Everyone can win, except for the ones who can’t

I was perusing the website of a well-known betting company last night, and noticed the latest odds they are offering on the winner of the 2009 BBC Sports Personality of the Year (SPotY) award, which will be presented on December 13th. Their top 12 are currently:

Jenson Button, 9/4 favourite

Jessica Ennis, 5/2

Andy Murray, 4/1

Andrew Flintoff, 6/1

Andrew Strauss, 8/1

Stuart Broad, 16/1

Phillips Idowu, 25/1

Tom Daley, 33/1

Amir Khan, David Haye, Lewis Hamilton and Mark Cavendish, all 50/1

There can be no argument about some of the favourites.

Phillips Idowu and Jessica Ennis both returned from Berlin as world champions in their individual events; the latter’s performance being particularly impressive and heart-warming after missing last year’s Beijing Olympics with serious injury.

Should Jenson Button recover from his mid-season wobbles to win the Formula 1 drivers’ title, he will certainly be involved in the final reckoning, although whether he deserves to be the favourite for the award is an entirely different discussion. (Lewis Hamilton’s inclusion, even at 50/1, is both lazy and ludicrous.)

I agree with Andy Murray’s position as third favourite, in a year in which he has made significant progress and risen to number two in the world, a phenomenal achievement in an era in which men’s tennis can boast greater strength in depth than it has had for many years. If he wins the US Open next week, expect him to immediately become the short-odds favourite.

But, seriously, three cricketers in the top six?

England captain Andrew Strauss certainly merits consideration as the leading Ashes run-scorer with 474, over 200 more than the next best English player. In this calendar year, he has already scored 1,071 runs, including four centuries, at an average of 56.

Stuart Broad has emerged as an all-rounder of great potential, averaging an impressive 29 with the ball in 2009 and a respectable but not earth-shattering 28 with the bat. His credentials are also boosted by having saved his best performance for the critical final Ashes Test, with his devastating five-for spell in Australia’s first innings proving to be the key turning point. But it’s also easy to forget that, earlier in the summer, his place in the team was being seriously questioned. He’s worth a place in the shortlist, no more.

But both Strauss and Broad are considered longer shots than the talismanic Andrew Flintoff, who retired from Test cricket after, whisper it quietly, being little more than a bit-part player in the Ashes series. Yes, there was a wonderful spell of fast bowling at Lord’s which led to victory in the second Test, and a final little cameo on the final afternoon at the Oval when he crucially ran out Aussie captain Ricky Ponting with a direct hit. But in truth ‘Freddie’ was a shadow of the colossus of 2005, and this has been reflected in his 2009 Test averages: 27 with the bat (well down on his career average of 32) and 44 with the ball (versus 33). With both bat and ball, Flintoff has had a statistically poorer year than Broad.

Having said that, Flintoff is a genuine SpotY contender, because he will benefit from a huge groundswell of goodwill, the same kind of heart-over-head voting that saw Ryan Giggs crowned PFA Player of the Year earlier in the year. It doesn’t make it right, though.

Boxing boasts two candidates at 50/1. Amir Khan’s inclusion in the list is understandable, having won the WBA light-welterweight title in July. David Haye is more problematic. Yes, he is a multiple world cruiserweight champion, but there is also the small matter of him not having fought so far this year. His presence in the list is based on his upcoming fight with Nikolai Valuev for the WBA heavyweight belt in November. In both boxers’ cases, a top-three finish on the night would be punching above their weight.

That just leaves two. Tom Daley, who will still be 15 when the SPotY award is presented, is the 33/1 seventh favourite. Having first exploded into the public consciousness last year as our youngest Olympian, he has been even more impressive this year, winning the world 10 metre title and becoming the number one-ranked men’s 10 metre diver. Sadly, though, because diving merits barely a footnote in anything other than an Olympic year, Daley is unlikely to feature at the business end of the evening. He deserves better.

