What a year 2012 was for sports fans! At the London Olympics, swimming, diving and water polo teams sauntered around the pool and showered for the TV cameras in the skimpiest Speedos. In professional sports, veterans and rookies thrilled us with record-breaking performances, not to mention their athletic bodies. And throughout the year there was something new to sports: outspoken compassion, caring and genuine support for those current and future athletes who choose to come out of the closet once and for all.
So let us cheer the year in sports with an admittedly personal selection of the athletes who stood out from the rest due to their sportsmanship, athletic ability and, above all, those bodies that are to die for.
Look for AfterElton’s first “Sportsman of the Year Award” – presented to the individual athlete whose courage, compassion, sportsmanship and ability (on and off the field) deserve to be recognized.
Sports writers and fans this year awarded Roger Federer a crowning achievement when near-universal agreement bestowed the title of “Greatest tennis player of all time” on the 31 year-old Swiss-born ace who has utterly dominated the game since 2003. A furry and congenial fan favorite, Federer may have capped his career by playing in one of the greatest tennis matches of all time at Wimbledon this year. In a marathon four sets, Federer defeated Andy Murray to win the Final and regain his world number one ranking. It was Federer’s seventh Wimbledon championship, tying him with Pete Sampras.
Federer is married to former Women’s Tennis Association player Mirka Vavrinec and they are parents of twin girls. He supports a number of charities through the Roger Federer Foundation and has appeared in UNICEF public service spots to raise awareness of AIDS. An all-around athlete, Federer has acknowledged that his athletic abilities were largely forged in his youth, when he played every sport he encountered, though, he said, “I was always very much more interested if a ball was involved.”
World tennis records were shaken up this year at the U.S. Open by Scottish tennis player Murray when he became the first British man since 1936 to win a Grand Slam singles tournament. Then, at the 2013 London Olympics, he thrilled the nation by defeating Roger Federer in straight sets to win the Gold Medal in Men’s Singles, becoming the first British champion in more than 100 years. He is the only man to win the US Open and Olympic Gold back-to-back.
Born with a biparte patella, where the kneecap remains as two separate bones instead of fusing together in childhood – he has been seen holding his knee due to pain and has dropped out of competition because of it. Prone to injury, the sexy Scot was expected to continue his career mostly as a runner up – until replacing his coach this year and improving his already remarkable athletic abilities. Outspoken and frequently in trouble with the British press for his comments, Murray is a handsome and lively competitor.
The best arms in the tennis business – as well as numerous other parts that are quite fine – belong to Nadal, who is considered by tennis fans to be one of the greatest players of all time. Nicknamed the “King of Clay” because of his mastery of clay courts, the lean and muscular Nadal returned a vocal and sensual passion to the game that may have been missing during most of the Sampras/Federer years. In 2012 “Rafa” suffered through tendonitis (and withdrew from several competitions), illness and injury to realize his greatest athletic achievement: winning the French Open in a remarkable encounter with Number One ranked player Novak Djokovic.
Now claimed by sportswriters to be the best tennis match ever played, Nadal won the first two sets, but lost 8 straight to Djokovic, when play was called due to rain. When play resumed, Nadal’s overpowering serve and returns demolished Djokovic and Nadal won his seventh French Open title, surpassing Bjorn Borg’s overall titles record to become the most successful player in French Open history. In all of the 2012 clay court season, Nadal lost only three sets.
Nathan Adrian – Swimming
The 6’6” American stunned Olympics viewers when he won Gold medals in both the 100-meter freestyle and the 4×100-meter medley relay, bringing his career international competition medal count to 15. Adrian currently holds the American record in both the 50 and 100-yard freestyle events.
David Boudia – Diving
The diminutive Texan arrived at the London Olympics with great expectations, but a series of miscalculations and unfortunate diving strategies nearly cost him a medal in his best event, the 10-meter platform. Barely advancing from the prelims (he came in 18th), Boudia rebounded with a series of remarkably poised and athletic dives, and eventually beat World Champion Qui Bo and London favorite Tom Daley to win gold, becoming the first individual American diver to receive a medal since the 1996 Atlanta Games.
Tom Daley – Diving
A star of the first magnitude was born right before our appreciative eyes on national television. British diver Tom Daley (whose calendar is a best-seller) took the world by storm as he sensuously walked from the pool to the showers in a two-sizes-too-small Speedo. A literal “poster boy” of the Olympics (huge banners featuring his nearly naked image were plastered across department store exteriors in England) Daley’s performances proved disappointing, settling for the Bronze Medal in the 10-meter platform, his signature event.
Matthew Mitcham – Diving
The performance of out Australian diver Matthew Mitcham was probably one of the most disappointing of the 2010 Olympic Games. The highly skilled athlete had previously been a consistent performer, and was expected to medal in his specialist event, the 10 meter platform. Instead, he placed 13th in the semifinals, and narrowly missed the mark to qualify for finals. As revealed in his 2012 autobiography, Mitcham had begun using methamphetamine in 2001 and is currently in recovery from addiction.
