In exactly three months’ time (Thursday 22nd December) the 2011 BBC Sports Personality of the Year (SPotY) Awards will take place at the BBC’s new MediaCityUK complex in Salford, Manchester. As ever, this will be a celebration of British sporting achievement in 2011, which includes England crushing Australia in the Ashes and rising to the number one Test ranking, a 19th top-flight title for Manchester United, victories in two of golf’s four majors, the green jersey at the Tour de France and two golds at the World Athletics Championships.

The competition for the main SPotY award looks set to be a close-run affair, with several candidates vying for supremacy in the public vote. The final shortlist of ten will not be published for several weeks, but here is a quick overview of the top ten contenders based on the current odds offered by bookmakers’ William Hill.

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Darren Clarke (10/11)

Won The Open Championship by three shots at his 20th attempt, giving him his first victory in one of golf’s four majors. The genial Irishman, who remains a firm public favourite, dedicated his victory to his two children and late wife Heather, who lost her battle with breast cancer in 2006. That year he was runner-up in SPotY, having said that he did not want to win because of a sympathy vote.

SPotY prospects: The runaway favourite. Possesses the winning combination of a great sporting achievement and a human interest back-story.

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Rory McIlroy (4/1)

After a spectacular implosion on the back nine in the final round of the Masters which saw him card a final round 80 – the worst ever of any player leading the tournament after three rounds – the 22-year old Irishman bounced back at the US Open. He led every round and finished with a 16-under par total of 268 (both tournament records) to win his first major by an astonishing eight shots. He is currently ranked three in the world.

SPotY prospects: Slim. If Clarke dominates the golfing vote as expected, McIlroy may well slip outside the top three.

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Mo Farah (4/1)

Having launched himself into the elite echelon of distance runners with gold in both the 5,000 and 10,000 metres at the 2010 European Championships, the Somalia-born Farah continued his upward trajectory in 2011. He won the 3,000 metres at the European Indoor Championships in March, and then followed that up with gold and silver at the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea. After narrowly losing out to Ethiopian Ibrahim Jeilan in his favoured event, the 10,000, he bounced back to outsprint 2007 world champion Bernard Lagat in the 5,000 to win his first global championship gold.

SPotY prospects: Top three.

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Mark Cavendish (12/1)

For the fourth year in a row Cavendish, the Manxman regarded as the world’s best sprinter, was dominant at the Tour de France. He won five stages – including the prestigious finale on the Champs-Élysées for an unprecedented third year running – and claimed his first green jersey as the leader of the points competition. He also won two stages at the Giro d’Italia in May, and starts as the favourite for Sunday’s road race at cycling’s Road World Championships. Winning the rainbow jersey might just elevate him into the top three.

SPotY prospects: The cycling world is relatively small but will mass in support of Cav after years of being overlooked in the public vote. It may just be enough to put him into the top three – I will be voting for him – but I suspect he will fall just short.

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Tom Daley (20/1)

2011 has been a relatively unexceptional year for the young diver (who is still just 17 years old) in terms of performances, failing to top an individual event – he finished second in both the 3m springboard and 10m platform at the British National Championships – and notching just two wins in the synchronised event with partner Pete Waterfield. However, his year has been overshadowed by the death of his father Robert in May after a long struggle with cancer.

SPotY prospects: No chance.

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Alastair Cook (25/1)

Cook was the outstanding batsman in the 2010/11 Ashes series, scoring 766 runs – the second-highest total ever by an Englishman in an Ashes series – at an average of nearly 128. This summer against India, his 294 in the third Test was the highest individual score of the series. (In eight innings, India as a team only surpassed this total once.) For 2011, Cook finished with 927 runs at an average of 84, and recently won the ICC’s Test Player of the Year Award.

