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How to become SPOTY

From sponsored swimmers to grieving golfers, being crowned BBC Sports Personality of the Year has less and less to do with being good at sport.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

Topics Politics

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With a mere 66 shopping days till Christmas (given that the shops never seem to close these days), it will soon be time to pause and reflect on the events of the year… and hand out a few awards in the process.

The big one, as far as British sport is concerned, is the BBC Sports Personality of the Year (or SPOTY for short). To win this, at least in theory, you need to have done something so outstanding that it goes beyond the realms of your own discipline. And you also have to be popular. However, given the paucity of sporting achievement this year by our proud men and women, this year’s winner will probably need some kind of triumph-over-tragedy story to win.

The award, voted for by BBC viewers, is the centrepiece of the end-of-year Sports Review. Actually sitting through the whole show is something of a triumph over the tragic presentation and production values. To make matters worse, this year’s show will be a public event staged at Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre which means the quota of buttock-clenchingly awful interviews, turgid speeches by Pelé and inappropriate humour will be higher than ever.

Nothing can surpass the lead balloon quality of Sue Barker’s introduction for Gavin Henson a year or two ago, along the lines that they were lucky he was here given that he normally spends his Sundays in Church. That’s Charlotte Church, Welsh operatic prodigy and Henson’s girlfriend. Maybe Gary Lineker could have got away with it, but from the god-fearing lips of Barker, the thought of rugby hunk Gavin penetrating his belle was greeted with more cringes than laughter.

Unlike last year, when the England cricket team and ‘Freddie’ Flintoff were a shoo-in for the top gongs, candidates for this year’s award are thin on the ground. The aforementioned cricketing heroes reverted to form by losing in Pakistan and losing lots and lots of one-day games back home. England’s footballers were supposed to be coming back with the World Cup but all Sven got was advice to the effect of not letting the door hit his arse on the way out. And England’s rugby team, still the reigning world champions, got their ample backsides kicked by all comers.

Meanwhile, there were one or two signs of promise in individual sports – Andy Murray might one day be a pretty good tennis player having beaten Federer this year (once) and Jenson Button won a grand prix at the 113th attempt – but none of the usual suspects achieved anything. The one shining light for me was Joe Calzaghe, who is now the longest reigning world boxing champion. He also produced his best performance to date when he beat American Jeff Lacy in a unification bout in March. Lacy was touted as a kind of middleweight Mike Tyson, with a reputation for finishing off opponents with spectacular knockouts. Calzaghe did a number on him, as good and one-sided a victory for a British fighter in a serious world title fight as there’s ever been.

Unfortunately, while I would be quite happy to launch here and now the Calzaghe-for-SPOTY campaign, the truth is he won’t win. Firstly, because he recently made some very disparaging remarks about SPOTY (although that didn’t stop Daley Thompson winning a few years back). Secondly, because he’s Welsh and frankly, in our modern, multicultural, diversity-celebrating culture, we need a tame group of people to be rude about. Wales is small enough to pick on.

The result is that the search for a SPOTY winner this year is beginning to grope around like a shit-faced wino playing Blind Man’s Buff. The borderline candidate is Zara Phillips, daughter of past winner Princess Anne and the current world champion at ‘eventing’, a kind of pick-and-mix of horse riding skills for posh people. Not only would there be a great story in a member of royalty winning SPOTY but mother and daughter would be able to compare trophies. Better still, there is plenty of potential for more witty remarks from Sue Barker as Phillips is also being serviced by a high-profile rugby player.

But why should the Sports Personality of the Year go to someone engaged in sport? After all, people have been getting gold medals at the Olympics for years after victory in pastimes that could only be vaguely related to the Olympian ideals. On that basis, David Walliams, star of ‘comedy’ series Little Britain, is amongst the favourites for this year’s crown. After training hard for nearly a year, Walliams swam the English Channel for charidee as part of this year’s Comic Relief.

Walliams’s swim was an impressive achievement. As we were told repeatedly, more people have climbed Everest than swum the twenty-odd miles from Dover to Calais. However, Walliams is not a sportsman and he wasn’t competing with anyone or anything apart from dodging a few oil tankers on their way to Rotterdam. SPOTY is a popularity contest rather than necessarily being a measure of sporting achievement, but even the BBC must draw the line at someone winning the award for doing a sponsored swim.

Maybe my memory was failing me. I had assumed that a fair number of past SPOTY winners were a bit of a joke. But looking down the list of winners since 1954, it looks a fairly decent roll-call of British sporting success – which frankly is a bit thin on the ground at the best of times. Okay, some of the winners have engaged in sports that don’t seem particulary sporting, like the four figure skaters (John Curry, Robin Cousins, Torville and Dean), one aforementioned horse rider (Princess Anne), a snooker player (Steve Davis) and the bloke that won the triple jump, aka the hop, skip and jump (Jonathan Edwards).

But almost all the rest are footballers, cricketers, boxers or athletes. The bar of ‘success’ is sometimes set rather low to include people who didn’t actually win anything (like Greg Rusedski) or who aren’t even British (like Greg Rusedski) but most of the winners are proper champions in one way or another.

The hot favourite for this year’s award is Darren Clarke. Clarke is a pretty decent golfer. He’s never won a ‘major’ nor topped the European Order of Merit, but he was one of the best players in the Europe team that retained the Ryder Cup this year. But as an individual, in what is essentially an individual game, he’s never quite set the world on fire. However, his performance in this year’s Ryder Cup won plaudits because it came just weeks after the death of his wife from cancer.

That Clarke showed some considerable fortitude in getting himself together to play in a high-pressure golf tournament is certainly worthy of praise. But if the Sports Personality of the Year means anything at all, it should surely be judged on sporting achievement alone. On that basis, Clarke’s achievements this year are relatively moderate in comparison to winning an athletics gold medal at the Olympics or being crowned world heavyweight champion like some past winners.

Admittedly, his achievement is somewhat greater than Paul Gascoigne’s, who won in 1990 for playing football quite well and blubbing like a girl during the World Cup. But that was really recognition for the fact that England nearly won the World Cup that year which is as big as sporting success gets. Europe always win the Ryder Cup these days.

So there you have it. I’ll probably watch Sports Review this year, like I do most years. In between the cheesy chats with sports stars past and present, they do actually show all the best bits from the sporting year. A few people think the whole thing is well past its sell-by date and they might have a point. If the top gong is awarded on the basis of bereavement or charitable works, it might be beyond saving.

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