Anybody can carve out a glorious path through victory. But try doing it in the throes of a gutting defeat, when a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is snatched away in a match against your arch-rival on one of your sport’s hallowed grounds, in no small measure because of an incompetent, intimidated official.
Monday, Christine Sinclair, the captain of Canada’s women’s soccer team, was named winner of the Lou Marsh Award as Canada’s athlete of the year after a season in which she broke her own record for goals (23) and won the Golden Boot as top scorer at the Olympics with six goals. Three of those goals came in a 4-3 loss to the United States in a poorly officiated semi-final match at Old Trafford that would have been remarkable even if the list of remarkable Canadian soccer moments wasn’t so limited.
It says volumes about Sinclair, a 29-year-old native of Burnaby, B.C., that for days at the 2012 London Olympics she held a country in rapt attention, first by losing, then raging against the injustice of Norwegian official Christina Pedersen.
Pedersen was in over her head given the pace and skill level of the match, and instead of just taking it, a Canadian athlete decided to speak out, showing a brazenness that has been in the best tradition of Canadian athletes, especially since the Vancouver Olympics.
Then in the bronze-medal match, Sinclair and her teammates were badly outplayed before a half-minute of magic and Diana Matheson delivered a 1-0 win over France. It was a bronze that sure felt like gold, and the best sports narrative of the year in Canada. Bar none.
Does a gold medal on the trampoline surpass that accomplishment? How about a year-long, slow and steady climb up the men’s tennis rankings, or the first win by a Canadian in one of cycling’s Grand Tours, or a season of dominance in a sport of traditional Canadian strength, speed skating?
All debatable, of course, but for the first time in the 76-year history of the award, named for a former sports editor of the Toronto Star, a panel of Canadian media representatives has chosen a soccer player as the country’s athlete of the year. And for the first time since 2008, the winner is a female.
No sport in this country has squandered as much financial and human capital as soccer, due to a toxic combination of administrative incompetence, provincial infighting and wrong-headed player development. But in Sinclair, there is hope, especially with Canada slated to play host to the women’s World Cup in 2015.
In a vote of representatives of major Canadian media outlets, Sinclair beat out cyclist Ryder Hesjedal, who likely would have needed Olympic success to burnish his win in the Giro d’Italia; Milos Raonic, who will win a few of these honours before his career is done; trampolinist and Canada’s only gold medalist in London, Rosie MacLennan; speed skater Christine Nesbitt; Canadian-born Calgary Stampeders running back Jon Cornish, and figure skater Patrick Chan.
There will be quibbles, of course. Steven Stamkos was this year’s default NHL player. There is the rabble who deem Georges St-Pierre’s few minutes of competitive activity as the signature Canadian sports event of 2012. And in a year of impressive performances by female athletes, no one dominated her sport in the manner of defending Olympic gold medalist bobsledder Kaillie Humphries, who has won seven consecutive World Cup races, including the world championship.
But then, nobody is ever really happy with the Marsh winner, since everybody brings his own agenda and biases to the debate. Hockey player or non-hockey? Amateur athlete or professional? Man or woman? Individual or team sport?
In 2012, nobody held the nation’s attention like Christine Sinclair.