It was an award for losers, said Joe Calzaghe—although not, sadly, in his acceptance speech of 2007. Calzaghe’s success as BBC Sports Personality proved himself wrong, but there is something odd about the list of winners of the tacky tripod trophy. It’s not that they’re losers, exactly—only 4 of the last 20 Personalities were plucky runners-up, and ’94 Personality Damon Hill later became world champion. What’s really puzzling about this hall of ‘fame’ is the preponderance of sports about which, in truth, we couldn’t give a monkey’s.
Zara Phillips was a controversial winner in the year of Calzaghe’s outburst, but while it’s not her fault that she won, she remains symbolic of everything that’s wrong with the cult of Personality. How many of her 221,000 voters had ever attended an equestrian event? How many watched on TV? How many had even made dressage-related smalltalk at the watercooler? We don’t know her greatest rivals, or her strengths and weaknesses. All we know is that she’s very English, very Establishment, and won a shiny medal—and that, depressingly, is the formula for Personality success. Phillips’ mother, Princess Anne, modestly attributes her 1971 win to the lack of competition; the runners-up were George Best and Barry John.
Steve Redgrave was voted Personality of Personalities on the award’s 50th anniversary, but who are we kidding when we call ourselves Redgrave fans? Like Phillips, he competes in an ultra-minority sport that reeks of the English public school, and which few of us notice for the 208 consecutive weeks between Olympic finals. The widespread admiration for Redgrave’s success is really about believing him a symbol of Great Britishness, living proof that our Establishment and institutions are hopeful and glorious. While Redgrave dipped his oar, Brittania continued to rule the waves for Personality voters.
If the Personalities are to reflect our real sporting passions, we need more losers. Kelly Holmes is a brilliant middle-distance runner, but 2004 was really the year of Wayne Rooney’s arrival at the Euros. Personality Fatima Whitbread hurled a javelin 76 metres for gold in ’87, but Clive Allen scored an incredible 49 goals while missing out on League and both Cups for Spurs. A question hovers over the silver tripod, awkward as a fart at a job interview: who the hell votes for this thing?
Assuredly not the superfans at Anfield, Thomond Park or Eden Gardens, where sport finds its soul and fans meld with players in what might pretentiously be called symbiosis. Nor is it the mythical Cornish ManU fan, sofa-bound and sad, but passionate and informed nonetheless. A strange truth emerges: this is a sports award where the voters don’ t like sport.
So, who should win this year? It’s surely a three-horse race. Establishment, elitist and brilliantly esoteric, it has to be Blonde One, Two or Three from the nation’s favourite keelboat. I can’t remember any of their names, or who they beat, and I’ve no inkling what an yngling looks like. Now that’s Personality.