12/11/2012 14:41 EST | Updated 02/10/2013 05:12 EST

The 12 most influential people of 2012

The year 2012 had its crop of newsmakers like any other, and just as in past years, some of those individuals will have an impact on culture, politics and world events that outlasts the headlines and make a difference in the years to come.

From Pakistani schoolgirl activist Malala Yousafzai to Korean pop superstar PSY, here's a short list of some of the outsize individuals we feel were more than just flashes in the pan in 2012.

Mohammed Morsi

Egypt's first post-revolution president emerged as both a strongman and a peace broker in 2012. He earned praise on the world stage for negotiating a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas that ended the latest round of fighting in Gaza but rankled opponents at home when he issued a series of controversial decrees that cemented his and the Muslim Brotherhood's hold on power.

The latter move set off a fresh round of protests in Cairo that eventually forced Morsi to back down from some of the measures but not from a controversial referendum on a draft of the country's new constitution that critics say puts too much emphasis on Islam and not enough on securing citizens' basic democratic rights. How Morsi handles the constitutional crisis in 2013 will be the first true test of the country's fledgling democracy. World leaders will be looking to see whether he reveals himself to be the hardline Islamist dictator some fear him to be or the diplomatic conciliator the world glimpsed in the Gaza conflict, one who can appease both secularists and religious conservatives.

Malala Yousafzai

This young Pakistani activist for girls' education was influential long before the attempt on her life that brought the 15-year-old to the attention of the world in October 2012. The work Malala and her father had done to promote greater access to education for girls in the ultra-conservative Swat Valley region of northwest Pakistan made her the target of Taliban gunmen, who boarded a van carrying Malala home from school, shooting her in the head and neck and seriously wounding two other girls.

As she recuperated from her life-threatening injuries in a British hospital, she became a symbol of the struggle women and girls in many parts of the world still face in asserting basic rights. Everyone from politicians to celebrities rushed to align themselves with her cause. The United Nations declared Nov. 10 Malala Day, while in her home country, officials changed the name of her school to Malala Public High School and awarded her the Star of Courage, Pakistan's third-highest military honour.

Angela Merkel

The unwitting face of Europe's debt crisis, the German chancellor was simultaneously seen as Europe's saviour and its scourge in 2012. Met by mass protests everywhere she went, Merkel bore the brunt of popular anger over the austerity measures Europe's ailing economies had been forced to adopt as a pre-condition of a financial bailout largely funded by Germany. A staunch defender of a Europe united by a common currency, Merkel led the effort to stabilize the euro and reform the economic policies governing the eurozone.

She earned the respect of even her harshest critics for her tough-love approach to steering Europe out of its fiscal mess while still managing to remain popular at home — despite German taxpayers' disgruntlement over having to foot the bill for other countries' unchecked borrowing. The "iron chancellor," who was re-elected leader of her party in December with a resounding 98 per cent support, is widely expected to be elected to a third term when Germans go to the polls in September 2013, but even if she is not, her influence on the economies of Europe will be felt long beyond her time in office.

Nate Silver

With so many kooky characters to choose from in the 2012 U.S. presidential election campaign, no one could have predicted that a clean-cut, soft-spoken statistician would steal the show. New York Times blogger Nate Silver's spot-on, data-driven analysis of political polling accurately forecast the outcome of the presidential vote in all 50 states and correctly predicted the winners in 31 of 33 Senate races.

Silver, who until the 2008 election was known mainly to baseball insiders because of a model he devised for predicting players' performance over time, became a media darling overnight and even got a mention from U.S. President Barack Obama. His work started a national conversation about the accuracy of election polling and shamed many media outlets into re-examining the puffed-up punditry and sloppy speculation that dominates election coverage.

Christine Sinclair

The Canadian striker led her soccer team at the London Olympics this summer, scoring an Olympic-record six goals, including a hat trick in a controversial overtime loss to the U.S. team. She carried Canada's flag at the closing ceremonies, received a bronze medal, won the Golden Boot Award and got in trouble with soccer officials for expressing her views on the refereeing for that game against the U.S.

The 13-year veteran of Canada's national team was named the Lou Marsh Canadian athlete of the year, and readers chose her, by a long shot, as Canadian athlete of the year. During the 2012 season, Sinclair scored almost two-thirds of all the goals by Canada's national team. "For Sinclair, it was the best year by the best player Canada has ever produced — on the men or women's side," said soccer writer Ben Rycroft. "Her performance at the Olympics will serve to inspire the next generation of soccer stars in Canada."

Elon Musk

The billionaire CEO of Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, ushered in a new era of private space exploration after his company's Dragon capsule became the first commercial supply vessel to dock at the International Space Station in May. The vessel, which ferried 450 kilograms of supplies to the station, was the first of what are expected to become regular commercial space flights that will bring astronauts into orbit and take over other tasks previously carried out by NASA's shuttle program, which was phased out in 2011.

It wasn't the first time that Musk, a South African-born Silicon Valley entrepreneur, put his money and brains behind a pioneering project. He also helped start PayPal, the first major e-payment website, which is still a leader in the field today, and is the head of Tesla Motors, the electric carcompany whose Model S sedan was named Motor Trend magazine's Car of the Year.