England teammate Jonathan Trott had an equally impressive year and was named the ICC’s Cricketer of the Year. The 4-0 series whitewash of India catapulted England to the top of the Test rankings, making them a virtual shoo-in for Team of the Year – even if the rugby team wins the World Cup. This is reflected in the official ICC rankings: England current has four of the top nine batsmen (Cook, Trott, Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen) and three of the top five bowlers (Jimmy Anderson, Graeme Swann and Stuart Broad).

SPotY prospects: Possible top three, and an almost certain winner as part of the Team of the Year.

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Wayne Rooney (33/1)

Having started the 2010/11 season slowly, England’s primary striker finished strongly to help Manchester United to a record-setting 19th league title and the final of the Champions League. However, his form at the start of this season has been electrifying, with nine goals in five league games, including back-to-back hat-tricks.

SPotY prospects: Slim, unless he continues his blistering early season form and performs Beckham-style heroics in England’s final qualifier in Montenegro in a fortnight’s time.

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Dai Greene (33/1)

The 25-year old Welshman added the World Championships 400 metres hurdles gold to his European and Commonwealth titles with a storming finish in Daegu. He is also the second fastest-ever British man in the event, behind Kriss Akabusi. His achievements are all the more notable for the fact that he suffers from Osgood–Schlatter disease (a condition which affects the knees) and was diagnosed as a teenager with epilepsy.

SPotY prospects: None, despite his inspirational back-story. Track-and-field voters will opt for Farah.

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Chris Ashton & Jonny Wilkinson (both 66/1)

The two rugby players’ SPotY prospects rely solely on England’s performance at the current World Cup, even though both featured in the Six Nations triumph earlier in the year. Winger Ashton – he of the controversial ‘swallow dive’ celebration – has scored 12 tries in just eight internationals this year, including four against Italy during the Six Nations and two in Sunday’s World Cup group victory over Georgia.

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Wilkinson is the record points-scorer in World Cups with 257, but had a less than impressive start to this tournament, converting just three of his eight kicks at goal in England’s stuttering 13-9 win over Argentina – a performance which included five consecutive misses. The fly-half did win SPotY in 2003 after that kick, but he remains the only winner of the award from rugby, and several years of injury and declining form since them will weigh heavily against him.

SPotY prospects: None, unless England win the Rugby World Cup – in which case it could be any one of half a dozen or more players – and even then, neither is likely to feature higher than third. 

Beyond the current bookies’ favourites, if I could usher one more sportsperson into the final SPotY shortlist of ten it would be Alistair Brownlee, who recently clinched his second senior world triathlon title in three years. Heptathlete Jessica Ennis misses out this year, by virtue of ‘only’ finishing second in her event at the World Championships.

In terms of the other major awards, I think we can probably safely pencil in the England Test cricket side as the Team of the Year, and Andy Flower must surely be the favourite to become Coach of the YearOverseas SPotY has gone to a tennis player in four of the past seven years and Novak Djokovic – world number one and winner of three Grand Slam singles titles in 2011 – is likely to make it five out of eight, with an honourable mention for Sebastian Vettel, who is on the verge of his second Formula 1 title.

The Lifetime Achievement Award has been won by a football player or manager six of the 12 times it has been awarded, but it could genuinely go to any of a number of sportspeople – however, my bet would be Michael Schumacher. Seve Ballesteros, who won the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009, could potentially be posthumously given the Helen Rollason Award (for outstanding achievement in the face of adversity). There would certainly be few more popular winners. Tom Daley has won the Young SPotY award in three of the last four years. Open to anyone aged 16 or under on January 1st 2011, he is eligible for the last time this year, but I suspect it may be heading elsewhere this time around. Your guess is as good as mine on that one, though.

Incidentally, in case you’re wondering why the ceremony is taking place on such an unusual and late date this year (it is normally held on a Sunday in mid-December) it is reportedly because two of the favourites, Clarke and McIlroy, are scheduled to play in tournaments up to the 18th and would not otherwise be able to attend in person. So now you know.

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