In a year that disappointed in many ways, sports brought us solace, entertainment, and a necessary outlet for distraction – particularly with the usually slow summer period filled with Euro 2016, Copa América Centenario, and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Here are 10 of the sports stories that inspired, entertained and moved us in 2016:
The 2016 Olympics
There were plenty of moments from Rio that caused us to smile or made our jaws drop in amazement. An emotional Neymar led Brazil to its first Olympic gold in Soccer. Monica Puig won Puerto Rico’s first Olympic gold in anything. Half-man, half-tank Mijaín López won his third straight gold medal in wrestling. And although some countries had no success in reaching the podium, every Latin American country can be proud of the men and women who represented in Rio. The games weren’t perfect, though. Taking place during a period of political and economic turmoil for Brazil, the games were mired in stories of protests, crime, and Zika virus panic. Later, handsome doofus Ryan Lochte’s wild night out, fake robbery accusation, and subsequent smearing of the host city overshadowed many of the actual athletic feats.
Still, from the amazing opening ceremony to the impressive feats of athleticism to a horse dancing to Rob Thomas, these Olympic games kept us entertained throughout.
Baseball lost one of its brightest stars with the passing of Miami Marlins ace José Fernández. The Cuban-American pitcher died in a boating accident on September 25. The news hit the South Florida community extra hard because of his popularity and status as a symbol of hope for the Cuban community.
Dan Le Batard, who basically serves as the national voice of the Miami sports fan, put it best when he said, “He loved what he did, loved it so hard and so big, loved it so much that he forced you to love it, too. Fernandez played the way the best Latin music feels. He acted like a little boy in a sports world soaked with adult problems and cynicisms that can make us lose sight of the root verb at the center of what he did for a living. To play. You expected him to throw his glove into the sky at the end of successful innings. And you know what watching him work felt like to South Florida’s Cubans? Freedom.”
Marlins players honored Fernández by wearing his name and number during their first game after his death, and Dee Gordon hit a leadoff home run in a surreal moment that reminded us of the healing power of sports. The tributes haven’t stopped in the offseason. The city will be naming a street after him, José Fernández Avenue, and current and former Marlins also had a mural made in Rio de Janeiro in his honor.
Read Le Batard’s touching tribute in its entirety if you’d like to get a sense of the loss that the South Florida community and the world experienced.
Amanda Nunes made history on July 9 at UFC 200 by becoming the first Brazilian woman to hold a UFC belt. Nunes also happens to be the fighting company’s first openly gay champion. Since Holly Holm’s knockout of Ronda Rousey, no one has successfully defended the UFC Women’s Bantamweight Championship. She will attempt to be the first when she faces a returning Rousey on December 31. Nunes has been overshadowed so far in the promotion of the fight goes, as UFC commentator Joe Rogan noted. But Nunes is unlikely to care because the check will be fat and she will have the chance to make her name against one of the biggest stars in the UFC (second only to McGregor).
One of the longest droughts in sports came to an end this year when the Chicago Cubs won the World Series in a dramatic seven game series, bringing joy and relief to Cubs fans who had been waiting since 1908. Among those who helped clinch the win were a trio of Venezuelans in Héctor Rondón, Wilson Contreras, and Miguel Montero, and a pair of Cubans in Jorge Soler and Albert Almora. However the true standout was Javier Báez. The 24-year-old second baseman became the co-MVP of the National League Championship Series.
Báez also provided the most adorable moment of the World Series when he playfully drew fellow Puerto Rican Francisco Lindor’s ire by touching his hair. Many fans got to share the moment with long-suffering relatives, while others could only reminisce and think about the departed Cub fans in their lives and what the win would have meant to them.
Get to know more about Báez and his tattoo here, or take a deeper look at his impact on the Puerto Rican community in this feature.
One of the best stories of 2016 turned into the most tragic on November 28 when a plane from Santa Cruz de la Sierra to Rionegro crashed, killing 71 people aboard. Among the deceased were 19 players from Chapecoense, a Brazilian first division team traveling for the first leg of the Copa Sudamericana final in Medellín against Atlético Nacional.
