Thrills & spills

Sprint queen Shanti Pereira savouring the moment after she bagged the SEA Games women’s 200m gold in 23.60sec, ending Singapore’s 42-year wait for a golden triumph in the event.
Sprint queen Shanti Pereira savouring the moment after she bagged the SEA Games women’s 200m gold in 23.60sec, ending Singapore’s 42-year wait for a golden triumph in the event. ST FILE PHOTO
Yip Pin Xiu (left), with five-gold buddy Theresa Goh, took on rivals three classes higher and won, in a world-record breaking swim.
Yip Pin Xiu (left), with five-gold buddy Theresa Goh, took on rivals three classes higher and won, in a world-record breaking swim. ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI
The anguish of the LionsXII is clearly evident after the final whistle of the Malaysia Cup quarter-final second leg against Pahang on Nov 27. Pahang won 4-3 on aggregate.
The anguish of the LionsXII is clearly evident after the final whistle of the Malaysia Cup quarter-final second leg against Pahang on Nov 27. Pahang won 4-3 on aggregate. ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI
Japan’s Karne Hesketh celebrating after scoring the winning try in their dramatic 34-32 World Cup upset against South Africa.
Japan’s Karne Hesketh celebrating after scoring the winning try in their dramatic 34-32 World Cup upset against South Africa. PHOTO: REUTERS
Uefa president Michel Platini (right) and Fifa president Sepp Blatter have been handed eight-year bans from all football-related activities after an ethics probe. PHOTO: REUTERS
Uefa president Michel Platini (right) and Fifa president Sepp Blatter have been handed eight-year bans from all football-related activities after an ethics probe. PHOTO: REUTERSPHOTO: REUTERS

The 10 events in 2015 that had sports fans either abuzz with excitement or shaking their heads in collective disgust

1. Record 84-gold haul at Singapore SEA Games

There was plenty to celebrate as Singapore hosted the biennial SEA Games for the first time since 1993.

But on June 10, at approximately 6.30pm, the fervour reached fever pitch at the National Stadium.

Shanti Pereira was a budding sprint talent who had set several national records in the last two years.

Hopes were on the 19-year-old to win a medal in the 200m - any colour would suffice.

By the turn, however, the 11,257-strong crowd sensed something historic, and turned up the volume in the cavernous stadium, roaring Shanti on as she led the field.

They did not stop cheering for quite a while - she had stormed to Singapore's first gold in the women's 200m in 42 years.

Her glorious run capped a series of standout performances from the hosts' 749-strong contingent.

Swimmer Joseph Schooling, arguably the Republic's most popular athlete, justified his hype by winning all nine of his events.

Soh Rui Yong, running in only his second marathon, retained Singapore's gold in the event.

On the waters off Marina Bay, the Republic's canoeists delighted with a best-ever, seven-gold haul.

It was not a Games without disappointments, though.

Singapore's footballers again underperformed, crashing out in the group stage, leading to coach Aide Iskandar's shock resignation right after the last group game.

The women's table tennis team, led by Feng Tianwei, failed to retain the singles title, which Singapore had won in every Games since 1995.

Nevertheless, in a sign of how far Singapore sport has come in 22 years, the contingent ultimately delivered a stunning harvest.

The entire nation basked in the glory of a record 84-gold haul, second to Thailand's 95.

The tally smashed the previous high of 50 - set at the last home Games in 1993.

Without a doubt, the bar has now been raised for sports excellence in the country.

Chua Siang Yee

2. Community spirit fired up at Asean Para Games

Yip Pin Xiu is Singapore's first Paralympic gold medallist, and it was she who came up with the standout moment of the Asean Para Games (APG) earlier this month.

Up against para-swimmers three classes above her - and hence more physically functional than her - Yip nonetheless won the 50m backstroke S5 in world-record time.

It was a performance that epitomised the spirit of the APG and the grit of the 1,000-odd regional competitors who rose above the challenges that life has had for them.