Fabian Hambuechen – Gymnast
When German Hanbuechen competed in the 2004 Athens Games, he was one of the youngest gymnasts ever and finished 7th in the Horizontal bar. Since then, he’s won five World Championship medals and six European Championship medals. In 2007, sportswriters named him the male German sportsperson of the year. At the London Olympics he competed in a number of events, and won Silver in the Horizontal bar competition.
Ryan Lochte – Swimming
Good-looking, sweet and language-challenged men and women abound in athletics, but none more so than the adorable Lochte. He combined charm with an ability to attract medals like a magnet to dominate swimming events – and position himself as a better swimmer than World Champion Michael Phelps. Though his celebrity may fade fast, his Olympic records will not: his five London medals brought his total to 11 Olympic medals, placing him behind Phelps, and tied with Mark Spitz and Matt Biondi.
Kevin Love – Basketball
At 6’10”, the 24 year old Californian (who plays professionally for the Minnesota Timberwolves) joined an Olympic basketball team that was considered to be woefully short of tall men. Though appearing vulnerable at times, the US team went undefeated in the London Olympics, narrowly defeating Spain to win Gold.
LeShawn Merritt – Sprinter
The 5th fastest man on the planet, Merritt won the 2008 Beijing Gold in the 400 meter race. In 2010 results showed that Merritt had failed drug tests – he claims the failed drug tests resulted from his use of an over-the-counter penis enlargement product – and accepted a multi-year suspension. Merritt was the number one qualifier at the 2012 Olympic Trials, but two weeks before the Olympics he tweaked his hamstring. Because of this injury he pulled up in a qualifying heart of the 400 and did not finish.
Clemente Russo – Boxing
The handsome Italian, who works as a policeman, competed in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics but was eliminated in early rounds. A new coach and growing confidence led to rare back-to-back Olympics Silver medals in 2008 and 2012. With looks like his, it’s no wonder Russo has embarked on a modeling and acting career. In 2011 he starred in Tatanka, portraying, naturally, himself as a young boxer growing up in the Neopolitan mob heartland.
Tour de France
The handsome British cyclist dominated the 2012 Tour de France with great sprinting performances in many stages of the race – despite being involved in a devastating large crash in the final kilometers of an early stage. On July 22, Cavendish won the final stage of the Tour de France on the Champs-Elysees for a record fourth consecutive year and became the most successful sprinter in Tour de France history. His team, Team Sky, and teammate Bradley Wiggins, eventually won the 2012 Tour.
Randy de Puniet
A championship motorcycle racer since 1998, the handsome young racer is also a bit of a crash test dummy, having fractured his ankle and more recently broken his leg. An attractive personality and bestselling author in his native France, de Puniet is a founding member of the “Champions for Peace” group of 54 famous athletes committed to serving peace in the world through sports.
Not a star rugby player by any means, Haskell’s consistent play has made him competitive in the English sport. A handsome raconteur, Haskell’s sexy past (expelled from Wellington College for making a sex tape) and restless career (he’s played for several teams and just returned to his original team, the London Wasps) make him a unique presence in Great Britain sports.
The handsome England-born light welterweight (5’10”) boxer is a former two-time World Champion and former unified WBA and IBF light welterweight champion. The youngest British Olympic boxing medalist, Khan won Silver at the 2004 Athens Olympics at the age of 17. After an absence from the sport, this December 15 he will make his comeback fight against undefeated Mexican-American boxer Carlos Molina at the LA Sports Arena in a fight broadcast by Showtime.
America’s most handsome athlete had a big year, becoming only the fourth quarterback in NFL history to throw for more than 5,000 yards in a single season. His remarkable season was capped by disappointment at the Super Bowl, where Brady’s Patriots met the New York Giants for the second time in five years. Brady played will, leading a Super Bowl record-tying 96-yard touchdown drive and completing 16 passes in a row, another Super Bowl record. In the end, he was penalized for intentional grounding in the end zone, leading to a final score of 21-17 for the Giants that kept Brady from winning his fourth Super Bowl.
Jackson has unfortunately become more famous for his emotional outbursts on and off the field than for the “miraculous” punt return that enshrines him in the record books. In 2010, in a tied game against the New York Giants, Jackson returned a punt for 65 yards to lead the Philadelphia Eagles to win in the final 14 seconds of the game. This was the first and is the only game-winning punt return on the final play from scrimmage in the history of the NFL. This year, the Eagles signed Jackson to a generous 5-year contract, but he was injured in November and was placed on reserve.
Griffin wears #10 for the Redskins, with “Griffin III” on the back. Nicknamed RG3, he is the first quarterback in NFL history to be born in the 1990’s. Winner of the 2011 Heisman Trophy, is rookie season with the redskins has been nothing short of spectacular, and D.C. football fans have responded with a fervor not seen in FedEx Field in a generation – RG3 has rekindled their faith in making the playoffs.
