2008: Here we come

BARRY NEWCOMBE, chairman of the SJA (pictured here during one of our special lunches last year with Rob Andrew), greets the 2008 sporting year, and the Association’s 60th anniversary

The start of 2008 focuses the mind on the Beijing Olympic Games in August as never before, and it is fair to say that if potential medallists are not ready now, they never will be.

Obviously it will be a Chinese show for the world beyond our imagination and the level of expectation of China’s people should be a massive stimulation to the country’s athletes. Expect them to push their past achievements to even higher levels. Expect their methods to be examined as never before. And expect Olympic chiefs to hope beyond hope that these Games are not tainted.

Here in Britain the opening of the Beijing Games means that on the evening of the third Sunday in August London will receive the Olympic flag in the solemn ceremony which must accompany the transfer of the Games from China to Great Britain for the 2012 Olympiad. Today, London’s Olympic site in Stratford endured a dark day with frequent rain. But the 2012 organisers are confident they will be ready to stage a games of non-stop magnificence and with a lasting legacy.

The end of 2007 drew the curtain on an indifferent year for sport in Britain. In team sports, football was a disaster. Not one of the British sides managed to qualify for the 2008 European championships and if Scotland and England thought they were in with a chance of doing so in the late stages their hopes were dashed on their home pitches, Scotland by Italy, England by Croatia, who although already qualified, still handed the hosts a defeat at Wembley.

Even before the team managed by the now dismissed Steve McLaren – replaced by an Italian, Fabio Capelli – had run through all of its challenges, the England cricket team also failed to make a mark, principally in the World Cup, where the poor performances cost coach Duncan Fletcher his job and leaves the game with a huge task to change its fortunes.

In Rugby Union, England’s defence of the World Cup in France produced an embarrassing 36-0 defeat in the pool stage against South Africa. That led to an internal sort out and a new game plan, so much so that England turned their tournament around, beat Australia in the quarter-finals and France in Paris in the semi-finals, but were beaten by South Africa once more in the final. England did pick up some awards as team of the year – but there were precious few other contenders.

Individuals did the country proud. Lewis Hamilton looked for a while as if he would claim the F1 world championship in his first year on the track. He brought a relaxed and responsible approach to being an outstanding new kid on the block and had a start to the year of such blazing commitment and success that he seemed certain to bring the title to McLaren. He missed out, but the foundations have been laid.

Frankie Dettori at last became a Derby winner and if you wanted to find a winner on a horse this year, look no further than one of the Whitaker family. On the team front, the British equestrian riders must be fancied for Olympic medals in Hong Kong.

British tennis is a long overdue an individual Wimbledon champion – Virginia Wade in 1977 and Fred Perry in 1936 were the last – and there has to be some belief that Andy Murray, injured for much of last summer, can make a serious challenge this time on almost any surface. But the problems he could face on a fast court are all wrapped up in the shape of Roger Federer, while Raphael Nadal still looks unstoppable on clay.

Justin Rose’s surge last year to win the European order of merit suggests he will be well in the hunt for further honours this year. And maybe Ricky Hatton, after having to give way to the rare skills of Floyd Mayweather in Last Vegas, will drop a weight and hopefully find fresh inspiration this year. A word or two with the unstoppable Joe Calzaghe may help.

And wherever these events take place, present to commentate, photograph and report the sporting successes, and some failures, will be SJA members, working hard to capture the excitement and provide insight for the public.

Sixty years on from when London last staged an Olympic Games, 1948, prompting the formation of what was then called the Sports Writers’ Association, the face of sport has changed beyond recognition. Likewise, so has the work of the SJA changed over the years – but we intend to be where it matters – from Wembley to Wimbledon to Beijing – to offer help, advice and assistance to our colleagues.

Some names to watch for in Olympic year
Paul Hayward, in the Daily Mail, on the prospects for 2008

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