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Winter Olympics, World Cup Dominate Year in Sports

  • David Byrd

Italy captured football's (soccer's) World Cup, Roger Federer dominated men's tennis, Tiger Woods overcame sadness to rule the golf course, and drugs and scandal tainted the sports world. As VOA's David Byrd reports, 2006 will be remembered as a year of contrasts, between the sublime, the sickening and the sad.

The World Cup and the Winter Olympics highlighted sports in 2006, with Italy beating France in the World Cup final to take the coveted trophy for the fourth time. The most lasting memory of the tournament will probably be French star Zinedine Zidane's head-butt of Italian player Marco Materazzi in the final. Zidane was ejected, and after regulation and extra time ended at 1-1, Italy won the game in a penalty shoot-out (5-3).

Spanish football club Barcelona won the European Champions League with a 2-1 victory over England's Arsenal, but Barcelona was upset by South American champion International of Brazil, 1-0, in the Club World Cup played in Yokohama, Japan.

In February's Turin Olympics, Italy hosted the world in a successful Winter Games. Figure skating recovered from the 2002 corruption scandal by using a new points system. Russian Yevgeni Plushenko won the men's title, but the big surprise was Japan's Shizuka Arakawa, who won the ladies' gold medal by passing American Sasha Cohen and world champion Irina Slutskaya of Russia.

American Shani Davis became the first black athlete in Winter Olympics history to win an individual gold medal, taking the men's 1,000-meter speedskating race. He said he was proud to be a trail blazer.

"Things were not easy for me. And I just kept on fighting because I knew deep down inside that I was a good skater," said Davis. "I just wanted to be one of the best skaters and now I am happy that I can have that title on my name - you know - Olympic champion. That is a great thing."

Another American speedskating medalist, Joey Cheek, made headlines when he donated all of his $40,000 in bonus money to the humanitarian organization Right to Play, earmarked to help thousands of Sudanese children who are refugees in Chad.

Upsets highlighted the Turin men's ice hockey tournament, and Sweden beat Finland to take the gold. Austrians dominated the ski slopes, taking 14 medals. Austrians also captured one-half of the alpine skiing World Cup titles in the 2005-2006 season.

On the tennis courts, Roger Federer took his first of three Grand Slam titles at the Australian Open with a four-set win over Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis. The Swiss world number-one also won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, but lost to Spain's Rafael Nadal at the French Open.

Federer became the first player to win both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in three consecutive years. He won 12 tournaments in 2006 with a remarkable match record of 92 wins and only five losses.

In women's tennis, Amelie Mauresmo of France captured two majors - the Australian Open and Wimbledon, but Justine Henin-Hardenne of Belgium took the French Open while Russian Maria Sharapova won the U.S. Open.

Andre Agassi's farewell to the game overshadowed Federer's title run in New York. After a 21-year career, Agassi decided he would leave the game and told a cheering U.S. Open crowd he would never forget them.

"Over the last 21 years I have found loyalty, I have found inspiration, and I have found generosity," said Agassi. "Over the last 21 years, I have found you, and I will take you and the memory of you with me for the rest of my life. Thank you!"

Agassi was not the only athlete to bid goodbye to competition this year; seven-time world driving champion Michael Schumacher of Germany also retired after making a late-season run at the Formula One title with Ferrari. The German finished the season 13 points behind Spaniard Fernando Alonso, who won the season's championship for the second year in a row.

The golf courses belonged mostly to American Tiger Woods in 2006, even though the world number-one lost the Masters to compatriot Phil Mickelson and missed the cut at the U.S. Open. Tiger weathered the death of his father Earl and emerged stronger late in the year, with a six tournament winning streak. He won nine tournaments in all, including the British Open and the PGA, and took two of the four World Championship events.

Tiger says he felt his Dad's absence, especially when he won.

"Most people when they lose someone, they can go to the job and get away. For me it brought back every single memory with my dad," he said. "He taught me so many different life lessons in the game of golf. And I miss him. And so that was a process I had to go through."

