This is the season when newspapers and magazines review the events of the past year and single out particular stories and newsmakers. Time, for example, names a man of the year; Sports Illustrated, a sportsman and/or sportswoman of the year; Esquire lists its dubious achievement awards.
Since this is a sports column, it's only right that any year-end award given here be confined to some aspect of sports. But the person who I think was, far and away, 1984's most significant sportsman probably was 1984's most significant businessman, too. And it is precisely because he understood how to package sports and business on a large scale that accounts for his success.
Sportsman of the Year: Peter Ueberroth.
As the president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, Ueberroth crafted an Olympics as American as The Dream itself, an Olympics that validated American capitalism, technology and democracy, an Olympics set exactly where it belonged, in L.A., mother lode of the essentials of American pop culture: sun, surf, speed and sprawl.
Even after allowing for the diminished level of competition that stemmed from the Soviet Bloc boycott, and even after apologizing for the resulting USA athletic dominance, Ueberroth's Olympics were a Disneyland of sight, sound and sweat. They gave the American people something -- however inconsequential -- to feel good and strong and proud about. Which is not to say that the way we wallowed in self- congratulation was commendable, or even excusable, but considering how we saw ourselves four years ago -- held hostage and seemingly impotent -- it was, at least, understandable.
Ueberroth's Olympics were grand and glorious, smooth and synchronized, from pomp to security, from traffic flow (like wine) to weather (80s, bright sun, no smog). Perhaps most important in the long run, Ueberroth's Olympics made a ton of money, nearly $200 million profit. No Summer Olympics had made even a penny before. Usually, the host city sinks deeply into debt under the weight of producing the Games. Ueberroth not only reversed this trend, but by running the Olympics like a business -- inventing all sorts of Olympic commercial associations, then selling every square inch of them to eager corporate sponsors -- he may have salvaged some economic viability for this sporting zeppelin. In the long run, nations might be persuaded to separate sports from politics were they confident they could merge sports with profit.
For years, Ueberroth, a former travel agent fueled by reach and blessed with grasp, was out there all alone like "The Little Engine That Could" peddling his idea for a privately financed, capitalist Olympics, saying I think I can, I think I can. Now, the worst that can be said of his Olympics is that they were nauseatingly commercial; the best is that they were spectacular.
For making a profit, for being a prophet, for all he did with the Olympics, and for the enlightened, democratic approach he already has taken as baseball's commissioner, Peter Ueberroth is the clear choice as Sportsman of the Year.
And for Athlete of the Year?
There are many reasonable choices. In an Olympic year you naturally tend to lean toward an Olympian if for no other reason than they go unnoticed for three years of every four.
Usually, Carl Lewis would be an obvious pick. Not since Jesse Owens did it in 1936 had an American track athlete won four gold medals. But Lewis made more enemies than friends in L.A. Neither the media nor his teammates liked him; they considered Lewis prissy, arrogant, greedy and far too calculating. Scratch him. Scratch Mary Decker, too. Loser, and whiner.
That still leaves bona fide candidates: Edwin Moses, whose sagacious dignity graced the hurdles; Mary Lou Retton, a vivacious sprite; Jeff Blatnick, granted, a one-shot wonder, but one whose well-documented struggle against cancer is so inspirational; the men's gymnastic team (why not a team -- wasn't the 1980 Olympic hockey team the right choice?); Joan Benoit, whose marathon held such historic and political significance. Michael Jordan, basketball's Mr. Flamboyance, had a dream year, in college, at the Olympics, and now in the NBA. Patrick Ewing had one, too.
Superior performances weren't limited to Olympians. Professional athletics saw many in 1984: Dan Marino's for the Dolphins; Larry Bird's for the Celtics; Rick Sutcliffe's for the Cubs. (Had the Cubs won the World Series they'd have picked the awards table clean.) Despite recent losses, Martina Navratilova and John McEnroe dominated tennis much the way Wayne Gretzky dominated hockey; it's their ironic misfortune that by towering over their sports every year, they did not seem sufficiently compelling for an award this year.
Athlete of the Year: Doug Flutie.
Not for The Pass that beat Miami; The Pass is just the familiar touchstone of the Flutie legend. And not for the games he won and the records he set; they will someday be broken.
Just for the fun of it.
Flutie didn't do it for the money, he did it for the joy. For years people have been telling him that he's too short to play, and for years all he's done is beat them. Doug Flutie is the best choice as Athlete of the Year because he has everything you'd ask for in an athlete: courage, confidence, determination, spirit, intelligence -- and magic.