In all, Singapore's 152 para-athletes outdid themselves with 63 medals and a record 24-gold haul - but the Games will be remembered for more than just medals too.

This was the first time Singapore hosted the region's para-sports meet, and officials spoke at length about using it to promote sports among the disabled, as well as to foster a more inclusive society with greater understanding of the disabled community.

Singaporeans responded over the week-long Games. More than 600,000 people experienced adaptive sports at an APG carnival while over 100,000 caught the action live on television.

They watched in awe as polio-afflicted swimmers leapt off the starting blocks on their stick-thin legs; they watched in admiration as high jumpers hopped on one leg before launching themselves over the bar.

And they cheered when Singapore's cerebral palsy footballer Khairul Anwar scored long-range free-kick goals a la David Beckham, earning him a meeting with the supportive English superstar.

As Yip said: "People on streets recognise us, they shout out encouragement... it's very heartwarming to see Singaporeans care.

"You feel that society is more aware and inclusive as well.

"There's still a long road to go but every step on the way is good progress."

Chua Siang Yee

3. LionsXII show fight as Malaysia chapter ends

The LionsXII have been a moderately successful venture in their four years of existence.

Since they began competing in the Malaysia Super League (MSL) and the Malaysia Cup in 2012, they nurtured up-and-coming talents such as Hariss Harun, Safuwan Baharudin and Faris Ramli into senior-team mainstays.

Ticket receipts were respectable whenever and wherever they competed during the MSL season, and Malaysian teams also tend to raise their game in Malaysia Cup ties against the LionsXII.

So the decision by the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) to pull the plug on the four-year association with the LionsXII was sudden as well as shocking.

There was also a sad sense of deja vu, as the senior Lions team suffered a similar fate in 1994 after winning the Malaysia league and cup Double.

Then, the FAM booted Singapore out because of disputes over gate receipts and match- fixing.

This time, travel costs have been cited as the reason, with FAM deputy president Afandi Hamzah telling the Malay Mail newspaper that "it was not cheap travelling to and from Singapore and many teams found it difficult".

For the LionsXII, it was a bitter pill to swallow, especially after a run of success, winning the MSL in 2013 and the Malaysia FA Cup in May this year.

The team were disbanded after exiting the Malaysia Cup quarter-finals, narrowly losing 3-4 on aggregate to Pahang.

On a poignant footnote, the Pahang team gave the LionsXII a guard-of-honour ovation as the disconsolate players left the pitch for the final time.

Fandi Ahmad's men have since signed for various S-League clubs.

While there is a chance they could be formed again for next year's Asean Super League, they should not be forgotten for providing local fans with four years of entertaining football.

Chia Han Keong

4. Japan stun Springboks in Rugby World Cup

Japan's Rugby World Cup opener against two-time champions South Africa was into stoppage time.

The Brave Blossoms had a chance to take a penalty in front of the posts for three points and a sensational 32-32 draw.

But, living up to their nickname, the team that had not won a World Cup game for 24 years opted instead for a scrum against the 14-man Springboks.

The 29,000-strong crowd at Brighton Community Stadium stared open-mouthed as Japan battled to retain possession. They passed the ball the width of the pitch and back.

As they headed left, Amanaki Mafi spotted a gap and released Karne Hesketh, who dived over in the left corner for a 84th-minute try.

Japan - the team with the worst World Cup record - 34, South Africa - the team with the best winning record - 32. The biggest shock in the competition's history was complete.

Japan went into the record books again three weeks later. This time, however, they claimed an unwanted piece of history.

Despite the giddy heights of that South Africa upset, Eddie Jones' men were the first team to win three pool games and still not make the World Cup quarter-finals. In an ironic twist, the Springboks did.

However, they fell to the mighty New Zealand in the semi-finals and finished third.

The All Blacks went on to win the title by defeating Australia in the final, with Richie McCaw becoming the first captain to lift the Webb Ellis Cup at the end of two consecutive World Cup Finals.

