Best of sport 2012: Bolt's gold, Zambia's destiny, Mary's spirit

USAIN BOLT AT THE OLYMPICS
- by Ashish Magotra 

It was the fastest 100-meter race in history, with seven of the eight finalists running under 10 seconds. But once Usain Bolt got into his stride, there was simply no catching him.

The backdrop: It was past midnight in India by the time Bolt stepped up to the starting line with the eyes of the world focused on him. One look at him and you wouldn’t say he was nervous. You wouldn’t even say he was a man who had been left vulnerable by a multitude of back problems, mechanical issues with his start and by a defeat in the Jamaican Olympic trials by Yohan ‘The Beast’ Blake.

Usain Bolt - in a league of his own. Reuters

In fact, before the race Bolt was playing around with Blake during warm-ups. They were joking together; joking like they were getting ready for practice and not the biggest race on the planet. Bolt even found time to play with the TV cameras that spied on them. It may all seem cool now but imagine how he would have looked if he had lost the race.

But Bolt’s confidence wasn’t arrogance that turned you off – strangely enough, it made you want to root for him. He’s cocky as hell but he’s the best and he knows it.

The moment: So as he stepped up to the starting line and got into the blocks, I crossed my fingers and tried not the blink. The weakest part of Bolt’s game is his start – he is so tall that he takes a fair bit of time to get off the blocks and that is where Blake had the advantage.

But in London, his 0.165secs reaction time was significantly better than both Blake and Gatlin. And that’s when you knew that this was going to be his race.

By the mid-way mark, he had caught up with Blake and Gatlin and then he pulled away. He didn’t have time to celebrate before the race was over – as he did in Beijing. But his time of 9.63 seconds was a new Olympic record.

The race was over in the blink of an eye but it sure was worth staying up for. A few days later, he won the 200m title too and celebrated by doing some push-ups.

And with Bolt, that’s the thing, the fun never ends.

ZAMBIA WIN AFRICAN CUP OF NATIONS
- by Pulasta Dhar 

Some moments are more than just sporting brilliance. Others stand out in time because of their historical significance for the way they bind a nation together, the way they unfold, the way they turn tragedy to success, and for the way they make your skin prickle every time you remember them. Such moments are talked about forever. They become part of your culture, of your heritage.

They become legend.

One such moment was when Zambia, the team least expected to win the African Cup of Nations lifted the trophy by beating Ivory Coast 8-7 on penalties in a match which rates right up there in the 'thrilling' list.

The backdrop

27 April, 1993: A promising Zambian team, which had beaten Italy 4-0 at the 1988 Olympics perishes in a plane crash just 500 metres offshore from Libreville, Gabon — while travelling to Senegal for a World Cup Qualifier.

Zambia - the champions of Africa. Reuters

10 April, 1994: Skipper Kalusha Bwalya was not on that fateful plane because he was playing for PSV at the time and had separate travel arrangements. He led a hastily assembled squad to the final of the 1994 African Cup of Nations, only to be beaten 2-1 from behind by Nigeria. Still, the feat was nothing but heroic.

The moment

12 February, 2012: Libreville, Gabon —Just miles inland from where the plane had crashed in 1993.

Zambia were up against the star-power of Didier Drogba, Kolo and Yaya Toure, Cheick Tiote, Salomon Kalou and Didier Zokora among others.

After a well-contested 70 minutes, Zambia gave away a penalty and up stepped Drogba to take it... only for him to side-kick it horribly over. Zambia were alive — and it looked like divine intervention to assure that.

In the penalty shootout, after 14 successive spot-kicks, both teams missed their 8th takes. But Gervinho threw Zambia another chance to enter the history books as he missed the 17th spot-kick.

Zambians, a fiercely god-fearing people, were kneeling on the grass, looking toward the sky, praying, singing and holding hands as 22-year-old Stophira Sunzu marked his run-up and slotted in the winning penalty to leave a whole nation delirious in glory.

Those young souls from 1993 could finally rest in peace.

As I wrote back in February:  The waters of the Victoria Falls will roar louder than usual, the copper exports that help run the nation will shine brighter, the hippos that snooze at night will find the grass greener in the morning, the Luangwa Valley will be chirpier, the loveable people who live in the nation, secluded from news and occurrences around them will bask in the pride, and for those who have lived there for the best part of a decade, will smile a bit wider than usual — because Zambia, Zambia are Champions of Africa.

Having grown up in the country and covering most of the team for a very short stint, I may have overlooked better moments from the sporting calendar this year.

But this is my moment, because it convinces me that in sport, fairy tales still exist.

MARY KOM AND THE HUMAN SPIRIT
- by Tariq Engineer 

At its finest and most pure, sport is about the human spirit. To reach the top demands hard work, long hours, complete commitment and the will to push the human body to the absolute edge of its limits, and sometimes beyond them. No one exemplified that more in 2012 than Mangte Chungneijang Mary Kom.

The backdrop: A five-time World Champion already, Mary had nothing left to prove. But with women’s boxing being introduced in the Olympics for the first time, here, finally, was her chance to win an Olympic medal.

A five-time World Champion already, Mary had nothing left to prove. Reuters

The deck was stacked against her from the start. The lowest weight category was 51 kilos. Mary had never fought at a weight higher than 48; and most of her career has been spent fighting at 45 kilos. Her coach wasn’t allowed in the Olympic village. Her opponents were all taller than her and had greater reach. None of this mattered.

She used her speed and resolve to beat Karolina Michalczuk of Poland 19-14 in her opening bout and then trumped Maroua Rahali of Tunisia 15-6 in the quarter-finals. That meant she was guaranteed at least a bronze medal. In the semis, Mary was up against Great Britain’s Nicola Adams, who had beaten her in the World Championship semi-final earlier in the year and was the home town favourite.

Nicola matched Mary for speed and her greater height and reach allowed her to breach Mary’s defenses. Yet Mary never stopped trying until the final bell of the final round. And it was in losing that her grace and character shone brightest.

The moment: "Sorry, I couldn't win Gold or Silver but I gave my best," Mary said after her 11-6 loss. In that moment, her desire and humility were laid bare for everyone to see. She wanted more but she had done everything she could. If she still came up short, there was no shame in that because there was nothing left to give. In an age where far too many sportsmen and woman believe winning is the only thing, Mary showed us what it truly means to be an Olympic athlete.

LIVE