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The top stories in sports

By JOHN HENDEL, United Press International   |   Dec. 19, 2012 at 4:00 AM   |   Comments

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Swimmer Michael Phelps redefined Olympian heights in 2012 but cyclist Lance Armstrong underwent an even greater fall from the pantheon of his sport.

2012 was a year that started with a late-arriving NBA season and championships for Alabama in college football and the New York Giants in the NFL. It included all-time records eclipsed in tennis, golf finding a new young standard-bearer and monumental season marks in baseball and soccer.

The year saw the return to former level of glory by the Notre Dame football team, the addition of important lines in the resume of basketball's LeBron James and labor issues left the NHL nearly forgotten and the NFL, whose replacement referees won't -- to the league's dismay -- be soon forgotten.

The Summer Olympics were a success on every scale and rightly a source of pride for London and all the United Kingdom.

The dramatic Opening Ceremonies kicked off a 17-day spectacular. British athletes performed very well, earning the fourth-most medals overall (65) and the third-most total of gold medals (29).

The British could well claim the Games were theirs.

But Phelps, 27, piled up four gold medals and two silver, giving him a record 22 medals over the last three Olympics Games. His haul of 18 Olympic gold medals is twice what any other athlete has achieved.

He has said the 2012 Olympics will be his last. His feats in the pool are so historic that, during the Games, the international swimming federation presented Phelps with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Jamaica's Usain Bolt screams in jubilation after crossing the finish line to win the gold medal in the Men's 200M Final at Olympic Stadium during the London 2012 Summer Olympics in Olympic Park in Stratford, London on August 9 2012. Bolt became the first Olympican to win the 100M and 200M race in consecutive Olympics. His time was 19.32. Jamaica swept the race with teammates Yohan Blake getting the silver and Warren Weir the bronze medal. UPI/Pat Benic
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Another familiar face from the 2008 Games continued his run of Olympic success. Jamaica's Usain Bolt repeated as champion of the 100- and 200-meter races and was part of the world-record-setting 400-meter relay team. No man had repeated as an Olympic sprint champion since 1988 and no man had won the 100 and 200 in consecutive Games.

The sporting heights reached in July and August in London crashed in October when Armstrong was linked by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to "the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen."

Armstrong said that he never failed a drug test is proof of his innocence but the USADA said the cyclist's decision not to contest the charges against him was tacit admission of guilt.

Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and the negative publicity led him to resign from the Livestrong Foundation, a charity he established to help cancer victims.

Children pose with the Joe Paterno statue outside Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania on July 21, 2012. The statue has created a storm of controversy with demands for removal. Sculptor Angelo Di Maria said "Lets see how everyone feels in six months, or a year". An answer could come as early as next week. UPI/George M Powers
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The football program at Penn State, one of the country's proudest traditions, was soiled by its association -- and apparent failure to address early allegations against -- former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.

Sandusky was charged with dozens of counts related to years of sexual abuse of young boys. He was found guilty of 45 charges and sentenced to 30-60 years in prison.

School officials were charged with committing perjury during a grand jury investigation into Sandusky's actions. Joe Paterno was removed as football coach in November 2011 and died Jan. 22, 2012.

An official report released in July stated Paterno was among those who concealed facts concerning Sandusky's abuse of children. The school subsequently removed a statue of Paterno, a Penn State fixture for more than 60 years, including 46 seasons as head football coach

The NCAA hit Penn State hard, putting the program on five years' probation, barring the Nittany Lions from post-season games for four years, vacating 112 wins (dropping Paterno dramatically from the top of the all-time victories list) and fining the school $60 million, funds earmarked for child abuse prevention.

NHL owners locked out the league's players Sept. 15 and by year's end there was little sign the league would soon return to the ice. Nearly half the regular-season games had been canceled along with signature events such as the Winter Classic, which was to have been played at Michigan Stadium, and the All-Star Weekend.

The owners sought a reduction in revenues assured players through the most recent collective bargaining agreement. That figure was 57 percent; owners want new agreement to top out at 46 percent.

Also at issue are maximum length of players' contracts and making players' eligibility for free agency after 10 seasons, rather than the current seven.

NFL owners also staged a lockout but it wasn't players who were barred; the league action was against its referees. From June through September, the sides failed to agree on a new contract. Issues ranged from pay increases to use of extra referee teams and terms of a retirement plan. The referees' union said their demands reflected a $3.2 million annual cost to the NFL, which generates about $9 billion a year in revenue.

But most costly to the league was the performance of the referees used as replacements. Coaches and players voiced concerns about on-field safety because of the referees' lack of experience. It was also apparent the coaches and players had no problem confronting the replacements in ways they wouldn't regular officials.

There were many on-field problems ranging from allowing too many timeouts to lengthy stoppages for rules interpretation. One replacement, who identified himself on a Facebook page of a fan of the New Orleans Saints, was pulled shortly before he was to officiate a Saints' game.

But the one incident that perhaps led to a contract resolution occurred Sept. 24 in the third Monday night game the season when two officials gave differing signals on the final play of the game.

Referee Derrick Rhone Dunn signals a Seattle Seahawks touchdown against the Green Bay Packers' at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, Washington during a Monday Night Football game on September 24, 2012. Russell Wilson threw a 24-yard touchdown to Golden Tate on the final play of the game, and the Seattle Seahawks rallied to beat the Green Bay Packers 14-12 on Monday night in a controversial ending. UPI/Jim Bryant
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Seattle receiver Golden Tate and Green Bay defensive back M.D. Jennings each grabbed at a long pass into the Seattle end zone. Although officials Lance Easley and Derrick Rhone-Dunn gave opposite calls, the on-field call was ruled a touchdown and Seattle won 14-12. The NFL issued a statement in support of the call.

Two days later the NFL and the referees' union reached agreement and regular officials were back on the field Sept. 27.

Notre Dame is synonymous with college football, The Fighting Irish had decades of success, including three times finishing No. 1 in the coaches' poll. But the last time that happened was 1988 and Notre Dame hadn't had a team finish in the Top 10 since 1993, finishing the last five seasons (2007-11) unranked.

2012 was very different. The Fighting Irish were No. 24 in the pre-season poll and worked their way up the rankings before capping the season with a 22-13 decision over Southern California. That left Notre Dame with a 12-0 record and a berth in the Bowl Championship Series title game (versus Alabama, Jan. 7).

Along the way Fighting Irish beat four ranked teams, including No. 10 Michigan State and No. 8 Oklahoma on the road. The other ranked teams were No. 18 Michigan and No. 17 Stanford.

The Stanford game was a 20-13 overtime thriller but in an even closer game Pittsburgh forced Notre Dame to three overtimes before the Fighting Irish nosed out a 26-23 victory. It is the first time since that 1988 title year, Notre Dame had gone unbeaten.

Baseball in 2012 saw a feat that hadn't been accomplished since 1967 while the soccer world watched as an all-time mark was passed.

Detroit Tigers Miguel Cabrera celebrates after the Tigers won the American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees in Detroit on October 18, 2012. The Tigers defeated swept the Yankees in four games. UPI/Kevin Dietsch
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Miguel Cabrera, the third baseman for the Detroit Tigers, won the Triple Crown, posting the highest batting average (.330), most home runs (44) and most runs batted in (139). That hadn't been accomplished since Boston's Carl Yastrzemski (.326, 44, 121) did so in 1967 and just the 16th time in baseball history.

Lionel Messi had a pair of goals in a mid-December game that gave him 86 goals in calendar 2012 (playing a total of 66 professionally for Barcelona and for his native Argentina national team). That passed the officially recognized record of 85 goals by Germany's Gerd Muller in 1972, one of those sports records once thought unbreakable.

The record, however, was disputed by Zambia, which says its Godfrey Chitalu piled up 107 goals in 1972 -- the same year Muller was setting what was recognized as the record.

FIFA, the world body that governs soccer, refused to get caught in the record debate.

The Augusta National Golf Club issued its first invitations -- both accepted -- to women. Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina businesswoman Darla Moore are joining the club most famous for being the site of the Masters golf tournament.

However, the club is nearly as well known for its apparent reticence to integrate, both by race and sex. The club didn't have a black member until 1990 and was all-men until 2012.

Augusta National was formed in Georgia by golf legend Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts in 1933. It has been the site of the Masters, one of golf's four major tournaments, since 1934.

The course was the target of a protest in 2002 led by Martha Burk, who demanded the club admit women.

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