New Zealand may continue to be the world's dominant rugby union team, but as Japan and other non-traditional rugby nations like Georgia proved during the World Cup, the sport has the potential to grow into a globally competitive one, just like football.

Lin Xinyi

5. Serena Williams falls as calendar Slam beckons

Serena Williams was two wins away from the first calendar-year Grand Slam in 27 years. Roberta Vinci was a point away from ripping up the script and the American's heart.

The scoreboard for the US Open semi-final read: 2-6, 6-4, 5-4, 40-0.

Vinci served out wide and could only bunt back the crushing return. Williams hit another backhand, down the line this time.

But the Italian got on the front foot with a forehand cross-court that had her rival scrambling.

Vinci then forced top-ranked Williams to go from one corner to the other - with a deep approach shot. The American retrieved with a single-handed backhand, completing a 360-degree spin to get back into the play.

Except there was nothing left to play for. Vinci's drop-shot half-volley at the net left Williams rooted at the baseline, stunningly stuck on 21 Major titles.

Vinci, 32, the oldest first-time Grand Slam semi-finalist in the Open Era, had pulled off one of the biggest upsets in women's tennis.

While there would be no fairytale ending for Williams or Vinci, few would begrudge the eventual US Open women's singles winner.

Flavia Pennetta, a 150-1 outsider, claimed her first Grand Slam on her 52nd Major appearance. The 33-year-old knew there was nothing else she needed to accomplish.

"This is the way I would like to say goodbye to tennis," the oldest maiden Grand Slam champion in the Open era said at the trophy presentation, announcing her retirement at the end of the season.

Lin Xinyi

6. Lloyd scores first-ever World Cup final treble

Carli Lloyd had been practising shots from the halfway line for the past 12 years.

On July 5, at the BC Place in Vancouver, the United States striker decided it was the right moment to unleash another long-range effort.

After all, it was the Women's World Cup final against Japan - the biggest stage to showcase and cap off the biggest performance of her career, even if the match was just 16 minutes old.

With 26.7 million people watching on television back home, and with Japan goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori off her line, she lobbed from 60 metres out. Hat-trick.

It was the first treble in Women's World Cup final history.

It took her just three minutes to get her first - the fastest ever in the tournament's title decider.

Two minutes later, the American skipper, one of three US players to miss a penalty in the 2011 final shoot-out against Japan, got her second.

There was too much left for Japan to do and the defending champions eventually fell 2-5 to cede the Cup to the jubilant Americans.

So a tournament that began under the shadow of the Fifa corruption scandal in May, ended with a classic match to cap off a month of record-smashing television ratings and attendance figures.

There was drama aplenty - such as Laura Bassett's last-minute own goal which condemned England to their semi-final loss against Japan - but the Cup was played amid strong sportsmanship and camaraderie, something the men's version should try and emulate.

Lin Xinyi

7. The overhype of the 'Fight of the Century'

After five excruciating years of haggling and months of intense build-up, the highly anticipated "Fight of the Century" finally happened on May 2 in Las Vegas.

The contenders - Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao - have been hailed as the world's leading pound-for-pound boxers for much of the past decade.

They were arguably a couple of years past their prime when they entered the ring to fight, but the boxing world hardly cared, paying them as much as US$300 million (S$422.3 million) to pound each other to submission.

The fight itself was hardly exciting, with Pacquiao emerging as the "people's champion" with his aggression and initiative.

But Mayweather was declared the winner. He connected on more punches and stealthily evaded most of Pacquiao's attempts.

The American thus kept his undefeated record by using a strategy many neutral fans found "boring". Indeed, many questioned whether the hype was justified and whether it was worth paying US$40,955 for a ringside seat.

Pacquiao was left frustrated and, post-fight, insisted he had won the fight.

The Filipino also claimed that his performance was compromised by a shoulder injury and that he was not allowed to take necessary medication for it.

His request for a rematch also did not materialise.

