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As part of the continuing theme of looking forward to the year ahead, today is the turn of the sporting world. For many the sporting year 2012 has been on the horizon since 6th July 2005, when London beat the more-fancied Paris in the vote for the 30th Olympiad, however the new year promises a banquet of entertainment, even for those who cannot share Lord Coe’s enthusiasm. Below are the 5 sporting events that have us salivating and rubbing our hands in anticipation at Trivial Pursuits.

  1. The 2012 Olympic Games

Whether or not the sight of Usain Bolt running a new World Record with his laces untied thrilled you four years ago, the Olympics is going to be massive for the country. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know your Chris Hoy from Chris Foy (as some Spurs fans proved a few weeks ago), the games are going to be on your doorstep and it is impossible not to be in some way excited. Yes, the tube is going to be abhorrent, and the opening ceremony will probably be every bit as risible as some of the choices of venues, but the fact remains: the world’s top performers in almost every sporting field will be here competing for the ultimate in individual glory.

Team GB have come on leaps and bounds since their disappointing showing in Atlanta 16 years ago, where Redgrave and Pinsent’s solitary gold medal left us sandwiched between Ethiopia and Belarus in 36th place. A steady improvement since culminated in an unprecedented 4th place in Beijing, where medals were flooding back to blighty at a quite unbelievable rate. Anything approaching that would be a huge success, but with the cycling teams, Phillips Idowu et al. looking in good nick, plus the unstoppable Ben Ainslie (surely Britain’s least acclaimed hero?) at the helm of his Finn, God Save the Queen should be playing over a fair few podiums this summer.

Of course, the Olympics is not just about blinkered national pride though. The thrill of the event is watching records fall and legends rise, especially here on our doorstep. Stories like Bolt’s in China will be created and a privileged few will be able to say forever that they were there when history was made.

  1. The Ryder Cup

The Ryder Cup is without a doubt the most accessible that golf gets for the casual fan. The individual nature of the majors ensure that while you may have soft spots for certain players, the link with fans is tenuous at best. Not so the Ryder Cup. The might of the USA take on Europe (and there is something incredibly warming about the way their jumble of nationalities consistently display more unified pride than their opponents) over the course of three days of breathtaking match-play golf.

Traditionally Europe tend to lead the foursomes and fourballs, while the US rally on the final day singles, where more points are at stake. However nothing is certain. The turbulent nature of momentum in match-play golf means that by Sunday you can practically keep yourself enthralled merely by watching the scoreboard, as the 12 singles matches swing to and fro. Heroes are made, and often from the most unlikely sources, as Paul McGinley, Phillip Price and countless other unfancied giant-slayers down the years will testify. Some players thrive on the atmosphere (Seve Ballesteros, Colin Montgomerie and lately Ian Poulter spring to mind), while so often the big guns falter.

This year’s event is in late September at Medinah, Illinois, host of the 2006 PGA Championship. The time delay of 5 hours will cause many European viewers to come into work bleary-eyed on Monday, but from past experience it will be worth it. With Luke Donald leading Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy and Martin Kaymer at the top of the world rankings, team Europe has never looked stronger, but as the Americans will tell you, this means little once the teams put on their blue and red tops.

  1. Kauto Star’s last hurrah?

A few months ago, the suggestion would be laughable, but after seeing off the challenge of a strong field (led by 2011 Gold Cup winner Long Run) to win a record-breaking 5th King George VI chase at Kempton, the greatest racehorse of our lifetime could put another and surely final chapter in his phenomenal story.

No horse had ever regained the Cheltenham Gold Cup before Kauto Star took back what was rightfully his from Denman in 2009. It therefore seems all the more unlikely that, after losing to both Imperial Commander and the youthful legs of Long Run in the following years, he will be able to regain the prize for a second time. Factor in as well that no 12 year old has won the race since What a Myth in 1969 (in fact no 11 year olds have won in that time either) and you begin to see what an incredible achievement it would be for Kauto and his partner-in-crime Ruby Walsh to lead the field over the finish line in March.

But this is horse racing, strange things happen, and having won both the Betfair Chase and the King George already this season, who’s to say that Kauto Star won’t bring the curtain down on his career in spectacular fashion? Indeed after those two successes, ordinarily he would be the favourite at Cheltenham.

Having witnessed both of his previous Gold Cup victories in the flesh, I can safely say that the place will erupt should he complete his hat-trick. Anyone with an interest in racing should try to get Friday tickets to Cheltenham, you just might see history in the making. Additionally, should such heights be hit, is it going too far to suggest that he should win Sports Personality of the Year? After all, the BBC’s woman of the month for December was a panda… Just saying.

  1. Euro 2012

The European Championships is often overlooked by the part-time fans. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t have the global appeal of the World Cup, maybe it’s because England have such a poor history in the competition, but despite hosting (and coming painfully close to winning) it in 1996 it doesn’t attract the same sort of rabid excitement that its global neighbour does. There is however plenty to like about it.

For starters, despite the brilliance of some South American nations, football is a European game. Here lie the vast majority of powerhouses of the global game, both clubs and countries. UEFA can’t fuck around and give the tournament to absurd nations with no infrastructure or history in the game, because nearly every country in Europe is football mad, has been playing for years and has the stadia to effectively host the thing. Additionally, the climate is pretty consistent throughout the continent, so none of the players can whinge about it being too hot. Theoretically the conditions are perfect for football.

The quality of football is often higher at the European Championships too, a theory that is particularly apt at the moment, given the current paucity of Brazil and Argentina. Euro 2008 was, despite (or possibly because of)England’s absence, one of the most enjoyable tournaments in recent memory. The Dutch came flying out the traps, Russia thrilled in the knock-outs, but Spain swept imperiously to victory (with considerably more style than they did in South Africa two years later). This time round Spain, the Netherlands and tournament specialists Germany will be in the mix, the latter sporting their strongest squad for some time. England, Portugal and France will be fancied by some, while the Euros has a history of throwing up quirky winners.

England’s journey may have got off to a shaky start with Wayne Rooney idiotically banned for the first two games and the team bafflingly not changing hotels, despite playing all their games in a different country, but that’s no reason to not expect another great football tournament in Poland & Ukraine in June whether we win or crash out on penalties… As usual.

  1. England vs South Africa

The final of our sporting highlights for 2012 concerns the sport where we are top dog at the moment, cricket. The world’s top two sides by a considerable distance, England and South Africa, face off in a disappointingly brief series (due to fixture scheduling it is only a three-test series) during July and August. Should England beat Graeme Smith’s team, then they can justifiably claim to be undisputed world champions.  

Both teams are incredibly strong in both facets of the game. For all the havoc wreaked by Jimmy Anderson and co over the last two years,South Africa have the world’s best bowler in Dale Steyn, supported ably by Morne Morkel. As many runs as Bell, Cook and Pietersen have amassed, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla will try to match them. It promises to be a fascinating contest, where the only area of undeniable dominance is the spin department (Graeme Swann’s controlled off breaks give England the edge over just about every team in the world in this regard).

Two of the games are in London, which slightly goes against the current trend for decentralising the test circuit in this country, but given my location I’m loathe to complain. It should be a much closer series than the Indians last summer, and one which will hopefully confirm Andrew Strauss’s boys as the best outfit in the world.

There are of course many other highlights to the sporting year. Kimi Raikonnen’s return to F1 means there are now six Drivers Champions on the grid for each race, while elsewhere time will tell if Manchester City can finally buy the title or Harlequins can continue their renaissance to win the Aviva Premiership, and it just wouldn’t be a new year without some fresh and misguided hope of Andy Murray winning a major at last… Stay tuned!

by Harry Harland

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