17th December 2019
Prior to last Sunday’s programme, it had been many years since I had watched the BBC’s annual Sports Personality of the Year. In my youth and adolescence – when it was called the Sports Review of the Year – I considered it to be essential viewing. However, at some point, I realised that it had moved away from being a genuine review programme to one providing coverage of an awards ceremony. There were increased amounts of chat and padding, with many of the action shots being short clips presented in a sort of staccato fast-forward that was difficult (and annoying) to watch.
I recall it as a programme that was very predictable. In summarising the year’s rugby league – to give one parochial example – the tribute invariably consisted simply of the two Challenge Cup final teams walking out at Wembley, that game’s decisive try and footage of a punch-up between some (unnamed) players accompanied by Eddie Waring stating that someone might be going for an early bath. My father and I regarded this as a meagre reward for the significant number of hours of live sport that the code had provided (along with the horse racing) to the Saturday afternoon editions of Grandstand through the long winter months.
In most years, the programme’s predictability was also reflected in the viewing public’s choice (through a popular vote) for the Sports Personality of the Year. Not surprisingly, given the BBC’s domination of sports presentation in the pre-satellite era – and the huge viewing figures that were attracted – there were clear winners in those years in which there were significant achievements in those sports with weighty coverage: for example, football (Bobby Moore in 1966), cricket (Ian Botham in 1981) and motor racing (Jackie Stewart in 1973). In addition, the BBC’s Olympic Games coverage – and Britain’s ability to conjure up some success even in the relative barren years – meant that gold medallists were regularly rewarded. Indeed, an Olympian came top of the poll in every such year between 1960 (David Broome) and 1984 (Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean) and again between 2000 and 2008.
Not surprisingly, the method of voting has changed with the times. The original system of deciding the winner of the main prize via a free-for-all vote on postcard (over several weeks) has evolved into the current arrangement of a telephone/on-line vote (on the night of the ceremony) for the contenders on a pre-announced shortlist selected by an “expert panel”. On Sunday, the contenders were Ben Stokes (cricket), Lewis Hamilton (motor racing), Dina Asher-Smith and Katarina Johnson-Thompson (athletics), Raheem Sterling (football) and Alun Wyn Jones (rugby union).
Although Stokes had been the clear favourite to win (due to his outstanding performances in the cricket World Cup final and the third Ashes test against Australia at Headingley), it was perhaps still some achievement for him to do so, given his sport’s limited exposure on the non-satellite channels (and complete absence from the BBC). Moreover, prior to this year, cricket had provided only 4 winners since the programme started in 1954, compared with 18 in athletics; Andrew Flintoff was its last success in 2005.
Rather bizarrely, Gary Lineker – one of the (three) presenters – referred to Stokes as the “main award winner” before the voting had even started. I assume this was an inadvertent slip of the tongue rather than, as the conspiracy theorists have been quick to suggest on social media, evidence of an election “fix”.
In its earlier incarnation, the Sports Review of the Year had 3 prizes of offer, the others being for the Team of the Year and the Overseas Sports Personality of the Year. This list now extends to 9, including the Helen Rollason Award for “outstanding achievement in the face of adversity” (this year given to Doddie Weir, the former Scottish rugby union international, who is battling motor neurone disease).
This year’s Team of the Year award must have been quite difficult to decide, given the respective successes of Liverpool FC (Champions League), the England cricket team (World Cup) and the Wales rugby union team (Grand Slam winners) and the performance of the England rugby union side (World Cup runners-up). The current edition of the Radio Times suggests that the England Women’s football team “must be strong contenders”; this for a side that failed to reach the final of the World Cup and which, following its semi-final defeat to the USA, won only one of its next six matches.
The prize was given to the England cricketers: a worthy choice though, had foreign teams been eligible, my selection would have another rugby union side – Japan – for its unexpectedly exhilarating play in the group stages of the World Cup, when they accounted for both Ireland and Scotland.
The choice of Overseas Personality (now called the World Sports Personality) was the Kenyan marathon runner, Eliud Kipchoge, who became the first man to complete the distance in under two hours (in Vienna in November).
This would not have been my choice. Whilst there is no doubt about the extraordinary levels of endurance and stamina that were needed to achieve this feat – I cannot imagine what is required to run at an average pace of 13 mph for two hours – I am not convinced that its attainment meets the criteria of a sporting contest. Kipchoge benefited from pace-makers (in vehicles and teams of runners) and a type of footwear that (I understand) is subject to some controversy. The International Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF) official world marathon record remains at the 2 hours 1 minute 39 seconds set in Berlin in 2018 – by Eliud Kipchoge.
For what it’s worth, my selection would have been either the Australian batsman Steve Smith for his Bradman-esque scoring feats in this year’s Ashes series – which more or less guaranteed his side would retain the urn (notwithstanding Stokes’s efforts at Headingley) – or the brilliant American gymnast Simone Biles, who extended her record of World Championships successes with a breath-taking repertoire of apparently gravity-defying routines. (In the programme, Biles received one brief name-check and Smith was not mentioned at all).
I shan’t list all the award winners, except to note that the year’s “Greatest Sporting Moment” was judged to have been the last-ball run-out that gave the England cricket team their World Cup final win over New Zealand. Three prizes for the cricketers, then. I wonder if the broadcaster noticed the irony of this, though Lineker did refer lamely to “live cricket” – he could have said “any cricket” – “returning to the BBC next year with the Hundred” competition.
The Sports Personality of the Year programme has a tasteful “In Memoriam” sequence – which I do not recall being present in my earlier watching – which, like its counterparts at the Oscars or the BAFTAs, causes us to reflect on the loss of some of the prominent participants of previous times. It was appropriate to remember the likes of Gordon Banks, Niki Lauda and Bob Willis. The programme’s producers also did well to extend this coverage to include non-players such as the journalist Hugh McIlvanney and to remember that it not only the long-retired who have passed on. Sport itself produces casualties in active competition: in the last 12 months, these have included the American boxer Patrick Day at the age of 27 (who was included in the roll-call) and the Belgian cyclist Antoine Demoitie (aged 25).
Returning to my earlier (parochial) theme, the programme’s rugby league coverage comprised half a dozen photographs in the “In Memoriam” sequence and a total seven seconds of action (three tries in the Super League Grand Final and the men’s and women’s Challenge Cup finals) in one of the breathless round-ups of the year’s events. But there were no references to punch-ups or early baths.
In general, I think Sports Personality of the Year was more or less what I had expected. It covered a glitzy sports awards ceremony with contributions from dancers, high profile pop singers (Lewis Capaldi and Emili Sandé), royalty (the Princess Royal) and, coming from Aberdeen, a local-born sporting hero (Denis Law). It was a flagship BBC presentation and, therefore, had a recurrent undertone of worthiness, its collateral themes including racism, physical disability, mental health and social deprivation. But that’s fine. This is society – and sport is part of society.