Underdogs And Shaggy Dogs: 2016 Was A Year Like No Other
The year 2016 was not a great year for aging pop musicians, Democrats or the newspaper business. It was, however, a year for the shaggy dog, the longshot and the raggedy-pants rabble who walk the sporting earth.
Perhaps no story sums the Kismet of 2016 better than the Olympic tale of race walker Evan Dunfee of Canada. Race walking is a very gruelling sport, but it's also the kind of event that will get you mocked. The idea is to walk as fast as you can while keeping at least one foot grounded. The effort produces a motion not unlike a distressed person looking for a bathroom after a meal of curry and beer.
In any event, our Dunfee, the pride of Canada in Brazil, was ambling along in the bronze-medal position with just a few K left in his race. He’d settled into a nice rhythm, grinding happily along the streets of old Rio. Then— egads!— a Japanese walker emerged to challenge Dunfee for the bronze. As he passed the Canadian, he appeared to jostle Dunfee ever so slightly.
This produced from Dunfee a reaction like a waiter losing control of a platter of dishes. As he said later, “My legs turned to jello”. The Japanese walker sped by, Dunfee careened across the course, trying to find his stride. By the time he composed himself and started walking again, Dunfee was out of the medals.
Immediately a hullabaloo emerged from Canadian officials and media. Inquiry! Dunfee had been done a dirty and should be elevated to the bronze medal over the man from Nippon. At first officials took Dunfee’s side. But an appeal overturned the decision leaving Hirooki Arai with the bronze. More indignation from the Canadian media.
Dunfee, however, was entitled to a final appeal. He declined, explaining that a little rock ‘em-sock ‘em is part of the race-walking game. “Even if an appeal to CAS were successful I would not have been able to receive that medal with a clear conscience, and it isn’t something I would have been proud of. I will sleep soundly tonight, and for the rest of my life, knowing I made the right decision. I will never allow myself to be defined by the accolades I receive, rather the integrity I carry through life.”
Who knew there was no crying in race walking? This man should be put on the five-dollar bill.
It was also the year that unrequited devotion was finally rewarded in two cities where losing has become an art form. The Chicago Cubs (rim shot) had not won the World Series since 1908 or been to the Series since the year WW II ended (1945). They were the loveable losers who found a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. One year, a black cat crossed in front of their dugout and they blew a 9 1/2-game lead to the 1969 New York Mets. Really.
But from Day One 2016 was different. From the early weeks of the year, the Cubs W flag waved proudly over Wrigley Field as the team marched to a mighty 103 games to finish 17 1/2 games ahead of their rivals in the National League Central. Hopes of long-suffering Cubs fans peaked after Joe Maddon’s team dispatched the Giants and Dodgers to win the NL Pennant.
But the Cubs reverted to type, falling behind 3-1 in games in the World Series to the Cleveland Indians. Even the Harry Caray impersonators agreed that the Cubs were about to out-do themselves with this choke. Then the Cubbies shook off 108 years of schadenfreude, reeling off three straight wins to put the W flag atop Wrigley all winter. Bill Murray wept.
It wasn’t all bad news in Cleveland, which hadn't seen a title from any of its teams since 1964. Having retrieved LeBron James from his interregnum in Miami, the Cavaliers executed the 3-1 deficit miracle themselves in the NBA Final, storming from behind to defeat the Golden State Warriors for the title. LeBron wept like a baby.
But for long shots, no one beat Leicester City of the English Premiership. Understand, the title in English football is the purview a handful of high-powered elite teams, handed back and forth like a private chattel. Cinderella never gets to the ball in the company of Man U, Arsenal, Man City, Chelsea and Liverpool. Only five teams had won the FA Championship since 1992. Till the Foxes, a 5000-1 no-hope brought home the title just two years since being promoted to the premiership.
They cried for joy in Leicester. Producing the most popular sports Tweet of 2016: "Leicester City. Champions of England.”
Finally, in a year in which so many notable figures died, the death of Florida Marlins star pitcher José Fernandez was just another sad coda in the year. Fernandez and two other men were killed when the boat he was driving hit a jetty in Miami. But even here, a ray of sunshine emerged.
When the Marlins next played, Dee Gordon led off for the team. On the first pitch he imitated Fernandez’ unique righthanded swing. On the next pitch he switched over to hit his natural lefthanded stance. Naturally he drilled the first pitch for a home run. Gordon wept as he circled the bases. So did almost everyone in the park.
As the inimitable Vin Scully, retiring this year at age 89, might have said, “It was that kind of year, folks.”
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy. Bruce is the host of podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on anticanetwork.com. His career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald and the Globe & Mail.