When the dust settled, the "Fight of the Century" turned out to be merely the "Most Lucrative Fight of the Century".

V.K. Santosh Kumar

8. Bolt wins gold, edging Gatlin by 0.01 second

Before the start of their 100m showdown at the World Championships in Beijing on Aug 23, Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin showed they were all pumped up, rolling their eyes and puffing out their cheeks at the start line.

When the Jamaican was introduced, he covered his eyes with his hands before opening them and smiling. American Gatlin shot imaginary bullets with his fingers.

In the semi-finals, Gatlin had made his trademark explosive start on the way to victory in 9.77sec.

Bolt appeared lethargic, struggling to win his heat in 9.99.

On that evidence and his commanding wins over the season, the American was the clear favourite.

The start gun was fired, and the two rivals were neck-and-neck.

With 20 metres to go, they were still locked together in a desperate battle, stretching and straining for the line.

But then Gatlin, 33, over-reached, stumbled and, in a flash, Bolt had him - just.

The 29-year-old clinched gold in 9.79 while Gatlin clocked 9.80.

For two years, Gatlin had been the undisputed king of sprinting but, when it came to the biggest moment, Bolt triumphed.

It was in the Beijing Bird's Nest stadium in 2008 that the Jamaican first announced himself as a global superstar, winning the Olympic 100m and 200m golds in world- record times.

And, after a difficult couple of years, where he was beset by injuries, it was once again where he found his wings.

V. K. Santosh Kumar

9. Curry ignites the Warriors and the NBA

All season long, Stephen Curry had established himself as the National Basketball Association's (NBA) deadliest shooter.

With 7min 35sec left in the fourth quarter of Game Five of the NBA Finals in June, his unerring accuracy was desperately needed by his Golden State Warriors.

They were trailing LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers in a must-win game.

He responded spectacularly.

A step-back three-pointer.

A steal. An offensive rebound.

A lay-up.

Another three-pointer.

In all, he poured in 37 points from everywhere on the half-court to seal the win.

The Warriors would go on to win Game Six and their first NBA title since 1975 but Curry and Co. did not just stop there. Far from it.

When the new season began in October, they won... and kept winning for a staggering 24 straight games, before the punishing schedule finally caught up.

Still, the breathtaking record streak ignited the league, and established Curry as the biggest rival to James' dominance.

That can only be good for the NBA, for rivalries are the vital ingredient for compelling sports viewing. The Warriors have thrown down the gauntlet for the rest to try and beat them.

If James wants to be remembered as an all-time basketball great, he will have to overcome this immense hurdle with the help of his Cavaliers team.

Here's hope for an NBA Finals rematch in June.

Chia Han Keong

10. Athletics, football take a kick to reputations

They were supposedly benevolent officials tasked with growing their sports globally and helping athletes achieve their ambitions.

But two massive corruption scandals involving football and athletics - two of the most popular sports in the world - have severely eroded the trust and goodwill that these leaders once earned.

Fifa, football's world governing body, has been rocked since May 27, as police started arresting officials accused of buying and selling votes when choosing World Cup hosts.

Amid the scandal, long-time Fifa president Sepp Blatter, re-elected for a fifth term on May 29, dropped a bombshell. He said on June 2 that he would step down in February.

The sight of a prankster who threw fake money at the Swiss during his election media conference was perhaps indicative of the contempt and anger that the general public had for Fifa.

Blatter, along with Uefa president Michel Platini, would eventually be dragged into an ever-widening scandal, both being accused of misappropriation of funds.

In track and field, an uproar occurred last month when a report published by a World Anti-Doping Agency independent commission found evidence of state-sponsored doping and large-scale corruption in Russian athletics.

Russia has been suspended from all competitions. And new IAAF president Sebastian Coe was also mired in a separate scandal regarding the awarding hosting rights for the 2021 World Championships to the American city of Eugene.

Chia Han Keong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 27, 2015, with the headline 'THRILLS & SPILLS'. Print Edition | Subscribe