Monday, 5 December 2011

A sporting chance

Well, hello readers. I was prompted to return to these parts after recently receiving notification of one of my previous literary masterpieces from two and a half years ago getting some positive feedback. Although the great comedy scriptwriters believe in calling it a day while the audience are still crying for more, I thought this was my calling to return and indulge some more. So much has happened in the world since I last clicked and glided into this parish. So, let’s get down to business.

1. Media exposure is the issue with Sports Personality of the Year, not gender or personality
Well, the nails have been sharpened and the stiletto blades have been maximised this week with the news that the BBC’s annual waste of the licence fee payer’s money…sorry, annual celebration of the sporting year for which they have footage readily available had overlooked the inclusion of anyone with an XX chromosome formation from their shortlist of the ten finest British sporting achievers of the year. Of course, the British media and the Twitterati reacted to the news with a measured and balanced response that could in no way be seen as playing for the populist vote. The sisterhood reacted with the level of anger and disgust normally reserved for important world changing events, such as some curly haired brat in need of having his teeth straightened avoiding eviction from a glorified karaoke competition screened to an audience of millions despite not being able to hold a note. Which brings us neatly on to Clare Balding, who was so infuriated by the shortlist, there were unconfirmed sightings of her having chained herself to the railings at Tattenham Corner. OK, I may have made that bit up.

So let us start at the beginning. In preparation for the BBC’s grand annual sporting revue of the year which invariably provides 2 hours of the most awkward and stuffy television one can get to bear witness to during the calendar, the executives get a list of esteemed sports publications (mainly the national newspapers) to come together as one to provide a definitive shortlist of the 10 stand-out sporting performers from these isles over the past 12 months. It never used to be this way of course. Back in the day, Sports Personality of the Year was a wholly open vote. Back in the days when bikes were bikes and the world wide web was simply where a large spider lived, I recall that votes were cast by filling in a form and cutting it out of the Radio Times before returning it in an envelope instructing the postie to send it to Wood Lane.

The advent of online voting, however, made an open ballot more difficult to police and therefore increased the risk of the vote being rigged. An example of how the vote could be manipulated, and which was probably instrumental in the BBC discontinuing an open vote, was found in the 2005 renewal of this accolade when Manchester United supporters came together for the noble cause of playing a joke on their old rivals Liverpool. At that time, Liverpool’s forward line was led by the tall and lanky but also very clumsy Peter Crouch who Liverpool had paid £6 million for earlier that summer. Crouch had made a start to his Anfield career that dreams are made of, at least for Manchester United supporters, as he took four months to score his first goal for his new employers and generally found himself regarded as a figure of ridicule. Ever the opportunists in revelling in their rival’s weaknesses, United supporters decided to poke fun at Crouch’s predicament by carrying out a block vote on him to win the BBC’s prized bauble. Such was the collective Solidarity among the United brethren in carrying out their public duty, football’s answer to Rodney Trotter actually polled more votes than anyone else in the field with the exception of that year’s landslide winner, Ashes winning all-rounder Andrew Flintoff. Sadly for Crouch, he did not get a trophy for his cult following (in keeping with his football career) as the BBC smelt a rat and therefore excluded his votes from the poll. The rotten spoilsports! It was likely no coincidence that the open vote discontinued just a year later to be replaced by the dreaded shortlist.

When the shortlist was introduced in 2007, the BBC decided to canvass opinion for who should be included on it by consulting journalists from approximately 30 publications. Only the finest sporting authorities and almanacs were consulted in arriving at the all-important definitive dectet you will understand. And so it came to be that the Daily Star on Sunday and Nuts and Zoo magazines got to pontificate on the finer points of the sporting year. At least these publications generally managed to understand the rules for eligibility as far as nominees are concerned, namely that their suggested sportspeople have to be British. This is more than can be said for another publication given a say in proceedings, the Manchester Evening News, who decided to use their vote to good effect by nominating Manchester based footballers Dimitar Berbatov and Yaya Toure, from Bulgaria and the Ivory Coast respectively. Thus confounding the argument forever more that local newspapers only hold an interest in the local news agenda.

After all the votes from the sporting scribes had been assembled and disseminated and spoilt ballot papers had been discarded, the BBC published its final ten and unleashed the nation’s favourite potato thief, Gary Lineker, to go and announce the runners and riders on ‘The One Show’, although it transpired his was only the second most controversial announcement made on this most anodyne of primetime shows during the week. The names that had been decided upon were (in no particular order) Ashes winning cricketers Andrew Strauss an Alistair Cook, British golfing heavyweights Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Luke Donald, world champion athletes Mo Farah and Dai Greene, tennis’s perennial nearlyman Andy Murray, road cycling’s sprint king Mark Cavendish and boxing’s Amir Khan. On the surface, these appear to be stellar names in what has arguably not been a vintage year for the mainstream sports.

