Rebecca Adlington, Chrissie Wellington, Keri-Anne Payne, Sarah Stevenson and Kath Grainger each won world titles in 2011. None, however, mustered enough votes to make the shortlist for this year's BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, meaning the selection is a 10-man shortlist. That caused a degree of outrage yesterday with Wellington tweeting, "Disgraceful".
The BBC, while doubtless delighted at the publicity boost to an ailing flagship event, was quick to pass the buck, noting the shortlist was drawn up by the sports departments of 27 newspapers and magazines. However, they must bear some responsibility for the eclectic mix of publications which includes lads' mags Nuts and Zoo (both supplied all-male lists) but not female orientated magazines such as Zest. There was criticism, too, of the parochial nature of some shortlists with the Manchester Evening News managing to select two footballers apiece from Manchester City and Manchester United, two Lancashire cricketers, and a Mancunian swimmer.
That was Payne, who won gold at this year's world aquatic championships in the 10km open water category and was certainly a more worthy suggestion than Dimitar Berbatov whom the MEN also nominated. However, does she deserve a place in the top 10? The Independent was one of the publications not to include a woman and Matt Gatward, the sports editor, said of Payne's success: "It is a fine achievement, but if a man won that event would we be saying he should be included? You shouldn't include a woman just for the sake of it."
Indeed, triathlete Wellington's failure to make the top 10 is matched by the absence of Alistair Brownlee, who won team gold and individual bronze at the world triathlon championships. While Grainger at least picked up votes, Mark Hunter and Zac Purchase, who also won gold at the rowing world championships, did not get a mention. As for male world champions Danny Hart (downhill mountain biking) Jamie Bestwick (BMX) and Paul Foster (bowls), or IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti, they gained a single vote between them.
The reality is only those in high profile sports will be included and the most successful female athletes this year have been in less popular sports. Ironman, taekwondo, and, outside of the Olympics, swimming and rowing, are not major sports in Britain. Golf, tennis (in which Andy Murray, while not winning a Slam, is top four in a globally played sport), cricket, boxing and track & field are. Cycling is more a minority pursuit but Mark Cavendish shone in the high-profile Tour de France.
In high-profile sports English women were less prominent. In athletics – which with tennis is the only leading sport in which women attract as much publicity as men – Hannah England and Jessica Ennis both won silver at the world championships, but the shortlisted Dai Greene and Mo Farah won gold.
Fifty-one athletes were nominated in all, 12 of them female. Only England's Ashes-winning cricketers made the top 10 from a team sport. England's women cricketers won the summer's quadrangular one-day series, and have just completed a successful tour of South Africa, but they lost the Ashes in a one-off Test in Australia in January.
Of other team sports England's female rugby players won nine of their 10 fixtures, retaining the Six Nations, but were unable to match the media profile of the previous year when they reached the final of the Women's Rugby World Cup. There were three English women golfers in Europe's successful Solheim Cup team, but none excelled individually. The footballers reached the World Cup quarter-finals, but probably needed to go further for individuals to penetrate deep into national consciousness.
There is a silver lining in that several female athletes will have had their profiles raised by the furore. Be honest, how many of you could name the sports the four athletes named alongside Adlington in the opening sentence competed in? Women's sport does not get much media attention because the public do not demand it. The Independent's sports desk gets more letters asking for increased coverage of lower league football, or racecards, than of women's sport. This is reflected in the field: Arsenal ladies, the most successful female team in the nation's biggest sport, play at non-League Borehamwood, in front of hundreds.
Until women's sport attracts greater interest, coverage will remain sparse. Next year's Olympics should provide a significant lift to several female sports and it will be a surprise – maybe even "a disgrace" – if there are not strong contenders next year.
Men only: Women who missed out
Ten women who could have been nominated (sport, votes received):
Rebecca Adlington (swimming, 6) World champion: 800m freestyle.
Nicola Adams (boxing, 1) European amateur champion, flyweight.
Hannah England (athletics, 1) Silver, 1500m, world championships.
Jessica Ennis (athletics, 1) Silver, heptathlon, world championships.
Kath Grainger (rowing, 2) World champion: double sculls (with Anna Watkins).
Victoria Pendleton (cycling, 2) European champion, world runner-up: Team Sprint (with Jessica Varnish).
Sarah Stevenson (taekwondo, 3) World champion: welterweight.
Keri-Anne Payne (swimming, 5) World champion: 10 km open water.
Jill Scott (football, 0) World Cup quarter-finalist.
Chrissie Wellington (triathlon, 3) World champion: ironman.
The actual shortlist (sport, votes received):
Mark Cavendish (cycling, 23).
Darren Clarke (golf, 26).
Alastair Cook (cricket, 18).
Luke Donald (golf, 11).
Mo Farah (athletics, 25).
Dai Greene (athletics, 17).
* Amir Khan (boxing, 7).
Rory McIlroy (golf, 27).
Andy Murray (tennis,14).
Andrew Strauss (cricket, 14).
* 'The Independent' chose Jimmy Anderson instead of Amir Khan, but otherwise matched the shortlistReuse content