Since the tragedy, support for Chapecoense has come from all across the world. Instead of the scheduled game, the Colombian club hosted a moving tribute to the fallen players in front of a stadium full of supporters. CONMEBOL named Chapecoense the winner of the Copa Sudamericana, and its president lifted the cup with a representative of Atlético Nacional. Barcelona invited the Brazilian team to play for the Joan Gamper Trophy – an annual friendly game played during the pre-season. Fellow Brazilian clubs have offered to help the club rebuild with free loaned players and a proposal to protect the club from relegation for three years.
That the club was in position to challenge for an international club trophy shows the impressive rise of a club that only seven years ago played in the fourth tier of Brazilian soccer.
Copa América Centenario
This year marked the 100th anniversary of the Copa América, so CONMEBOL celebrated by throwing a big-ass tournament in the United States that included every member of the South American federation and six teams from CONCACAF. The tournament was a huge success in terms of ratings and attendance, according to Forbes. Chile won the tournament, building on its success at the 2015 Copa América and establishing itself as one of the world’s best teams. A good time was had by all – well, by most. Chile absolutely clowned Mexico in a 7-0 game. Messi also took Argentina’s loss in the finals especially hard and retired from international football for like two months.
Usually, it can take some time for even the most talented basketball players in the world to adjust to the speed and talent on display in the NBA. But Dominican Karl-Anthony Towns hit the ground running after being the top pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, averaging about 18 points, 10 rebounds, and almost two blocks per game. He received every first place vote in Rookie of the Year voting this May, something accomplished by only four other players in NBA history. His sophomore season so far has been even better, with increases in both scoring and rebounding. KAT is taking over the league, and if you try to stop him, he will dunk on you. Even if you’re a small child.
With David Ortiz’s official retirement this year, the Boston Red Sox bid farewell to one of the biggest hitters and personalities in baseball. A member of the club since 2003, the 41-year-old is a legend in Boston after helping to end an 85-year World Series drought in 2004. He went on to win two more world titles and rack up many individual accolades. But beyond the hits and homers, his most memorable moment may just be his passionate speech to the home crowd after the Boston Marathon bombing.
Ortiz’s 2016 stats demonstrate he could have easily changed his mind and kept right on playing. Of course, that would have sucked for all the people who paid tribute to Big Papi as he visited their towns for the last time. Take a look at how each team said goodbye to Ortiz, courtesy of ESPN. Even the Yankees couldn’t stay mad at the lovable Ortiz forever.
This year, Conor McGregor established himself as the biggest star in mixed martial arts. After finishing 2015 on a high note by knocking out José Aldo in 13 seconds to claim the UFC Featherweight Championship, McGregor set his sights on becoming the UFC’s first two-division champion. Unfortunately, his scheduled fight against the Lightweight champion at the time, Rafael dos Anjos was called off. And in stepped Nate Díaz, who had previously called out McGregor in an expletive-laced tirade.
The build up was excellent, because McGregor and Díaz have no fear and like to talk trash (though some of it might go too far, like calling Díaz a crackhead ese, which led to the fighters and their crews throwing bottles at each other in a bizarre scene). The fight was even better, with Díaz eating a lot of punishment before ultimately staggering McGregor and forcing him to submit with a choke. They went at it again six months later, with the two slugging it out for five rounds in one of the best fights of the year. Marc Raimondi of MMA looked at Díaz’s crazy year, which saw him become one of the UFC’s biggest names.
Laurie Hernandez won fans across the world with her performances and general enthusiasm at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. And she didn’t stop there. Hernandez rightfully chose to strike while the iron was hot by turning professional, making her ineligible to compete in college, but super eligible to get that paper from sponsors. After Rio she made herself into an even bigger name by winning the 23rd edition of Dancing With The Stars. The Ringer’s Katie Baker profiled Hernandez before her breakout performance at the Olympics.