So the key question is whether the inclusion of a woman in the list would be on merit, or would just be a token gesture. I think the best way of dissecting this is to first consider whether any of the aforementioned names are unworthy of their place. Now, the problem faced in doing this is providing an objective opinion without allowing personal prejudices for a particular sport, be they positive or negative, to cloud that judgement. Allow me to elaborate. Say you are a female voter and your interest is in track and field and gymnastics, you will be minded to vote for Jessica Ennis and Beth Tweddle. The same female voter may have no interest in golf and regard it in the same way as Mark Twain as a good walk spoiled. There will be male voters with an interest only in boxing and football who may not know the first thing about Mark Cavendish and his record breaking achievements, and in all likelihood, there will also be other males whose views of women in sport are that they take no interest other than when the beach volleyball segment of the Olympics comes round every year, or when Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka are playing out a gruntathon on the tennis court. Prejudice need not only be confined to overt sexist attitudes, however, as witnessed by Andy Murray’s inclusion in the poll. I can only speculate, but I am willing to wager that most of Murray’s votes came from north of Hadrian’s Wall, while those from south of the border regard him, somewhat unfairly, as a Scottish, English hating surrender monkey who has never won anything of note.

Added on to all of these prejudices, you also get the same dimwits who every year get hung up on the word ‘personality’. You know the sort of diatribe I mean, ‘How has Andy Murray/Lewis Hamilton/Uncle Tom Cobley got nominated when he’s got no personality?’, choosing to interpret who the outstanding sporting performer for the year is by assessing who can get galleries rolling around with the best one liner or by pulling a funny face, rather than actually choosing their favoured candidate based on achievement. In a way, I wish the BBC would do everyone a favour and rebrand their accolade as ‘Sportsperson of the Year’ or ‘Sporting Achiever of the Year’ so to close this avenue of thought off to any wannabe comedians.

Before I go on to examine the merits of some potential female contenders that have been overlooked, let’s first of all consider the merits of the ten alpha males that did make the cut. I will try do so without allowing personal preferences and prejudices to get in the way of providing a balanced opinion. Just a good job no gymnasts or figure skaters made the cut this year! Here goes:

Andrew Strauss: As an Ashes winning captain and particularly as the first captain to win an Ashes series for England in Australia for a quarter of a century, it is quite understandable that Strauss has been included. However, despite being a cricket fan myself, I am not sure that Strauss’ inclusion here is merited. Strauss’ captaincy was far less instrumental in England’s Ashes victory than the runs provided by Alistair Cook and Jonathan Trott, or the wickets taken by Jimmy Anderson. Likewise, England’s ascent to number 1 in the Test world rankings with a series whitewash of India in the summer owed more to strong batting, good bowling and feeble Indian resistance. Added to which, Strauss’ own form with the bat has been scratchy this year, to the point that if he was not captain and if he was not playing in a winning team, his place in the side would be in jeopardy. It is true that the Ashes success marked one of the feelgood successes of the year in British sport, certainly in England anyway, but the success also happened almost a calendar year ago and so is not fresh and imprinted in people’s memories. A borderline selection.

Alistair Cook: Although the argument about the Ashes not being fresh in people’s memories applies again with Cook, his achievements with the bat Down Under will be recorded in the almanacs for years to come. Cook scored 766 runs in 5 test matches which went some way to batting Australia out of matches in that series and having the same effect on Australian morale that Ian Botham had in his all-conquering 1980s heyday. It is also easy to forget now a year on, but Cook arrived on Antipodean soil with his place in the team being questioned after a run of low scores the previous summer. Working in the nets with his mentor Graham Gooch paid rich dividends though and Cook rubber stamped his performances in Australia with another fine run of scores in the summer that make him a genuine contender as the current top batsman in world cricket. With 18 test centuries to his name and at only 26 years of age, the England captain in waiting has an excellent opportunity to become England’s highest test run scorer of all time, unless injury curtails his career. A shoo-in for the list.

