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The top 10 sports figures who helped define a year

And one New Year's wish: that the glories of sport trump the inglorious in the coming year.

Lance Armstrong: Who could have ever imagined that third-place would so become Lance? At 37 and after three seasons of retirement, Armstrong made an extraordinary return to the Tour de France. He not only found his glide, but a charm to complement his competitive edge — something that had eluded him back when he won a record seven consecutive Tours. He easily upstaged his teammate and eventual champion, Alberto Contador, making the Spaniard look like an insecure and callow kid. And he has fans looking forward to 2010 when he will return as the team leader of a new Radio Shack entry. Most likely Armstrong imitator in 2010: Michael Schumacher, regarded as the greatest driver in Formula One history when he retired in 2006, will return to the circuit at age 41.

Caster Semenya: The whole Semenya affair left track and field longing for the days when the only worry was doping scandals. The South African teen emerged from obscurity to run away from the field at 800 meters in the world championships. But the uproar afterwards centered on how the 18-year-old looked and ran like a man. The revelation that the sport’s governing body had already asked her to take a gender test only stoked the controversy. The prevailing suspicion was not that Semenya cheated, rather that she might be a hermaphrodite — with characteristics of both genders. The “verification” test pitted the desire for fair competition against privacy rights. No results were made public and the matter ended — for now — with Semenya allowed to keep her gold medal and prize money. Unclear was whether she would ever compete as a woman again. And, more importantly, what defines a woman in sports.

Luis Inacio Lula da Silva: Barack Obama never had a chance in Copenhagen, where Chicago lost its bid for the 2016 Olympics to Rio de Janeiro. The International Olympic Committee bore too many grievances against the often-dysfunctional American Olympic movement. Still, Brazilian president da Silva showed that executive charm was hardly an American prerogative. And he demonstrated perfect pitch in how he framed the debate about the future of the Olympics: Why, he asked, should the Games be the preserve of rich countries only? The IOC loves making history. Soccer’s World Cup had already beaten it to Africa. A first for South America proved an appealing alternative.

Kim Clijsters: Once upon a time, feminists posited that women could have it all. Clijsters, the 26-year-old Belgian tennis star, provided a stirring example of that possibility. Returning after a two-year retirement/maternity leave, the former world number one whipped the reigning queen, Serena Williams, to win the U.S. Open. (Williams provided a less welcome lesson in gender equality, demonstrating — with a tantrum aimed at an official — that a woman’s capacity for vile, on-court behavior can rival a man’s.) Clijsters was the first unseeded woman ever to win the tournament and, more notably, the first mommy to claim any major tennis title in three decades.

Kobe Bryant: After his standout performance — both on and off the court — at the Beijing Olympics, Bryant, given the rollercoaster pattern of his career, appeared due for a slump. Instead, he delivered superstar play and, more surprisingly, exemplary leadership, as the Los Angeles Lakers won the team’s first NBA title since 2002; it was Bryant’s fourth ring with L.A, but his first without Shaquille O’Neal at center and center stage. The basketball world has been clamoring for the “next Michael” ever since Jordan’s Chicago heyday. Bryant was saddled with that label from the day he entered the league. He wasn’t ready and many suspected he never would be. They were wrong.

Manny Pacquiao: These days boxing is largely a dreary exercise, with the sport bearing no resemblance to the glory days of Joe Louis, the Sugar Rays and, of course, “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali. But Pacquiao is rekindling ring excitement. When the 31-year-old Filipino won the WBC welterweight crown last month, he became the first boxer ever to win seven different titles. Next on his hit parade — assuming contractual differences will be settled — is Floyd Mayweather Jr. In a sport that lives by overhype, Pacquiao vs. Mayweather looms as the real deal. Mayweather, undefeated in 40 fights, has won six world titles himself and was Ring Magazine’s number one pound-for-pound fighter for three years, until Pacquiao usurped that ranking in 2008. Scheduled for March, the fight figures to deliver the biggest payday in boxing history: For starters, the two fighters have agreed to a $50 million split up front.