Looking forward: The sports arena - World sport

The highs of pure sport - and lows of politics

One of the questions of 2016 will be if Leicester City (in blue) can maintain their fairy-tale run to win the English Premier League crown in May.
One of the questions of 2016 will be if Leicester City (in blue) can maintain their fairy-tale run to win the English Premier League crown in May.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Sport purists often argue that politics has no place in sport. That adage will be put to the test in 2016 when several high-profile political battles are set to dominate the back pages of newspapers worldwide.

With Fifa in need of a new president, 209 member associations will converge at a congress in Zurich next month to hit the ballot box.

 One of Sheikh Salman Ebrahim Al-Khalifa, Gianni Infantino, Prince Ali Al-Hussein, Tokyo Sexwale and Jerome Champagne will replace Sepp Blatter. And his immediate task is an organisational overhaul amid a corruption scandal that has tarnished the image of world football's governing body.

Investigations into the controversial awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar respectively are ongoing. Should their hosting rights be revoked, an unprecedented move, Russian sport will be dealt another blow.

  • The year ahead

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    • Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt will again lead the stars in action at the Rio Olympics

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It has already lost the hosting rights to this year's race walking World Cup and athletics' world junior championships after a World Anti-Doping Agency report exposed widespread, systematic state-sponsored doping and related corruption.

Russian athletes will also be absent from the world indoor championships in March as part of the punishment. Less certain is their exclusion from the Olympics. Russia must revamp its anti-doping system and convince the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to drop its indefinite suspension if its athletes are to compete in Rio de Janeiro.

IN NEED OF A PEP TALK

Boardroom drama will not be confined to the IAAF and Fifa. With the world's most sought-after football manager Pep Guardiola leaving Bayern Munich at the end of this season, a multi-way tug-of-war for his services has begun.

 

English Premier League (EPL) giants Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea are all heavily linked to the Spaniard. City are believed to be the favourites to sign Guardiola, but could their neighbours pull off a coup at their expense?  To have any chance, the United hierarchy needs to ignore the opportunity to replace under-fire incumbent Louis van Gaal now with another high-profile manager, Jose Mourinho. The Portuguese, like Guardiola, seems to come with the guarantee of trophies. Yet games are never won on paper. That is why football romantics and sport purists have plenty to look forward to this year.

Leicester City, who overcame 1,000-1 odds to top the EPL at Christmas, can become the unlikeliest of English champions should they find themselves in that same spot on May 15. The Foxes still have to travel to Man City, Arsenal, United and Chelsea in their bid to win the club's first top-flight title.

NOT SHORT OF SPORTING ACTION

If the EPL has been unpredictable, so too the road to Euro 2016. Iceland (population 330,000), will make their European Championship debut at the June 10-July 10 tournament in France.

 Les Bleus are the favourites to win the newly expanded 24-team showpiece, with world champions Germany and defending champions Spain tipped by bookmakers to be their biggest rivals. Victory for La Roja will see Spain become the first nation to win the continental title three straight times.

LeBron James knows just how difficult a "three-peat" can be. He fell just short of that feat when his Miami Heat side lost to the San Antonio Spurs in the 2014 National Basketball Association Finals. Now with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the 31-year-old is still seeking that elusive third championship.  The Golden State Warriors foiled James and Co last year and a repeat of that title decider is on the cards.

Like James, Novak Djokovic is hoping to go one step further this year. Last season, the Serb was one French Open match away from completing a calendar-year Grand Slam. Yet those dreams bit the dust in June. Serena Williams' Major monopoly hopes ended in September, at the US Open semi-finals. 

The top-ranked tennis stars will return to the courts with renewed motivation this year. But this time, a Golden Slam represents the ultimate sweep. To achieve that, they will need to win Olympic gold on top of the four Grand Slam titles.

The Rio Games have already been labelled by world No. 1 golfer Jordan Spieth as the "fifth Major", with golf preparing to make its Olympic debut alongside rugby.

The Aug 5-21 extravaganza might be the last Games for American swimmer Michael Phelps, 30, and Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, 29. The most decorated Olympian of all time and the fastest man of all time can only add to their legacy. Between them, they have 28 Olympic medals - 24 gold.

A new star could be born in Brazil, shining in any of the 306 events. Chinese diver Si Yajie, 17, and American gymnast Simone Biles, 18, are poised for stardom for they are already world champions in their own right. But once they reach Rio, they will have no scoreboard advantage.

Sport is non-partisan that way. The fastest, highest, strongest will prevail.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 03, 2016, with the headline 'The highs of pure sport - and lows of politics'. Print Edition | Subscribe