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2003 in Sports: The Highs and Lows - 2004-01-01

The past year saw some awe inspiring achievements and some of the biggest disappointments in sports. 2003 saw the triumph of Lance Armstrong and the joy of the Florida Marlins contrasted with the shattering of Kobe Bryant's image and the emergence of a new designer steroid.

American cyclist Lance Armstrong did something in 2003 that no American had ever done - he won a fifth straight Tour de France. Armstrong bettered a field that included former champion Jan Ullrich and Erik Zabel of Germany, Stuart O'Grady and Robbie McEwen of Australia, and Italians Paolo Bettini and Fabrizio Guidi.

Armstrong said after his Tour that 2003 was harder than previous wins, but that made victory that much sweeter. "Unlike any other year there were those moments when I thought 'Oh no, here' it goes, I am not going to make it. I am going to crack or I am going to have a bad day or I am going to lose this race.' I had to come to grips with that," he said. "But at the same time every night I went to bed and thought that I would wake up and feel better. And it happened." Armstrong has promised to ride for at least two more years, and then he thinks he will retire.

Armstrong's success was in sharp contrast to the image-shattering news of Los Angeles Lakers' star guard Kobe Bryant's arrest on rape charges. Bryant was charged in July with raping a 19-year-old hotel worker while in Colorado for knee surgery. Bryant has admitted having sex with the young woman, but says that it was consensual.

"I'm innocent. You know. I did not force her to do anything against her will," Bryant said at a news conference. "I'm innocent."

At year's end the case against Bryant is still pending. Meanwhile, Bryant's former coach Pat Riley retired from the game just before the 2003 season began. Another basketball star - Alonzo Mourning was forced out of the game by kidney failure. Mourning received a transplant by year's end and could make a comeback.

Bryant would not be the only top sports figure embroiled in scandal in 2003. August's world athletics championships would also feature the scandal of sprinter Kelli White. The American became the first U.S. athlete to win both the women's 100- and 200-meters sprint championships in Paris. However, White later tested positive for a stimulant which she says was prescribed for a sleep disorder. Her case is still pending.

Drugs would also embroil several other top athletes in 2003. Sprinter Dwain Chambers, shot putter Kevin Toth, middle distance runner Regina Jacobs and four members of the National Football League's Oakland Raiders would be among those implicated in a scandal involving the designer steroid THG.

The drug, a steroid derivative that was thought to be undetectable, is connected to a supplement laboratory near San Francisco, California. Baseball sluggers Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi were called to testify about their association with the BALCO lab, but no charges have been filed against them.

Bonds had one of the best and one of the worst years in his career. On the field, the San Francisco slugger hit .341 with 45 home runs and a .749 slugging percentage. Off the field, Bonds's father Bobby died in August from lung cancer.

But Bonds was not alone in his grief - the sports world also lost some of its brightest lights, including ice hockey coach Herb Brooks, tennis great Althea Gibson, the first black woman to win Wimbledon. Also bidding good-bye this year were high-powered sports agent Mark McCormack, football executive Tex Schramm, writer George Plimpton, baseball great Warren Spahn, jockey Bill Shoemaker, and Triple Crown winning horse "Spectacular Bid."

However, some new luminaries emerged in sports in 2003. At the British Open in July a self-taught American - Ben Curtis - conquered the Royal Saint Georges Course to win his first major tournament. The PGA title would go to another little-known golfer, American Shaun Micheel. By year's end, a very familiar name - world number one Tiger Woods - would be voted the Player of the Year after winning five tournaments, but no majors.

At the U.S. Open tennis tournament in September, American Andy Roddick captured his first major tournament by beating French Open winner Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain in three sets. Roddick would also finish the year ranked number one in the world.

As Roddick emerged as a new force in tennis, veteran player Pete Sampras announced his retirement from the game. An emotional Sampras bid farewell to fans at the U.S. Open, the site of his last major tournament victory in September of 2002.

"If there's something out there that I wanted to achieve I would go and do it," said Sampras. "You know I have the support of my wife and family to go and travel and go and practice and focus and do everything I need to do. But I am content. I am 100 percent content with everything I have done."

In soccer, Manchester United and English national team star David Beckham followed the money to Spain to play for Real Madrid. Beckham joined a squad that already boasted Brazilian star Ronaldo, French star Zinedine Zidane, Roberto Carlos, Luis Figo of Portugal and Raul Gonzalez of Spain.

American Freddy Adu ignited the soccer world as well, when at 14, he turned down some of the biggest clubs in Europe to sign with Major League Soccer's D.C. United team. "I am happy to be a part of the family. Hopefully this can go on for a long time," he said. "I would like to thank my family, my mom. You know we've been through some tough times, Mom, and hey look: here's your son, standing right here, staring back at you, hey, I signed my first professional contract."

The Ghanaian-born Adu also played for the U.S. under-20 team in the World Youth Championships in the United Arab Emirates.

This past year also saw the financial collapse of the Women's United Soccer Association, just days before the start of the Women's World Cup tournament in the United States. The reigning champion U.S. women's team was knocked out in the semifinals by eventual champion Germany, which went on to beat Sweden in overtime, 2-1. The Americans beat Canada to take third place. The Los Angeles Galaxy won the MLS title 1-0 over the New England Revolution.

The baseball playoffs reminded fans why they love - and hate - the game. The Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox were on the verge of making it to the World Series for the first time in years, but both teams suffered epic collapses that revived talks of the Curse of the Bambino, and the Curse of the Billy Goat. Both Chicago and Boston were five outs from the World Series, and both failed to make the Fall Classic. What made it worse for Boston was it lost to its archrival, the New York Yankees in seven games.

But the Yankees could not overcome a 72-year-old manager and a group of little-known players - The Florida Marlins. The Marlins defeated the Yankees in six games, earning only their second Major League title in the team's history. Manager Jack McKeon said his young players showed the talent he knew they had all year. "I don't think we shocked the world today. I think we made them realize last week that we were a pretty good ball club," McKeon said. "So I think they had a pretty good line on us coming into this game."

This year also saw the return of skier Hermann Maier to the slopes for the 2003-2004 season. The man known as the Hermannator is back on his skis less than two years after nearly losing his right leg in a motorcycle accident.

In Rugby, England clinched the World Cup title on a drop goal 26 seconds from the end of extra time and beat Australia 20-17. Australia dominated one-day cricket in 2003, taking the World Cup title in South Africa and winning a record 21 consecutive victories.

As 2004 opens, the world looks forward to the European Football Championships in Portugal and the return of the Olympics to their birthplace - Athens, Greece. Preparations continue in the Greek capital to host the world, with security, transportation, accommodations, and venues slowly falling into place. Greek organizers have promised that all will be ready for the opening ceremonies, August 13, 2004.

This story is part of VOA's 2003 in Review series