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Personality non grata

With a growing list of missing sports and an alarmingly dull alumni club, is the BBC's esteemed award losing its former prestige?
The BBC Sports Personality of the Year is one of the great oxymorons of our time - if the winners of the title over the past 15 years are anything to go by. Merely reading the roll of honour makes the eyelids start to close: Nick Faldo... Liz McColgan... Damon Hill... Nigel Mansell has won it twice - need I continue?

The BBC are well aware of the paradox inherent in the title. "Steve Davis won it one year," deadpans Paul Davies, the producer and director of The Sports Review of the Year 1998. "People do identify the irony of the title, but what else could you call it? "Sports Achievement of the Year"? Well, often it's not for achievement - look at Paul Gascoigne, who won after his tears in 1990. You can win the award without having won a trophy during the year. Michael Owen hasn't won anything this year, but he has captured the public imagination and he may well be the bookies' favourite. He certainly was at the time of writing - 1-5 with William Hill.

Fair enough, but what about the allegations of block-voting for the award? Davies dismisses them as "absolute rubbish." The BBC has already rumbled a light-hearted e-mail campaign, started by underemployed financiers in the City of London, to propel the unlikely figure of David Beckham to the title. The BBC claims that the fact people can vote by phone during this year's live programme should help with the clarity of the whole process. "The interesting thing on the night will be to see if any of the stars there get their mobile phones out," smiles Davies.

That the award should be subject to all these rumours and conspiracy theories is a backhanded compliment, a testament to the fact that people still care about the title as it enters its 45th year. Over the decades, it has become an institution, as much a part of the festive season as appallingly naff decorations in Regent Street. It remains so popular, executive editor Dave Gordon says, because the annual award for Sports Personality of the year "is like settling the ultimate pub argument." 12 million viewers, as the BBC would have it, can't be wrong.

But can it maintain this sense of prestige when the BBC continues to lose sporting contracts like a patient in Casualty loses blood? Gordon is adamant that BBC Sport will continue to punch its weight. He points out that the Corporation currently holds 45 different contracts to broadcast sport. "If you didn't have a satellite dish over the summer, you wouldn't have missed anything," he asserts. "We showed the World Cup, the Open golf, Wimbledon, the European athletics, the Commonwealth Games and the Test matches. We've still got a lot."

Ah yes, the Test matches... now hit for six to Channel 4. "When you lose something like cricket, it's profoundly depressing," Gordon admits. "But you just pick yourself up and make sure you put other things in its place to fill the holes. We're sad to have lost the cricket, but now we've got a bigger position in athletics, and we're very bullish about it."

Waxing evangelical, Gordon goes on to praise the BBC's dedication to so-called minority sports. "If it wasn't for us, many of them wouldn't be in the public eye. Take the BBC's commitment to rowing - that's why people like Redgrave and Pinsent are household names. And look how boxing has lost the personalities of 10 years ago. They were built through terrestrial audiences. Think how much bigger Prince Naseem and Lennox Lewis would be if they fought on a terrestrial channel."

As if that wasn't enough, Gordon continues, the BBC has history on its side. "If you did a Sports Review of the Millennium next year, you'd appreciate the fundamental, proactive role the BBC has played in sport since 1937. We won't lose that heritage. The BBC will go on being a major player in sport. The licence fee isn't tenable without a huge amount of sport. We're not going to lie down; we're going to compete." Fighting talk.

It is backed up by the buzz of activity in the Sports Review nerve-centre. During the past three months of pre-production, Davies has spent hours hunched over a wonderfully detailed model of the hi-tech set to be installed in London's Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre. He has been working out the tricky diplomacy of the seating-plan for 400 potentially temperamental sports people.

In a nearby suite, editor Peter Reason and his team are often there till three in the morning. I witness them putting together a sequence on the domestic football season, intercutting Tony Adams' Premiership-winning goal against Everton (and John Motson's commentary: "What a finish! What a way to clinch the championship!") with a tearful supporter from relegated Bolton Wanderers. "There's a huge mood of buoyancy about what we do," Davies beams.

He does not appear in the slightest concerned by the curmudgeons in the press trying to grind down BBC Sport. With as much carefree laughter as a producer approaching a live broadcast to 12 million people can muster, he concludes breezily: "The day you guys stop writing about us is the day we'll worry."

`The Sports Review of the Year' is on BBC1 tomorrow night.

James Rampton