Kris Shannon: Who made the biggest impact in 2016?

By Kris Shannon

The biggest names in 2016 were those who drew attention to issues bigger than any game
2016 AP YEAR END PHOTOS - San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Eli Harold, left, quarterback Colin Kaepernick, center, and safety Eric Reid kneel during the national anthem. Photo / AP.
2016 AP YEAR END PHOTOS - San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Eli Harold, left, quarterback Colin Kaepernick, center, and safety Eric Reid kneel during the national anthem. Photo / AP.

It was a pretty shitty year. From Trump to Aleppo to Bowie, there's no denying 2016 disappointed. But at least we had sport, right? Surely sweet, wonderful sport would never let us down?

Well, I have good and bad news, all in convenient listicle form. Because, like Time awarding its person of the year to the president-elect, these rankings reflect not the greatest sportspeople but those who made the greatest impact. Proceed with caution.

1. Andy Woodward
The sportsperson of the year is a 43-year-old retired footballer who played 180 games in an unremarkable 10-year career. But here are some more numbers to quantify Woodward's significance: in the three weeks after he revealed the horrific abuse he suffered while in Crewe's academy, a dedicated hotline for fellow victims in football received more than 1700 calls, while British police identified 83 potential suspects and found links to 98 clubs. Such a wide-ranging scandal proved not
even sport could escape this annus horribilis, but light must be shed in dark places.

Woodward flicking the switch makes him more important than any athlete.

2. Colin Kaepernick
Kaepernick was another who showed a sportsperson's influence extends well beyond the field of play. In refusing to stand for The Star-Spangled Banner, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback put an issue ahead of the individual, caring more about societal value than that of his next contract. His protest against the treatment of African-Americans made him unpopular but soon spread across sports, from fellow professionals to high
school teams. "To me," Kaepernick said, "this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish to look the other way." Kaepernick's actions were selflessness personified.

3. Claudio Ranieri
In a year of upsets, underdogs and fairytales, none was as unlikely as that masterminded by Ranieri. To put in perspective the 65-year-old's achievement in guiding an overmatched and out-spent Leicester City to the Premier League title, that same side are currently 14th in this season, four points above the relegation zone. You know, exactly where Leicester are supposed to be. But not only did the Foxes win the league, they won by 10 points while boasting the second-best goal difference. And in a team so much more than the sum of their parts, Ranieri must take the majority of the credit.

4. Theo Epstein
If Ranieri illustrated the power of a coach, Epstein did likewise for the executive. After all, it was hardly one player who captured the Chicago Cubs' first World Series since 1908; it was a collection. A collection methodically gathered by a baseball genius who, in five short years, turned the lovable losers into a juggernaut. That Epstein did the same in Boston a decade ago boggles the mind. And that his Cubs gave us the most memorable game of the year - their winner-take-all epic against the Cleveland Indians - deserves extra points.

5. Yuliya Stepanova
The athlete who should have made the biggest impact at the Rio Olympics never even competed. And her gallant efforts before the Games were ultimately in vain. But Stepanova will still be remembered more than most eventually entered under the Russian flag. The previously-unknown middle-distance runner helped expose her country's state-sponsored doping well before competition and, fearing for her life, watched as the sporting world did nothing as Russia claimed 55 medals. Months later, a World Anti-Doping Agency report alleged an unprecedented "institutional conspiracy" in Russian sport. Funny that.

6. LeBron James
Derided for leaving the Cavaliers to win, disparaged for joining forces with fellow All Stars and, having returned home to Cleveland, outclassed by the unstoppable Golden State Warriors, James destroyed the prevailing narratives in the course of three virtuoso performances in the NBA finals. To recap, with his Cavs in a 3-1 hole against the greatest regular-season team in history, James had 41 points and 16 rebounds in game five, then 41 points and 11 assists in game six, then a triple-double in game seven, almost single-handedly sealing the city of Cleveland's first championship since 1964.

7. Simone Biles
Biles was the breakout star at Rio, an athlete as brilliant as she was ebullient. Already possessing a strong case as the best to grace the world of gymnastics, the 19-year-old took three individual golds and, with the fellow members of the Final Five, also secured the team prize. But Biles represented much more than a champion gymnast. She was, as a young black woman, a different face atop the podium, and one whose presence in a sport like gymnastics - quintessentially American but never African-American - must have provided inspiration to all creeds.

8. Usain Bolt
Between the malfeasance of Russia's athletes and all the 'therapeutic-use exemptions' that emerged thanks to the malfeasance of Russia's hackers, Bolt was this year designated a sporting saviour, the clean anthesis to athletics' corrupt core. And, if you believe in such stories, the Jamaican delivered in Rio, capturing thee golds for the third straight Games. I've no idea whether Bolt enhanced his performance - though Jamaica's sketchy anti-doping history hardly inspires confidence - but he's became a Rorschach test of sport and, in this day and age, more relevant than ever.

9. Cristiano Ronaldo
In the biggest game of his life, Ronaldo was forced off after 25 minutes - and still stole the show. Having embarked on several rescue missions to ensure Portugal advanced to the final of the Euros, injury struck. There were, predictably, tears, and then something unexpected, as Ronaldo became a pseudo coach, bellowing encouragement and instruction from the sidelines to help his nation lift their first major trophy. Already a Champions League winner, Ronaldo was awarded his fourth Ballon d'Or, leaving him one behind Lionel Messi, the rival whose shadow he escaped in 2016.

10. Katie Ledecky
OK, this contravenes the initial premise: forget her overall impact, Ledecky was the greatest sportsperson of 2016. There are facts to share that support this assertion: that she won four golds at the Rio Games. That she became the first swimmer since 1968 to win the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyle titles. That she set two world records. But mere facts could not do justice to the sight of Ledecky in the 800m freestyle final, seemingly swimming in a pool of her own, finishing more than 10 seconds ahead of the best the world could offer. This year was terrible, but it was also pretty cool.

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