Hamilton or Adlington or even Hoy? What is significant about this year's BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, which will be dished out in Liverpool tomorrow evening, is not so much that it is a genuinely exciting two-horse race with a third runner as a legitimate outsider, but that the apparent no-hopers in the betting – Bradley Wiggins, Nicole Cooke, Rebecca Romero, Christine Ohuruogu, Ben Ainslie, Joe Calzaghe and Andy Murray – are no less deserving of the big prize.
Who, after all, could reasonably complain if by some miracle, or an onslaught of tactical voting in the Vale of Glamorgan, Cooke were anointed? The 25-year-old Welshwoman, the first female cyclist in history to become Olympic and world champion in the same year, is in pure sporting terms just as worthy as Rebecca Adlington of the British public's ultimate pat on the back. And Ainslie, who by winning a third sailing gold medal in a third successive Olympic Games established himself as unequivocally the greatest dinghy sailor on the planet, is no less a sportsperson than Lewis Hamilton or Chris Hoy. Yet the odds for Ainslie and Cooke yesterday stood at 150-1, and to put that into context, the same bookmaker considered Alan Shearer significantly more likely – a mere 100-1 chance – to become the next manager of Sunderland.
This illustrates, even in an unremarkable year for most of our major international sporting teams, and consequently with not a single footballer, cricketer or rugby player in contention, what a fantastic 12 months this has been for British sport. Also, the presence of 10 truly deserving contenders on the shortlist validates the award itself, and while some might contend that an institution now over half a century old is in no need of validation, it is a personal view that occasionally down the years it has been little more than a nonsense, scarcely worthy of the reverence it routinely receives.
Of course, choosing between performers in different sports remains as invidious as choosing between Oscar-nominated actors. To pick a year at random, whose performance was better in 1994, that of Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump or John Travolta's in Pulp Fiction? Really, it was as absurd to set those two performances in competition with one another.
But in 1994 the absurdity went a stage further. Damon Hill was made BBC Sports Personality of the Year for his achievement in finishing a point behind Michael Schumacher in the Formula One drivers' championship, while Sally Gunnell, in the year she became the first woman ever to hold simultaneously the Olympic, world, European and Commonwealth 400m hurdles titles, had to be content, as she so rarely had been on the track, with second place.
This anomaly, one of many with which the 54-year history of Sports Personality is littered, brings us to the crux of the matter: what, in this once-a-year context, is the meaning of the word "personality"? Hill's a nice bloke but nobody ever saw him light up a room with his mere presence, so it cannot just mean charisma. And it cannot only mean popularity, or Nick Faldo would not have pipped Frank Bruno in 1989.
Nor, though, does it simply acknowledge the transcendent sporting performance of the year. If that were the case, then with all due respect to a lovely man and a decent heavyweight but by no means one of boxing's all-time greats, Henry Cooper would not figure among only three people to have won the thing twice (in 1967 and 1970). Nor would Greg Rusedski have won it even once, for his substantial but hardly immortal feat of reaching the 1997 US Open final.
As for that pesky word "personality", its definition seems to lie in a cocktail of all three factors: charisma, popularity and deed. There have been happy years when the winner has scored on all those counts, such as Andrew Flintoff in 2005, or Bobby Moore in 1966. But even in those instances, a case could be made for the runner-up being more deserving in terms of singular achievement, in particular the indomitable Ellen MacArthur, pipped by Flintoff.
However, the breakdown of sports represented by the winner of Sports Personality since 1954 shows that individuals are generally favoured more than team players. Athletics accounts for 16 awards, motor racing for six, and boxing for five. Perhaps the ultimate team game, rugby union, boasts only one winner – Jonny Wilkinson in 2003 – putting it on a par with motorcycle racing and snooker.
What does any of this tell us about the way things will go tomorrow? Possibly not much, for this is already an exceptional year, the year in which all 10 contenders, for myriad reasons, deserve to win. On the other hand, the two men who share with Cooper that distinction of winning the thing twice, are Hill and Nigel Mansell. Those petrol-heads are a determined lot, and they'll be standing by their phones. I back Hamilton to nose ahead of Adlington on the final straight.
Vintage or vinegar
How each year rates
Brian Viner ranks the awards since 1954:
Joe Calzaghe (boxing, 2007)
Jonny Wilkinson (rugby union, 2003)
Kelly Holmes (athletics, 2004)
Nick Faldo (golf, 1989)
Jim Laker (cricket, 1956)
Ian Botham (cricket, 1981)
Steve Redgrave (rowing 2000)
Damon Hill (motor racing 1996)
Christopher Chataway (athletics, 1954)
Bobby Moore (football, 1966)
David Hemery (athletics, 1968)
Ann Jones (tennis, 1969)
Mary Peters (athletics, 1972)
Jackie Stewart (motor racing, 1973)
Virginia Wade (tennis, 1977)
Zara Phillips (eventing, 2006)
Torvill & Dean (ice skating, 1984)
Nigel Mansell (motor racing, 1986)
Lennox Lewis (boxing, 1999)
Andrew Flintoff (cricket, 2005)
Michael Owen (football, 1998)
Dorothy Hyman (athletics, 1963)
David Steele (cricket, 1975)
Ian Black (swimming, 1958)
John Surtees (motorcycle racing, 1959)
Stirling Moss (motor racing, 1961)
Mary Rand (athletics, 1964)
Henry Cooper (boxing, 1967)
John Curry (ice skating, 1976)
Steve Ovett (athletics, 1978)
Daley Thompson (athletics, 1982)
Barry McGuigan (boxing 1985)
Steve Davis (snooker, 1988)
Paula Radcliffe (athletics, 2002)
Paul Gascoigne (football, 1990)
Jonathan Edwards (athletics, 1995)
Fatima Whitbread (athletics, 1987)
Dai Rees (golf, 1957)
David Broome (show jumping, 1960)
Anita Lonsbrough (swimming, 1962)
Tom Simpson (cycling, 1965)
Sebastian Coe (athletics, 1979)
Robin Cousins (ice skating, 1980)
Steve Cram (athletics,1983)
Liz McColgan (athletcis, 1991)
Nigel Mansell (motor racing, 1992)
Linford Christie (athletics, 1993)
Blue Square Premier
Princess Anne (eventing, 1971)
Brendan Foster (athletics, 1974)
Gordon Pirie (athletics, 1955)
Henry Cooper (boxing, 1970)
David Beckham (football, 2001)
Damon Hill (motor racing, 1994)
Greg Rusedski (tennis, 1997)
Christine Ohuruogu: 'What I really like about her is that she's very focused, a fantastic character and a great example to other athletes when it comes to knowing how to conduct yourself', Steve Cram, Olympic 1500m silver medallist
Chris Hoy: 'Surely the perfect compromise candidate, though the word does no justice to his his superb dedication and resulting achievements' Matt Tench, Sports editor, The Independent
Bradley Wiggins: 'He was a massive figure in a very successful Team GB unit', Alan Shearer, former England football captain
Ben Ainslie: 'Everybody in the sailing world looks up to him. I'm amazed at how professional he is and the fact he's virtually unbeatable', Shirley Robertson, two-time Olympic sailing gold medallist
Rebecca Adlington:'It has to be Rebecca Adlington because apart from making history she made a whole nation feel good. Good about its youth and its enduring possibilities. This was true, no doubt, of Lewis Hamilton in his car and the more elderly Chris Hoy on his bike. But Becky, zany and filled with wonder at her own achievement, came so fresh to the most brilliant moment of her life. She explained its meaning to her, the cost of it in hours and pain and frustration, but also the joy when it was all made worthwhile. Perhaps no one has ever made such a brilliant job of personalising glory, in the most beguiling way', James Lawton, Chief Sports Writer, The Independent
Nicole Cooke: 'Nicole is a true champion. To be one, you have to have the ability to push yourself beyond the limits of normal human beings, Colin Jackson, world 110m hurdles champion
Joe Calzaghe: 'To overcome Bernard Hopkins in Las Vegas and then Roy Jones Jr at Madison Square Garden was simply remarkable. The American boxing fraternity are now ranking Joe alongside former world heavyweight champion and British boxer Lennox Lewis, and deservedly so', Jonathan Davies, Wales rugby star
Lewis Hamilton: 'It has been a great year for Lewis Hamilton and a great year for British motorsport. McLaren came within a small margin of winning the constructors' world championship but Lewis won the drivers' championship. I knew from an early age that he had it in him. I first met Lewis at the Royal Automobile Club. He was a wee boy who was karting at the time. He's shown tremendous ability and great skills inside the cockpit and has a good temperament outside it. What he has as a champion is natural talent, that's a blessing. He has then manipulated it, massaged it, developed it and exercised it to become the very best', Sir Jackie Stewart, three-time F1 champion
Rebecca Romero: 'To win silver in rowing in 2004 and gold four years later in cycling was nothing short of amazing', Sir Matthew Pinsent, four-time Olympic rowing champion
Andy Murray: 'It truly has been a magical year for Andy. He started off in the second tier at the start of the season but finished with the big boys. He won't stop until he reaches the peak and I think he will achieve his dream very soon', Andrew Castle, former British tennis No1
Tune in to see the action unfold and to find out how you can phone in to cast your vote: BBC Sports Personality of the Year, tomorrow night, 7.00-9.00pm, BBC 1. Some endorsements sourced from www.bbc.co.uk/sport