And the Winner Is …

By , Posted on 1st December 2013 - Posted in: Sports And Design

This week the BBC revealed the shortlist for their Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY) award, a trophy they hand out on a TV show that has become an increasing smugfest in recent years. As usual they’ve tried hard to avoid controversy in naming their shortlist and, as usual they’ve failed. Yes, this year the nominees collectively tick the boxes of political correctness on gender, ethnicity, disability, ugliness and gingerness. We even have one or two sports people who’ve actually won things, but it’s never enough for some people. The lack of a transsexual one legged pole vaulter is keenly felt amongst the chattering classes, but worse than that, what we’re really lacking is, erm what’s the word, oh I know, ‘personalities’.

Ok, we have this wrangle every year. What’s personality actually got to do with it?  It’s never really been about that has it? There have been plenty of winners who have succeeded solely by dint of their sporting successes. In no particular order these would include Bobby Moore and Steve Redgrave (pre knighthoods), Kelly Holmes, Daley Thompson, Jonny Wilkinson, Joe Calzaghe, Virginia Wade and Nick Faldo. Winners and true champions in their respective fields but not all of them in possession of winning personalities.

So why does the Beeb persist with this misnomer of a title? Well, quite simply, if the award was given to the stand-out personality of the year, irrespective of sporting achievement, it’d be a pretty lame affair. Dedicated sports people seldom have time to express themselves outside of their sport. The converse being that if someone has time to develop some kind of pop culture following then perhaps they’re not working hard enough at their sport. And would this personality based award be restricted to ‘good’ personalities? What about baddies like Joey Barton or Kevin Pieterson? Would they be in with a shout? No, clearly we don’t want to go down that particular road.

Sometimes we get award winners who come up short in both respects. The late 1990s was a dreadful time for SPOTY in this respect. Take 1998. Footballer Michael Owen scooped it. A man with the personality of a bag of flour won the award ahead of charismatic European heptathlon champion Denise Lewis. His achievement that year? He scored a goal in the World Cup as England got woefully knocked out by Argentina.

The year before was possibly astoundingly worse. First and second places were taken by those twin giants of lawn tennis Greg Rusedski and Tim Henman. No, seriously, they were. In fairness to Rusedski he was ranked fourth in the world at the time. Steve Redgrave (he still wasn’t a ‘Sir’ then and had only amassed four of his final total of five Olympic gold medals) was given third place. No doubt he was thrilled merely to share the stage with two such sporting ‘greats’.

And what about 2009? That was the year world Formula One motor racing champion Jenson Button graciously accepted second place to Ryan Giggs, a man awarded the title simply for playing football for a really long time. A towering personality then? No, not really. A good player? Yes, not at all bad. Both of his goals during the 2008-09 season undoubtedly contributed hugely to Manchester United’s title success that season.

So, if it’s not really about personalities, and it’s not always about champions, then what on earth is going on? Last year’s winner, Bradley Wiggins was a rare example indeed of a true sporting champion who also happened to have something about him.

I think the answer lies in our national penchant for the plucky underdog loser (PUL). The winner is almost always someone who has spunkily embraced major failure at some point in his or her career (in Giggs’ case we feel the pain of him only being able to play on the international stage for Wales, not a true superpower of the game like England). They may or may not have gone on to greatness but it’s the duff years we really love them for. Think Gazza and his tears (1990), David Beckham (2001), David Steele (1975), and Greg and Tim of course (Rusenman?), as flag bearers for the PUL brigade.

Only three sportsmen have won the award twice, Henry Cooper, Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill. The two motor racing stars Mansell and Hill both won the award for the first time as PULs. Our ‘Enery won his first SPOTY in 1967 presumably as reward for being pluckily battered to defeats by Mohammed Ali and Floyd Paterson in 1966.

So, I give you The Sports Plucky Underdog Loser of the Year Award (SPULOTY) as the way forward. Let’s get it out in the open. Let’s embrace our love of plucky failure. Think of all those horizontal boxers, lead arsed athletes and club footed footballers we could embrace without the need for any embarrassment.

The problem with this though is that in winning such an award the winner immediately invalidates it. You can’t win something that says you’re a loser. No, best stick with what we’ve got. SPOTY it is then and I suspect this year’s winner will be Andy Murray. He’ll find out soon enough we loved him more as a PUL than we ever will as a winner. It’s just the way it is.


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