PARIS – 'Tis the season for making merry and for choosing our top sports men and women of the year, two distinctly separate annual rituals that in fact dovetail neatly, because part of the joy and merriment of following sports is debating who is best at them.
This being an Olympic year, we were spoiled for choice in 2012.
Oscar Pistorius is a tempting candidate for most admirable sports person of the year, because of the Olympic history he made on his prosthetic legs. Click, click, click they went on the Olympic track, dismantling with a bang, bang, bang so many notions of what is and isn't humanly possible.
A fair play award should go to German footballer Miroslav Klose, for having the honesty to admit to the referee that his goal for Lazio against Napoli in September should not count because he knocked it in with his hand. Lance Armstrong would not have been stripped in 2012 of his Tour de France victories if, like Klose, he had resisted the temptation to cheat.
Sports Illustrated went for LeBron James as its Sportsman of the Year, a safe choice because it was also the obvious one. James could not have had a more successful 2012 on a basketball court, winning the NBA championship with the Miami Heat, the NBA's most valued player awards and Olympic gold in London with the U.S. team.
Olympic champion 20-kilometer race walker Chen Ding picked up an athlete award in his native China. The governing body of track and field gave its annual gongs to sprinters Usain Bolt and Allyson Felix. David Rudisha would have been an equally fine choice for the IAAF because the Kenyan runner was so impressive, as fluid and as powerful as the sea in a storm but controlled, too, when he won the Olympic 800 meters in world record time at the London Games.
But in any language and across all disciplines, for me the sports person of 2012 should be Lionel Messi.
For pure athleticism, a muscular colossus like Bolt is always going to stand taller than "the flea" — the nickname given by some to the 5-foot-5 (169-centimeter) footballer for Barcelona. Bolt is right: becoming the first sprinter this August to win both the 100 and 200 meters at consecutive Olympic Games made the Jamaican legendary.
Another legend, swimmer Michael Phelps, also deserves a mention in any athlete of the year debate, because 2012 was when the American became the most decorated Olympian ever.
Because of his chosen sport, Messi will never get remotely close to Phelps' career haul of 18 Olympic golds — twice as many as anyone else — and 22 medals. Where Messi and Phelps do compare is longevity: Phelps won his medals over eight years at three Olympic Games; Messi made his competitive debut for Barcelona's first team in 2004, the same year Phelps got his first Olympic medal, and has excelled ever since.
The consistent brilliance of Messi's play again this year is strengthening the argument that he should be considered above Pele and Diego Maradona as the best ever footballer. Messi will win that debate if, like them, he wins the World Cup in 2014.
In football, there is an argument to be made that Cristiano Ronaldo should be elected player of the year in 2012 — because of the importance of his goals and play in helping Real Madrid become champion of Spain, ending the three-year lock Messi's Barcelona had on that title. Football governing body FIFA hands out the Ballon d'Or award on Jan. 7. Messi? Ronaldo? In truth, the margin between them in terms of success on the field is wafer-thin this year.
But if you're a believer that professional sport is essentially a form of entertainment, then Messi was unbeatable in 2012.
He is the sports equivalent of The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Steven Spielberg or George Clooney — in the sense that, like them, so much of what Messi does is a hit.
He seems so rarely, if ever, to have a bad game. Even when Barcelona loses, and it lost some big matches in 2012 with him playing, Messi still shines. The speed of his play, his agility, his passes, the way he draws defenders and opens up gaps that teammates exploit, makes the team visibly better.
Proof of his quality as an entertainer is Messi's new world record, for goals scored in a single year. His 86 goals in 66 matches for Barcelona and Argentina works out at an average of more than a goal per game and surpassed the 40-year mark of Gerd Mueller, who got 85 goals in 60 matches for Bayern Munich and West Germany in 1972.
In some games, of course, Messi scored more than once, in others none. But, essentially, if you tuned in or bought a ticket to watch Messi in 2012, you were pretty much guaranteed a good time.
When opponents hack him down, Messi gets up again, no fuss. When he sets footballing milestones, he reminds everyone that he wouldn't be so successful without teammates passing him the ball. Watching Messi dart here and there on the pitch never gets tiring. You never want to yell at your television when Messi is playing or talking.
We expect a lot from our sports icons, often too much. But perhaps most of all we want the time that we spend with them — the 90 minutes of a match, the evening in a stadium — to be diverting and to make us feel good.
With Messi, in 2012, it always did.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester