Newsmaker: 2014’s most famous five

To choose a favourite newsmaker is an almost impossible task, but the five here - Luis Suárez, Gerrie Nel, Alex Salmond, Amal Alamuddin and the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge - represent a varied year, one in which the pivotal parts they placed are likely to keep them in the public eye in the months to come.
Illustration by Kagan McLeod for The National
Illustration by Kagan McLeod for The National

Any review of a year just passed will include the same old names of headline generators that kept newspapers and websites flat out busy for 12 months. But some of the newsmakers featured in Weekend during 2014, such as the five here, continue to dominate the headlines months after their stories were told.

Luis Suárez

It is now just a distant memory but this year’s summer was utterly dominated by one sporting event: the Fifa World Cup. And possibly the story of the tournament (it was certainly the most controversial one) was that of the Uruguayan Luis Suárez and his penchant for biting opponents on the pitch.

The incident that sparked intense debate, as well as an international slanging match between Suárez’s home country Uruguay and the rest of the world, occurred on June 24, when both Suárez and the Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini could be seen sitting separately on the grass after a clash. Suárez, his face contorted with apparent pain, was nursing his mouth, while Chiellini peeled away his shirt to show the referee and the entire world the teeth marks left by Uruguay’s national hero.

Suárez’s compatriots rallied to his defence, claiming the televised images were “inconclusive” and Uruguay’s team captain, Diego Lugano, criticised Chiellini rather than implicate Suárez, but it was to no avail and Suárez was banned by Fifa from not only playing for his national team for the rest of the tournament, but from playing in any matches and even entering a stadium for four months. He appealed and won back the right to train and be on the premises, but the match ban was upheld, which must have provided an ideal opportunity to finish writing his memoir.

Crossing The Line: My Story, was published in November and in it Suárez freely admits to being a biter, but says it’s a way of dealing with the pressure of performing. At the insistence of his wife, he finally sought psychiatric help. “I am learning that if you let it go,” he says, “you feel better for it. Don’t keep it all bottled up inside; don’t take it all on alone.” But while Chiellini’s wounds would have healed months ago, Suárez’s reputation is still as battered and bruised as ever.

Gerrie Nel

It could well end up being the trial of the century and even now, after a guilty verdict has the man known as the Blade Runner adjusting to incarceration, the courts of South Africa are still abuzz with the Oscar Pistorius story. The murder trial, with Pistorius denying that he intentionally shot dead his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in February 2013, was televised for the world to see and made international stars of its main players, including the judge, the 66-year-old Soweto-born Thokozile Masipa. She is only the second black woman to become a judge in South Africa, which in itself is headline fodder, but the name everyone was dropping in April and May, while the prosecution was tearing apart the paralympian’s version of events, was that of Gerrie Nel.

As chief prosecutor, this veteran of three decades often displayed the no-holds-barred approach that has earned him the nickname “Pit Bull” and his courtroom theatrics gained an enormous international fan base. He overstepped the mark a number of times, however, resulting in him being berated by judge Masipa. “Mind your language, Mr Nel,” she scolded him during one exchange. “You don’t call the witness a liar, not while he is in the witness box.” And, when Nel laughed at Pistorius’s witness testimony, she put him in his place with the unforgettable “you possibly think this is entertainment. It is not. Please restrain yourself.”

But for all the effort put in by Nel and his team to get Pistorius locked up for life, the verdict was something of a let-down. On September 12, Pistorius was found guilty of “culpable homicide”, which is the equivalent of manslaughter, and was sentenced to five years in prison, of which he will likely only serve 10 months before being relocated for house arrest. Nel has been back in court this month, appealing against what he says is an outrageously lenient sentence. It worked, too, and the state has been granted the right to appeal against it, meaning Pistorius could be found guilty of murder after all. Unlike the defence, it would appear, a Pit Bull never rests.

Alex Salmond

The Union Flag of the United Kingdom is safe. Alex Salmond, now the former leader of the Scottish National Party and First Minister of Scotland, failed on September 18 in his bid to free his country from the rest of Britain. Independence was necessary, said its supporters, so that Scotland could strengthen its position in the global economy instead of being dragged down with the rest of the UK. Detractors pointed out that Scotland couldn’t really make a go of it alone and that separation would be a catastrophe, for the Scots as well as everyone else.

With 2,001,926 (55.3 per cent) voting against independence and 1,617,989 (44.7 per cent) voting in favour, the turnout represented a staggering 84.6 per cent of the population – proof, if any were needed, that voters aren’t apathetic about everything after all. For Salmond, it was a crushing personal defeat, despite it being a rather close call, and he resigned as MP on November 18, succeeded by his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon.

Salmond hasn’t gone away ­entirely, however, and has been gaining further column inches this month after confirming that he is to stand as a politician once again in 2015. And he’ll be pushing for the UK to separate itself from the European Union – something he thinks could eventually lead to another ­referendum for Scottish ­independence.

“A taxi driver said to me that he had voted No to independence but he would do it differently next time,” he told The Times. “I think we would win if there was another referendum. Luckily in life, as in politics, people sometimes get a second chance.”

Amal Alamuddin

Is she George Clooney’s wife or is he Amal Alamuddin’s husband? The shifting of the balance of power between the sexes has been perfectly played out with the marriage of one of Hollywood’s biggest male stars and a woman who, until 2014, was an unknown on the red carpet.

When the couple married on September 29, women everywhere were either devastated that their chances of bagging Clooney were forever squashed, or championing the fact that Alamuddin has shown that it isn’t necessary to be a model or an actress to capture the heart of a man like him – a man who claimed he would never remarry.

Clooney has had more than his fair share of stereotypical girlfriends, enjoying successive relationships with actresses and models, but Alamuddin was different. There’s no denying her good looks but it was her brain that sealed the deal, with their shared passion for humanitarian causes that got the relationship off to the best possible start.

At the end of April came the shocker: George Clooney was engaged to be married, which was a headline nobody saw coming. But the more we got to know about the Lebanese-born Alamuddin, the more we came to admire her. She’s a powerful human-rights lawyer, working for a law firm in the UK called Doughty Street Chambers, and she works tirelessly in the interests of others less fortunate than herself, including those caught up in the Gaza conflict.

But is she Mrs Clooney? Yes she is, having taken her husband’s surname. A traditionalist at heart, this woman comes from a tightly knit family and, for all the gossip magazine covers and televised discussions about her wardrobe, she’s nothing if not a hard-working professional. No number of red-carpet appearances is likely to change that.

ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

Of all the newsmakers of 2014, one stood out as different from all the rest and showed just how much impact social media has on human behaviour. A craze that swept the world for a few short weeks in summer, what came to be known as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, had people of all ages, from all backgrounds and in every country pouring buckets of ice and freezing-cold water over their own heads, all in the name of a disease most ­people had never before been aware of.

Those three letters stand for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, an incurable illness also known as motor neurone disease or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Whatever it’s called, its effects are horrific and death-dealing. Those diagnosed with ALS rarely live very long afterwards, as their bodies stop responding to signals from their brains and their muscles rapidly waste away. Eventually they can’t walk, eat or speak and, more often than not, they die an undignified death after their muscles stop allowing them to even breathe.

Throwing a bucket of ice water over one’s head gave participants, for a fleeting second or two, the sensation of being unable to move. The rules were simple: accept your challenge, do the deed while being filmed and then nominate at least three people. Those nominated could donate their way out of the challenge, but the financial outlay was far higher than if you just knuckled down to dumping freezing water on your head.

All the money being raised was for the ALS Association and a handful of other charities for research into what causes the condition, as well as finding a cure. More than Dh368 million poured in, but not everyone was impressed. “A middle-class wet T-shirt contest for armchair clicktivists,” is how one Telegraph writer described it, while others protested that it was a shameful waste of water.

Whatever your stand on it, however, you couldn’t help but be a part of it. You now know about an incurable, horrific disease that can befall any of us at any time – that’s the power of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Published: December 25, 2014 04:00 AM


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