our inspiration!
Until 2017, à bientôt!