A day after the tragic murder-suicide by Kansas City Chiefs’ linebacker Javon Belcher, the underrated Quinn took to the field as the Chief’s quarterback and conducted an emotional 27-21 win over the Carolina Panthers, completing 19-23 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns. Following the game, he reflected, “When you ask someone how they are doing, do you really mean it? When you answer someone back how you are doing, are you really telling the truth? We live in a society of social networks, with Twitter pages and Facebook, and that’s fine, but we have contact with our work associates, our family, our friends, and it seems like half the time we are more preoccupied with our phone and other things going on instead of the actual relationships that we have right in front of us. Hopefully, people can learn from this and try to actually help if someone is battling something deeper on the inside than what they are revealing on a day-to-day basis.”
Forever famous for making a 2004 play that led to one of the biggest upset comebacks in Monday Night Football history, Ayanbedejo turned out to be the 2012 match that started a firestorm in the NFL regarding same sex marriage. A straight ally and very vocal supporter of marriage equality, his advocacy was attacked by Maryland State Delegate Emmett C. Burns, Jr. in a letter to Ayanbedejo’s boss, Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti. The letter urged Bisciotti to silence his player. According to the Washington Post, Ayanbedejo announced that he would not remain silent on an issue of conscience and importance. His statement received widespread support throughout football, including a scathing response to Burns from Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe.
He loves musical theatre, has presented at the Tonys, and used to date one of the Desperate Housewives.
A star high school player and a standout in college, Ackley was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in 2009 but only became a major leaguer this year, hitting a home run on his second day at bat. His success as a second baseman and as a slugger continued, and he was voted the Most Valuable Player of the Mariners by Seattle sportswriters.
One of the best players in baseball – and one of the best-looking – Kemp started the 2012 season secure in a massive new contract, but was forced to endure a series of injuries that nearly derailed him. Despite missing nearly two months, Kemp was voted by fans as a starter for the All-Star Game, but was unable to play. Finally, he re-joined the Los Angeles Dodgers in mid-July, playing well until a disastrous crash into the wall injured his knee and shoulder. He continued playing for the rest of the season.
The World Champion San Francisco Giants have a number of great players (see Buster Posey below) but none as handsome and graceful as the Puerto Rican Pagan. While playing for the New York Mets, Pagan was given the nickname “El Caballo Loco” (“Crazy Horse”) by his teammates. As lead off batter for the Giants, Pagan holds the Giants’ record for a home hitting streak, currently at 28. This last season, he broke the Giant’s record for most triples in a season.
A star high school and college baseball player who once played every position in a single game, Posey is destined to be a Hall of Fame inductee at the first available opportunity. After enduring a terrifying home plate crash that broke his ankle in the 2011 season, Posey re-engineered his entire body and returned to play this season with a renewed vigor and drive that single-handedly reinvigorated the San Francisco Giants and led to their second World Series win in three seasons.
Put politely, Wilson has had some ups and downs in baseball, but he just finished an “up” season, so he has that – and the best-looking face in baseball – going for him. One of the few pitchers in baseball to go eight straight postseason (playoff) starts without recording a victory, Wilson signed this season with the Anaheim Angels. Popularly known for coordinating the color of his glove with his uniform, Wilson currently wears a red glove for the Angels.
Olympic Bulge Standouts
Pardon us, we didn’t mean to stare, but some athletes just carry a little something extra, and it’s hard not to notice in speedos and Lycra. Let’s take a look back at the four Olympic athletes that most mesmerized us during London’s Summer. England swings? Does it ever!
Straight Ally Athlete of the Year
Chris Kluwe of the Minnesota Vikings
After Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo voiced his support for the Maryland ballot initiative that legalized same-sex marriage in the state, Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns, Jr. wrote a letter to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, urging him to “Inhibit such expressions from your employee.” For Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, the delegate’s response was unacceptable, and in an open letter published by the Huffington Post, Kluwe demolished arguments against equality with elegance and a few R-rated words:
In subsequent TV and radio interviews, Kluwe conducted himself as an able advocate of gay civil rights, and a welcoming NFL presence, looking forward to the day (hopefully soon) when gay players come out of the closet. Are there times when Kluwe’s rhetoric goes over the top? Sure. Are there times when Kluwe, like many athletes, exhibits a wandering brain that seeks to cover too many topics? Absolutely. Is there a better advocate to lead a crusade in sports to appreciate gay sports fans and support gay rights? Right here, right now, thanks to Chris Kluwe, that job is taken. Keep up the good work, Chris. And thanks.
Sportsman of the Year – Out and Victorious
On October 4, 2012, boxer Orlando Cruz became the most prominent currently active professional athlete to come out of the closet, effectively marking the beginning of what (we hope) will most certainly become a faster march toward equality and openness in professional sports. “I have and will always be a proud Puerto Rican,” he announced. “I have always been and always will be a proud gay man.” Cruz’s coming out made headlines around the world, and focused increased attention on the promising young featherweight fighter. With 22 professional fights since 2000, Cruz has won 19, 9 by knockout, and shows only increased strength in the wake of his coming out. In the ring just 15 days after his big announcement, Cruz was victorious over Jorge Pazos. In an interview broadcast by HBO Sports after the fight, Cruz revealed that he used to cry at home before and after the gym before he came out. As to why he chose to discuss his personal life in public, the courageous boxer said, “I want respect … in the ring and outside, on the street.”