And last, but by no means least, we have Mark Cavendish: the ‘Manx Missile’, ‘Cannonball Cavendish’, or just plain Cav. 50/1, the same odds as Hamilton, winner of one grand prix in 2009. Twice the price of Idowu. More than twenty times less likely to win than Button, who has been aided considerably by possessing what has been, for most of the season, the best car on the F1 grid.

So what has this 24-year old cyclist from the Isle of Man done in 2009 that merits closer consideration? He has, in only his third full year as a professional, supplanted Chris Boardman as the most successful British road cyclist in terms of career victories. He has 21 wins to his name this year alone (equivalent, say, to a striker scoring 40 goals in a season), including three stages of the Giro d’Italia and a staggering six at the Tour de France, more than anyone has managed for 30 years. He is indisputably the fastest sprinter in the world; unquestionably the current master practitioner of his art.

He will also be lucky to go any further than making the BBC’s on-the-night shortlist of ten. This, despite the current holder of the SPotY award being a cyclist (the thoroughly deserving Chris Hoy), the success of Bradley Wiggins at July’s Tour de France (he finished fourth overall) and the impending entry of the heavily-funded Sky team, whose stated aim is to nurture and produce a British winner of the Tour. I’ll be surprised if Cavendish finishes higher than seventh or eighth in the voting.

That, in my opinion, is symptomatic of negligence on the part of the BBC, whose remit is to educate, entertain and inform. For me, this means giving some of the lower-profile sports, particularly those where we have genuinely world-class performers, some much-needed publicity as part of the SPotY programme,

Instead, I can guarantee you that the build-up to the big night – which has already started on the BBC Sport website – will focus on the three or four candidates whose stories will generate the most column inches (and make the most popular Radio Times covers): Ennis, the girl next door who fought back from career-threatening injury; Button, the forgotten man of F1, reborn in a Brawn team which nearly ceased to exist last winter; Flintoff, the battered but unbowed retiring hero who helped bring the Ashes back home; Murray, our best hope since Fred Perry for that long-lost Wimbledon singles title.

And on the night itself, we will spend lots of time focussing on the big six – football, cricket, athletics, Formula 1, boxing, tennis – which have produced 39 of SPotY’s 55 winners, with most of the others receiving little more than a token mention (particularly for sports like cycling where the BBC can conveniently claim it does not have any TV rights).

That, for me, is a big failure on the BBC’s part. SPotY nowadays is about feeding the lowest common denominator – give the people a feel-good, soundbite-friendly two hours focussing on the sports we all know about. Entertain first; educate and inform second (if at all).

For what it’s worth, my personal criterion for determining who gets my vote on SPotY night is a simple one: which UK sportsperson has, in my opinion, achieved the most in their chosen field in 2009? No more, no less. Not who has the highest profile, or who is the best ambassador, or who “is the best since …”, or who is the pluckiest runner-up, or who gets my sentimental vote, or who was on the cover of Radio Times in the run-up to SPotY.

On that basis, regardless of the merits of Ennis (who I think will win), or anything Button, Murray or Haye might achieve between now and December 13th, I will be casting my vote for Mark Cavendish. Simply because he is the best in the world at what he does, and arguably one of the very best ever.

He won’t win Sports Personality of the Year. But he really should do.

About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

2 Responses to Everyone can win, except for the ones who can’t

  1. Philip says:

    That's a strange definition of the "big six". Rugby is way bigger than athletics or boxing on a year round basis, and golf is more popular than tennis in this country, and we are better at it too. We had a women's major champion this year, Catriona Matthew, and there's a human interest story there, as she won five months after giving birth. The tournament was also covered on the BBC.

  2. Tim says:

    When I talk about the "big six" here, the only criterion I've applied is those six sports which can boast at least 3 previous SPotY winners, rather than popularity, participation, TV coverage or any other (more objective!) measure.I know a little about Catriona Matthew – a worthy Open champion with, as you say, a good human interest angle. Sadly, I doubt she'll get more than a passing 5-second mention on the night, and I'm sure she won't make the final shortlist of 10, just as Cavendish won't get anywhere near the main award. That's my point about public votes like SPotY – the award isn't won based on who IS the best, but who most people KNOW the best.

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