But not even Tiger could help the U.S. team end its Ryder Cup slump - Europe kept the cup by easily beating the Americans (18 1/2 points to 9 1/2 ) at the K-Club in Ireland.

In women's golf, Mexico's Lorena Ochoa emerged as the player to beat, winning six tournaments and capturing the Player of the Year award. That ended the five-year reign of Sweden's Annika Sorenstam. In addition to her six wins, Ochoa had five runner-up finishes and 19 top-10 finishes in her other 24 starts.

American cyclist Floyd Landis took the Tour de France title with a remarkable comeback late in the race. But his celebration was short-lived. Landis tested positive for high levels of testosterone and Tour organizers say they no longer consider him the champion. His appeal is still pending.

In the other big stage races, Italian Ivan Basso won the Tour of Italy and Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan won the Tour of Spain.

Drugs also knocked World and Olympic champion sprinter Justin Gatlin off the track. The men's 100 meters champion in Athens tested positive for steroids in April and was banned for eight years. His case is under appeal. His superstar American compatriot Marion Jones successfully fought off drug allegations when her second sample did not test positive for an endurance-boosting drug.

Baseball slugger Barry Bonds also continued to fight doping allegations. A book published by two San Francisco reporters charged Bonds systematically used steroids to enhance his performance. The book included secret grand jury testimony and its authors were later cited for contempt of court for not revealing their sources. Their case is pending.

On the field, Bonds passed the legendary Babe Ruth in the all-time home run standings, ending the season with 734 career homers, just 21 behind all-time leader Henry Aaron.

The St. Louis Cardinals had the worst record of the eight Major League Baseball teams that made the playoffs, but they won the World Series, beating the Detroit Tigers in five games. It was the Cardinals' first World Series crown since 1982. Japan won the inaugural World Baseball Classic, beating Cuba, 10-6. The United States was eliminated by Mexico, despite boasting a roster of Major League stars.

Dwayne Wade and Shaquille O'Neal led the Miami Heat to its first NBA Championship in 2006. The Heat beat the Dallas Mavericks in six games to give coach Pat Riley his fifth NBA crown.

O'Neal's former teammate Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers set a personal record when he scored 81 points in a game last January. That was the second-highest total in league history.

U.S. college basketball saw the emergence of a true "Cinderella" team. The George Mason University Patriots scored wins over highly-ranked Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut on their way to reaching the final four. But the dream ended when Mason lost to UCLA in the semifinals. Florida beat UCLA, 73-57, to take its first men's NCAA basketball title.

Ben Roethlisberger, 23, became the youngest quarterback to lead a team to the National Football League's Super Bowl title, as his Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Seattle Seahawks, 21-10. The University of Texas captured the college football crown by beating USC, 41-38. That ended USC's 34-game winning streak.

The National Hockey League returned to the ice after a labor lockout the year before, and under new rules, attendance figures were up. The Carolina Hurricanes won their first Stanley Cup title with a seven-game victory over the Edmonton Oilers.

Kenyan Robert Cheruiyot won two of the major marathons in 2006, taking the Chicago and Boston titles. His compatriot Felix Limo won the London marathon, while Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie won the Berlin title. Brazilian Marilson Gomes dos Santos won the New York marathon.

Tragedy struck horse racing's Triple Crown when Kentucky Derby winner "Barbaro" broke his ankle in the Preakness Stakes two weeks later in Baltimore. Heroic efforts were made to save the horse, and he is still recovering from his injury. "Bernardini" won the Preakness, and "Jazil" took the Belmont Stakes. No horse has won all three races since "Affirmed" in 1978.

The sports world bid goodbye to several big names in 2006, including World Golf Hall of Famer Byron Nelson, LPGA co-founder Patty Berg, and legendary basketball coach Red Auerbach.

Baseball Hall of Fame member Kirby Puckett died in 2006 as did former heavyweight boxing champion Floyd Patterson and two-time Olympic decathlon champion Bob Mathias. Negro Leagues baseball star Buck O'Neil died at age 94 in 2006. New York Yankee's relief pitcher Corey Lidle lost his life in a tragic small plane crash in New York City four days after his team was eliminated from the playoffs.

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