Only time will tell just how lasting the influence of this South Korean pop singer's infectious single, Gangnam Style, will be. But there is no doubt that Park Jae-sang, and the goofy, bow-legged dance that accompanied his synth- and bass-soaked hit, became a global phenomenon in the latter half of 2012. The song, which pokes fun at Seoul's posh Gangnam neighbourhood and the young wealthy Koreans who live there, climbed to the top of music charts around the world, but its reach extended beyond the entertainment industry.

The video for Gangnam Style was viewed almost one billion times on YouTube, surpassing Justin Bieber's Baby to become the site's most-viewed video ever and inspiring countless parodies. It earned the singer millions of dollars in online ad revenue, download sales and related TV commercial deals, and became a model of how to make money off music in the internet age. It also introduced millions of uninitiated listeners to K-pop, a slickly produced commercial style of music that has long been popular in Asia but hadn't made much of an impact in North America or Europe.

Mark Carney

Canada's central banker has been earning kudos internationally since the 2008 economic crisis, thanks to the fact that Canada's economic performance has remained relatively strong compared to most G8 countries. He was already playing a major role in global financial institutions when the U.K. government named him the next governor of the Bank of England in November 2012, the first foreign national to head the U.K.'s central bank.

When he starts his new job on July 1, 2013, Carney will be facing an economy that might be back in recession, a huge government debt and perhaps the loss of the U.K.'s triple-A credit rating, as well as the ongoing eurozone crisis. He will be able to draw on some U.K. experience when tackling these challenges, however: he was an Oxford student and once worked in London for the Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan

The Turkish prime minister steered the West's flagging attention back to the ongoing civil war in Syria. He reminded foreign powers of the consequences of ignoring the bloody battle between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels trying to oust him, which entered its 18th month in December 2012. Erdogan, who has called on Assad to step down, given safe haven to anti-Assad forces and opened Turkey's borders to thousands of displaced Syrians fleeing the fighting, publicly urged the UN to put pressure on Assad and held talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, an Assad ally and the other major powerbroker in the conflict, in his effort to convince the international community to do more to end the crisis.

In December, Erdogan convinced NATO to erect Patriot anti-missile systems on Turkey's border with Syria in the wake of fears over Assad's possible deployment of chemical weapons. The move fell short of the no-fly zone he had been calling for, but was still far more than Western powers had been willing to do to date. How the conflict unfolds in 2013, and what role foreign powers play in ending it, will depend in no small part on Erdogan's actions.

Travis Tygart

The chief executive officer of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency spearheaded the years-long investigation that in 2012 finally ended the career of cycling superstar Lance Armstrong and exposed widespread doping in the sport. Under Tygart's direction, the agency collected hundreds of pages of evidence and sworn testimony from Armstrong's teammates about the use of performance-enhancing substances by Armstrong and other members of the U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team and in June filed formal doping charges against Armstrong. Armstrong chose not to contest the charges and was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned from professional cycling.

Although some branded Tygart's investigation a personal vendetta, others praised his dogged perseverance in taking on not just a hugely popular athlete but a whole network of athletes, trainers, doctors and sports professionals who colluded to make doping an established practice in cycling for years. Tygart's investigation, which made him the subject of several death threats, showed that regulators don't need to rely only on the results of drug testing - which have been susceptible to manipulation - to effectively investigate doping.

E.L. James

The British author of the bestselling series Fifty Shades of Grey brought erotic fiction out from the nether reaches of bookstore shelves and the cybersphere and into the mainstream. But it's less for her books than for the way they changed the publishing industry that James earns a spot on our list of influential people. James's tale of a young college virgin seduced by a wealthy businessman with a fetish for sadomasochism started out as a piece of Twilight-inspired fan fiction self-published online. But the novel rocketed to the top of bestseller lists after it — and two other books in the same series — generated enough buzz in the blogosphere and on social media to be noticed by the publisher Random House.

The book sold more than 30 million print and digital copies in four months, outpacing other hit series like Harry Potter and TheGirl with the Dragon Tattoo. Fifty Shades of Grey might not be literature — or even an accurate portrayal of S&M — but it will change the way publishers look for new writers. And it has already inspired a wave of works in a similar vein. "You may not like E.L. James, but I promise you this: you are going to love an author one day in the future that you probably never would have found if not for E.L. James," said Andrew Albanese, a writer for Publishers Weekly, which named James its Person of the Year.

Pussy Riot

There are plenty of activists working tirelessly to oppose corruption and abuse of power in Vladimir Putin's Russia, but few have gotten as much attention in the Western media as Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. The three members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot had made headlines before for their provocative anti-Putin protests, but it was their flash-mob-style appearance in Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral just days before Russia's presidential election on March 4, 2012, that propelled them to international fame.

After lip-synching a "Punk Prayer" that criticized the Orthodox Church's support for Putin, the three were charged with hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, and were sentenced to two years in prison. (Samutsevich was later released after her sentence was suspended on appeal.) The harsh sentence was condemned by foreign officials, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who raised the issue during talks with Putin in November. The Pussy Riot case inspired sympathy protests abroad and further energized Putin opponents at home in a year marked by large demonstrations decrying an electoral process that many said was rigged to ensure a third term for Putin. Whether Pussy Riot can continue to inspire the opposition movement from the remote prison camps where two of its members are serving out their sentences remains to be seen.