The Year In Sports

Sarah Hughes of the United States reacts after her preformace in the women's free skate program at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2002. Hughes, 17, of Great Neck, N.Y., won the gold medal. AP

And the winner is ...

Who knows?

From the NFL playoffs to the Winter Olympics, from auto racing to baseball's All-Star game, events in 2002 unraveled with layers of confusion, bumbling and grumbling, and sometimes sinister undertones.

A quirkiness beset sports, and for every thrilling finish, a contentious one arose.

Not even a steadfast legend such as Ted Williams escaped a bizarre ending. Nearly six months after his death at age 83, his children fought over his body. But the legendary slugger's eldest daughter dropped her challenge Dec. 20 to her step-siblings' decision to have their father's body permanently frozen.

John-Henry and Claudia Williams have maintained they signed a handwritten pact with their father in November 2000 agreeing that their bodies would be frozen. John-Henry had his father's body moved to a Alcor Life Extension Foundation facility in Arizona shortly after his death. Cryogenic supporters say bodies might one day be thawed and brought back to life. Most experts say that is highly unlikely.

In 2002 in the world of sports, a hint of things to come arrived behind a veil of snow in January when the New England Patriots seemed doomed in the final seconds of regulation against the Oakland Raiders. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady took a hit, the ball squirmed free, the Raiders recovered and the deal looked done.

Then, suddenly, it wasn't.

As New England fans shivered and prayed, officials studied the replay and ruled it an incomplete pass instead of a sack and a fumble.

"I feel like we had one taken away from us," Oakland's Jerry Rice said. Other Raiders and their fans were less delicate in their description of the apparent heist.

In came Adam Vinatieri to kick a 45-yard field goal through the snowflakes and the uprights to send the game into overtime. Vinatieri then hit a shorter one on the first drive of overtime to send the Patriots to the AFC championship game and on to the Super Bowl in New Orleans.

Vinatieri had more dramatics left in him — a 48-yarder as time expired to give the Patriots, 50-1 long shots at the start of the season, their first NFL title, 20-17 over St. Louis in a Super Bowl that lived up to its name.

The controversies and surprise endings were just beginning.

Little more than a week later at the Winter Games in Salt Lake City, one of the daintiest of sports, pairs figure skating, produced the wildest of melodramas that's still not over.

The Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze won the gold, creating an immediate uproar. Then amid an investigation into a judging fix, the Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier were given golds of their own. Marie-Reine Le Gougne, an obscure French judge, suddenly became notoriously famous, charging, then denying, that she was pressured to help the Russians in a vote-swapping deal involving ice dancing.

The biggest judging scandal in Olympic history — and a soap opera to match the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan burlesque of 1994 — rambled through International Skating Union hearings in Switzerland and brought a ban of LeGougne and French skating federation chief Didier Gailhaguet.

The affair took a bizarre twist months later with the arrest of a reputed Russian mobster for allegedly setting up the fix. Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov is still in custody in Italy, awaiting extradition to the United States as the FBI continues its investigation.

The Salt Lake City scandal prompted at least a brief retreat to honest voting by the judges and more emphasis on performance rather than reputation.

Fresh-faced Sarah Hughes, a poised 16-year-old from New York, arrived at that propitious moment and stunned herself and everyone else by capturing the women's gold with a dazzling show. The Russians grumbled about Irina Slutskaya's silver, and favorite Michelle Kwan pouted about her own flops that dropped her to bronze, but nothing could detract from Hughes' achievement.

Grinning with equal measures of glee and shock as the screaming crowd littered the ice with flowers, Hughes held out her hands as if to say, "Can you believe what I just did?"

If nothing else could equal the plots and subplots of Olympic figure skating, there was no lack of controversy at other events.

Helio Castroneves needed three hours to win his second straight Indianapolis 500 on the track, nearly twice that long to have the victory upheld by race officials, then had to wait out a protest hearing the next day.

"What is just is just," Castroneves said after officials reviewed a late-race pass by Paul Tracy and determined it came seconds after the final caution light froze the field in position.

"I think it's me that won," Tracy said. "I know I was ahead of him. I passed him, then the yellow came out."

Tracy did pass Castroneves, but not until after 1999 winner Buddy Lazier and rookie Laurent Redon crashed on the 199th of 200 laps.

Under Indy Racing League rules, no passing is allowed after the yellow flag is displayed and the yellow lights come on around the track. The dispute was whether the caution had already begun before the pass.

"There's just no evidence worthy of overturning our original decision," said Brian Barnhart, vice president of operations for the IRL.

Castroneves, an exuberant, 27-year-old Brazilian, became the first driver to win consecutive Indys since Al Unser Sr. in 1970-71.

Indy was hardly the only track where drivers raised a ruckus. There were boos and angry cries of "rip-off" when Michael Schumacher let Ferrari teammate Rubens Barrichello win the United States Grand Prix in September.

Schumacher said he was simply paying back Barrichello, who had pulled over at an Austrian race in May and allowed Schumacher to win in order to pile up points in quest of a title.

The first strange finish in auto racing in 2002 came near the end of the Daytona 500 when Sterling Marlin got out of this car to pull a bent fender into place.

Marlin damaged his Dodge while blocking Jeff Gordon late in the race. As that was happening, a crash well behind the leaders prompted NASCAR to pull out a red flag and stop the race so it could finish under green.

Marlin scrambled from his car, walked around to inspect the right front, and began to reach for the bent metal. A NASCAR official shooed him back into the car, but it was too late.

He was sent to the rear of the field for the restart, and Ward Burton won a three-lap dash to the checkered flag, earning what turned out to be his only victory of the 2002 Winston Cup season.

There's no crying in baseball and there's not supposed to be any tying, either.

This year, a tie at the All-Star game set off a huge outcry by fans already angry about the possibilities there would be a strike.

The 7-7 tie after 11 innings came about when the managers, Bob Brenly of the National League and Joe Torre of the American League, ran out of players because they had tried to get everyone in the game. Commissioner Bud Selig conferred with the managers, then ordered a halt without a winner.

Critics complained that the decision exemplified how baseball was changing for the worse, treating the All-Star game as no more than an exhibition without caring who won.

"This will never happen again," Selig said. "This has been one of the saddest experiences in my life."

If baseball blew that, at least it had the good grace to avert a strike and the great luck to have an exciting World Series that featured one of the greatest comebacks in history.

It was a finish made for Hollywood and perfect for this year, when events ended in so many unpredictable ways.

The Anaheim Angels, Disney's team without a star, trailed 5-0 in the seventh inning at home in Game 6 and were four outs from defeat in the eighth inning against the San Francisco Giants. The platform for the trophy presentation was set up in the visitors' clubhouse, the Giants' champagne ready for popping.

The champagne would stay on ice as the Angels rallied twice.

"I can go back to the Kirk Gibson game in 1988," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said after his team closed out a 6-5 victory to force a Game 7. "I think there was about as much electricity in that stadium as there ever was. I think tonight surpassed that."

Anaheim's 4-1 victory the next day to capture the World Series struck some as anticlimactic. In a year such as 2002, everyone should have been grateful that at least it was decisive.
By STEVE WILSTEIN
  • Ellen Crean

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