Rory McIlroy: Golf is not everyone’s idea of a spectator sport, some would even question whether it should be called a sport given the lack of athleticism required to participate in it. This is not a view I agree with, although I am not a particular fan of the sport either. Nonetheless, McIlroy represents a breath of fresh air to his sport at a time when its reputation had been soiled in the aftermath of Tiger Woods’ meltdown in his private life. Woods had been the all-conquering drawcard for his sport for over a decade, the benchmark against whom every other aspiring golfer judged themselves, as well as also being the man who put the derrieres of the general public on seats. Since Woods’ private affairs imploded, there has been a vacancy at the top of the game to be the public face of the sport, a new kid on the block who could talk the talk and walk the walk. McIlroy, at 22 years of age, is looking like being that man and this year has been his breakthrough year with him emulating the success of his compatriot Graeme McDowell by winning the US Open (a tournament that had not been won by a European for 40 years prior to McDowell’s success) as well as coming close to winning the coveted US Masters title before a disastrous final round put paid to his chances. The mental strength McIlroy showed in recovering from the Masters setback to win the US Open 2 months later is a sign that he has the tools required to be his sport’s world leader and poster boy for years to come. Deservedly included.

Darren Clarke: Everyone likes a story with a happy ending, the plucky underdog who strives, and ultimately achieves against the odds, his lifetime’s ambition by winning a big prize. This is the premise on which every Hollywood sports movie has been based in any event, and for those that like a sugar coated conclusion to their sporting pleasures, then Clarke ticks all the boxes. For those unaware of Ulsterman Clarke’s back story, he finished second in the 2006 Sports Personality of the Year to Zara Phillips after holing the winning putt for Europe in that year’s Ryder Cup, just a matter of weeks after his wife had succumbed to breast cancer. This year, Clarke won the Open Championship, golf’s most coveted of all the majors, in what was his twentieth appearance in the tournament. At 43 years of age, he is the second oldest first-time Major winner of all time. And Clarke will appeal to those who like their sportspeople to be anti-sportspeople, by that I mean that they eschew a rigorous fitness regime and a dedication to practice in favour of going out the night before a round to participate in a cold stout and hot curry consumption competition. Whether you feel Clarke is worthy of inclusion depends on whether you feel one isolated achievement in the year and the realisation of a lifetime’s ambition outweighs not doing anything else of note in 2011. Given the prestige attached to the Open Championship and given Clarke’s compelling back story, it is probably churlish to exclude him and he will be a popular choice among the nineteenth hole regulars at Royal Portrush and beyond.

Luke Donald: Even the most ardent golf fans probably find themselves questioning whether three of their number should be included amongst the ten great sportspeople of the year. However, it is a cause for celebration whenever a British sportsperson is number 1 in the world and Donald does end 2011 leading golf’s world rankings, following a year in which he has won several tournaments. Much like tennis, however, golf is a sport where rankings carry far less credence than Majors and, as yet, Donald has not broken through and won a Major tournament which his status would suggest he is capable of. If you were to look at what Donald has achieved versus Darren Clarke over the whole year then Donald has a greater claim to be on the list, but significantly, Clarke has won the Major that Donald has not. Again, a borderline call until such time that he delivers in a Major.

Andy Murray: Murray is Britain’s most successful tennis player since World War 2 and has enjoyed another season of steady form in which he has won seven tournaments, including 2 Masters series titles and the pre-Wimbledon warm-up tournament at Queens Club. He has also reached the semi-finals or better of all of the Grand Slam tournaments. Significantly, however, he did not convert any of these into his maiden Grand Slam title, with an Australian Open runners-up berth being the closest he came in 2011. In his mitigation, however, he is around at a time when there are 3 exceptional men’s tennis players and it is worth recalling that even Roger Federer did not register a Grand Slam victory in 2011 either. You sense that Murray will need to win Wimbledon before he ever stands a genuine chance of winning this accolade, but I feel that when taking into account the quality of opposition at the top echelons of his sport at this time, his performances this year are worthy of his place on the shortlist.

Mo Farah: A year before the London 2012 Olympics in which the track and field programme will provide for many, the blue riband events of the Games and therefore will also provide the barometer through which Britain’s success at the Games will be measured, Farah increased the sense of anticipation by winning gold in the men’s 5000 metres at Athletics’ World Championships in South Korea. Farah’s success in a long distance race will evoke memories of an era when Britain fared well at such events, which is a break from the norm these days in which middle and long distance events are often dominated by North African athletes who are better conditioned and drilled in the art of endurance racing. If Farah were to win gold in London next year, he would stand every chance of winning the 2012 accolade, but sport is an unpredictable sorceress. This could be Farah’s moment in the sun and he is rightly included.

