Athletes made the Sochi Winter Olympics special

Philip Hersh
Chicago Tribune
Tribune's 28th annual international sports awards go to a varied bunch.

The winter weather was warm, as expected. The "dangerous face water" — as my Tribune colleague Stacy St. Clair famously tweeted — was an unexpectedly disgusting orange. The war waited until the Olympics ended, when Russian President Vladimir Putin, called "The Man Without a Face," in the title of a recent biography, invaded neighboring Ukraine.

Such was the ambiance around the biggest event on my beat last year, the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, which had no events in historic Sochi but indoor ones at a spanking-new, charmless Olympic Park 20 miles away.

On the Olympic Park's edge was an amusement park immediately dubbed "Putinland" because the big guy threw $51 billion into a fantastical enterprise to create a legacy for the area as a winter sports destination. (Hah).

For more than two weeks, in the artificial but nevertheless welcome atmosphere of goodwill (for all but the LGBTQ community) created by an Olympics, the Sochi area was the world's winter sports destination. The athletes who flocked to it created enough magic to make one forget the locale.

The end result was some indelible moments, many figuring in the Tribune's 28th annual international sports awards. As usual, those eligible are the men and women for whom an Olympic gold medal is the ultimate prize.

For the first time, because circumstances decree it, there are mixed medalists in the performance of the year category.

And a special shout out to U.S. bobsledder Johnny Quinn, who became a Winter Olympic star for the social media age by tweeting a picture of the bathroom door he busted through after being trapped inside.

The envelopes, please:

World Athletes of Year

Men

Gold: Yuzuru Hanyu, Japan, figure skating — This choice owes less to how Hanyu skated in earning Olympic gold (breathtakingly brilliant in the short program, sloppily good-enough-to-win in the free skate) than to the remarkable perspective this 19-year-old showed when asked what being the first Japanese man to win an Olympic figure skating title might mean to his city, Sendai, which suffered devastation in the March 11, 2011, earthquake he experienced firsthand: "Yes, I am an Olympic gold medalist now, but this medal cannot help the recovery in that region," he said through a translator. "I feel like I am helpless here. I feel like I am not making any contribution."

Silver: Meb Keflezighi, U.S., distance running — A gentle man and a gentleman whose family fled war-ravaged Eritrea three decades ago, who is the quintessence of the American success story, who represents the best of us and the best in us, Marathon Meb did what no U.S. man had in 31 years: win the Boston Marathon. And he did it with four names written on his runner's identification bib, honoring those killed in the terrorist bombing of a year earlier.

Bronze: Vic Wild, Russia, snowboard — He was born (and raised) in the USA, orphaned by lack of support from U.S. snowboard officials, adopted by Russia after marrying a Siberian snowboarder in 2011. Wild repaid with two gold medals for his new country, which topped the gold medal count by … two. (His wife, Alena Zavarzina, won a bronze.)

Women

Gold: Tina Maze, Slovenia, alpine skiing — After struggling on the World Cup circuit she had utterly dominated a year earlier, Maze reaffirmed her place as the leading women's skier in the world with Slovenia's first two Winter Games golds, in downhill and giant slalom, making her the first woman to win a speed and a gated Olympic event since 1976.

Silver: Yuna Kim, South Korea, figure skating — In winning a silver medal many think should have been gold, the South Korean became just the third woman to follow an Olympic title with another medal, joining three-time champion Sonja Henie of Norway and two-time champion Katarina Witt of East Germany.

Bronze: Darya Domracheva, Belarus, biathlon — Called the "Queen of Sochi" after becoming the first woman to win three biathlon gold in a single Olympics — half the total golds in her country's 20-year Winter Games history.

U.S. Athletes of Year

Men

Gold: Meb Keflezighi, distance running (see above.)

Silver: Steve Holcomb, bobsled — Became the first U.S. driver in 62 years to win medals (bronzes) in both 2- and 4-man at same Olympics and the first in 82 years to pilot medal-winning sleds in consecutive Olympics.

Bronze: Bode Miller, alpine skiing. At 36, after skipping the entire 2013 competitive season to recover from knee surgery, the outspoken star of U.S. skiing won his sixth Olympic medal (bronze in Super-G), more than all but one man in Winter Games alpine history.

Women

Gold: Katie Ledecky, swimming — In a Winter Olympic year without a world swim championships, picking a swimmer No. 1? Yes, because Ledecky set five distance freestyle world records in two months (two at 400, one 800, two 1,500), the first two at a virtual pick-up meet. No female distance swimmer ever had set four world records in a year.

Silver: Mikaela Shiffrin, alpine skiing — At 18, she became the youngest Olympic slalom champion in history and repeated as World Cup season champion in the event. Opened 14-15 World Cup with first giant slalom victory.

Bronze: Gwen Jorgensen, triathlon — Jorgensen made a lot of history this year. She won five of the eight World Triathlon Series events (most by a woman in a single season) and was the first U.S. woman in a decade to become world champion.

Performances of Year

Men

Gold: Kamil Stoch, Poland, ski jumping — After finishing 16th, 26th, 27th and 14th in the individual events at his two previous Olympics, the 26-year-old won on both the large and small hill in Sochi, becoming the third man in Winter Games history to achieve that jump double.

Silver: Ted Ligety, U.S., alpine skiing — With the pressure of being the greatest giant slalom skier of his generation, in a sport where changing weather and snow conditions mock favorites, Ligety crushed the first run and won his first Olympic GS title.

Bronze: Mutaz Essa Barshim, Qatar, high jump — Leap of 7 feet, 111/2 inches was world's best in 21 years, made him No. 2 jumper ever and wasn't a one-off: in 2014, Barshim also cleared 7-111/4 and 7-103/4 (twice).

Women

Gold: Ukraine biathlon relay — As their country burned and dozens died in near civil war, these four women won Ukraine's second Winter Olympic gold (first since 1994). The relay captain, Olena Pidhrushna, began the post-event news conference by asking for a moment of silence to remember those killed.

Silver: Carina Vogt, Germany, ski jumping — After a 10-year battle to get women into the Olympics, Vogt upset the favorites to be remembered forever as the first female ski jump champion in Winter Olympic history.

Bronze: Ireen Wust, Netherlands, speedskating — Won two gold and three silver medals, matching Canada's Cindy Klaasen for most overall women's medals in the sport at a single Winter Games.

Mixed

Gold: Meryl Davis and Charlie White, U.S., figure skating — After 17 years as a team, the Michiganders were dazzling ice dance champions, becoming the first U.S. couple to win gold in dance or pairs.

Silver: Dutch long track speedskaters — In a country where this sport is part of the cultural heritage (Hans Brinker and all that), the Dutch dominated the Olympics as never before, winning eight of the 12 gold medals and 23 of the 32 available total medals.

Bronze: U.S. "X Games" skiers — The freestylers (seven) and snowboarders (five) accounted for six of Team USA's nine Sochi golds and 12 of the 28 overall medals. Without them, the U.S. performance was mediocre.

phersh@tribpub.com

Twitter@olyphil

Copyright © 2017, CT Now
50°