Dai Greene: Welshman Greene claimed Britain’s only other track gold medal in South Korea when beating off the competition to win the men’s 400 metre hurdles. As with Farah, were he to replicate this success in East London one summer’s day next August then his chances of winning the award in 2012 would be multiplied by 5. As it is, a gold medal in track and field’s second most important competition certainly makes him a justifiable nominee.

Amir Khan: It is seven years now since Khan gained a silver medal in the Athens Olympics while still a teenager. Khan turned professional soon afterwards and after a few teething troubles in the early stages of his professional career, Khan’s rise to the summit has gained momentum and he has held world title belts in the light-welterweight division for the past two and a half years and he is now regarded as the pound-for-pound best fighter in his weight category. Khan has only had two successful defences of his title this year, with a third fight being fought before Christmas. His knockout victory against Zab Judah, however, was a unification fight meaning that Khan’s victory brought him the IBF belt in addition to the WBA belt he already held. Boxing’s lack of terrestrial television coverage may mean that some are not entirely aware of Khan’s progress since Athens, but he is on course to deliver on his early potential. There is an argument to say that Carl Froch should be boxing’s representative on the list, but given that Froch has fought only once this year so far, 2011 has not been his defining year.

Mark Cavendish: Of all of the chosen 10, Cavendish participates in arguably the least mainstream sport, albeit his exploits in the Tour De France have added to the UK’s increased interest in pedal power following the track cycling team’s performance in the Beijing Olympics. Cavendish has been nominated here before, but 2011 was the year in which his achievements transcended conversation confined to road cycling circles. This was the year in which Cavendish won the coveted green jersey in the Tour De France for being the champion sprinter, breaking the record for the most sprint stage wins along the way. In addition, he also claimed a World Championship gold medal. Cavendish’s successes in the world’s most celebrated endurance race would be worthy of his inclusion on their own as there are few tests of physical fitness greater in sport than the Tour De France, but his other triumph only further validates his claims. He would be a deserving winner this year and it probably represents his best chance of taking the trophy home.

So from this list, I have established that seven of the ten nominees are rightly included in the list, with only the places taken by Andrew Strauss, Luke Donald and Amir Khan potentially up for grabs. So, the next question is who would be the alternative names that should be included in the list in their place, particularly from the pool of British sportswomen. The most celebrated British sportswoman of the current time is heptathlete Jessica Ennis who will be one of Britain’s great gold medal hopes at London 2012, as well as being the reluctant poster girl for the event due to her aesthetic qualities. However, Ennis’s 2011 was not a defining year with only a silver medal being claimed at the World Athletics Championships. Should she go one better in London next year, I would suggest that the book on next year’s award will be closed by this time. After Ennis, the next most celebrated female athlete is swimmer Rebecca Adlington who won two gold medals at the 2008 Olympics, breaking world records along the way. Adlington struggled in the aftermath of her Olympic success but returned to form this year with a gold medal in swimming’s World Championships in China. Adlington is certainly one of British sport’s golden girls right now, but I would question whether this was her defining year. Likewise track cyclist Victoria Pendleton who also won gold in Beijing and also enjoyed World Championship success in 2011. Both Adlington and Pendleton can expect closer attention in 2012.

Moving into other sports, gymnast Beth Tweddle who finished third in 2007 enjoyed further competitive success this year and will have her supporters amongst gymnastics aficionados. But it is in less celebrated sports that the greatest female achievers are arguably to be found. Although the Manchester Evening News deserve ridicule for some of their selections, they did partially redeem themselves with the selection of Keri- Anne Payne, the South African born Manchester resident who is the reigning world champion in women’s open water swimming and another great gold medal hope for 2012. For anyone not familiar with Payne’s event, it involves swimming in cold rivers, complete with all the unpleasant hazards that one might expect from swimming in that environment, as well as having to contend with underhand baulking tactics from other swimmers. There cannot be too many sporting occasions where a competitor shares workspace with a jellyfish, with the exception of the pre-match handshake with the Chelsea football captain, but this is a genuine concern to open water swimmers of which Payne is currently the cream of the crop.

Aside from Payne, consider also the compelling case for Chrissie Wellington, the British world ‘Ironman’ triathlon champion. Although it attracts little media attention, it is hard to think of any more demanding or physically enduring sport than the triathlon, in which competitors are required to swim, cycle and run all in a day’s work. Wellington is a multiple world champion in her discipline and claimed her latest success this year. By the same token, there is also a claim for Wellington’s male counterpart Alistair Brownlee who won his second World Triathlon championship this year, defeating his brother to the gold medal. Then there is horse racing’s Hayley Turner who has competed directly against male counterparts and enjoyed significant success, having battled back from a year on the sidelines with a serious injury. Turner enjoyed a major breakthrough in 2011 by winning two of flat racing’s Group One races, that sport’s equivalent to a major or a ranking tournament, before another injury brought a premature end to her season.

Perhaps the most harrowing story of all though belongs to British taekwondo player Sarah Stevenson who became world champion in her martial art this year. A gold medal success in a relatively obscure sport seems unspectacular in itself. However, consider the adversity Stevenson dealt with in her build-up to the competition with both of her parents losing their battles with the dreaded cancer a matter of weeks before the competition. Stevenson said that she took out the anger she felt from her grief on her opponents and therefore used her anger as a positive outlet in order to achieve her goals. Even those stuffy about minority sports must admire Stevenson’s courage and resilience in the face of the worst kind of human trauma.

All of these competitors have enjoyed great success in their chosen sports, but it says something about the media’s interest in mainstream sports that several of these names are largely unknown to a wider audience, and that is reflected in the shortlist. I only became aware of Chrissie Wellington when I saw her interviewed on television just a few weeks ago. I knew even less of Sarah Stevenson until I Googled her name when she was mentioned in the aftermath of this storm breaking and then came across a newspaper article that reported her poignant back story. There are some commentators I have heard in recent days who had not even heard of Rebecca Adlington.

But the thing is this. How much of this is the media’s fault and how much of this is the fault of the British sporting public’s attitudes, particularly among the male fraternity? Sure, the newspapers carry very limited coverage of minority sports aside from some results in small print on page 10 of the Sunday supplement, but then newspapers will claim they are providing what their audience want, and their audience want coverage of the populist sports. So, football will dominate the column inches, followed by cricket and tennis and rugby and Formula One with a spot of boxing and golf thrown in. It is also the case that these sports tend to dominate television coverage, albeit very little cricket and boxing is shown on terrestrial television these days. I feel it is the lack of media exposure and reporting of minority sports outside of the Olympics every four years that has contributed to the male-only shortlist seen this year rather than any vendetta against female sporting achievers, due to the greatest sporting achievements by British women this year occurring in events that fall outside of the mainstream. A winning performance in Olympic year, especially when the Games are being held on our doorstep, will give these sports more of a platform next year though, only for interest to be lost until the next Olympiad convenes in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

My suggestion to combat future controversy and to avoid the need to introduce any form of positive discrimination (an oxymoron if ever there was one) in future renewals of Sports Personality of the Year is this. Firstly, scrap the shortlist and replace it with a long list, much like the ones seen for football’s Ballon D’Or Award for the year’s best footballer, or indeed like the lists used to award the best newcomers in the music industry. In this day and age, surely it cannot be difficult to come up with a list of 30 people and then post this up on the BBC website in order for people to cast their vote. In order to avoid the vote rigging problem, get everyone to log in securely first. Secondly, scrap the input from journalists. Sports Personality of the Year was always exclusively an accolade voted by the public and it should remain that way. If the scribes are to have any involvement, their role should be to inform and so perhaps they could individually take on a role of ‘championing’ a contender that has made the long list, in order to inform the public not as au fait with less mainstream sports of what achievements their contender has on their CV and what obstacles they have overcome to reach the apogee in their chosen pursuit.

Lastly, and arguably my most revolutionary proposal of all, why not change the whole format and hand out two awards? One award for Sportsman of the Year and another for Sportswoman of the Year. People would argue that this would be divisive and it would segregate men and women in sport furthermore, but let’s be realistic, there are many sports where it is unlikely and impractical for men and women to directly compete with one another. At least by handing out separate awards, it will give the finest sportswomen more media recognition than they are currently getting, their 15 minutes of fame at the very least. Added to which, it removes the personality element to the award which will do everyone a favour and get people to place their own personal interpretation on what merits the finest sporting achievement of the year, and allows there to be 2 people’s sacrifices and dedication to be rewarded and validated every year. I fear that unless such a step is taken, this cycle will be repeated in future years with the same questions being asked and the same frustrations being voiced, especially in years in which no Olympic torch is burning strong.

To conclude, here is my shortlist of 10 for this year, which I am glad to report does not include any Bulgarians or Ivorians!

Alistair Cook
Rory McIlroy
Darren Clarke
Andy Murray
Mo Farah
Dai Greene
Mark Cavendish
Kerri-Anne Payne
Alistair Brownlee
Chrissie Wellington

That's it from me for tonight. But I intend to be back to chew over the fat of some of the recent news later on in the week. Cheerio for now.

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