The Last Word: A primitive tribe swarms around the tawdry trinket of Sports Personality of the Year

Many Olympic heroes have toiled in sports that offer everything but fame

All that was missing was the incense. Oh dear. Maybe the hysteria that infected the nation during the Olympics betrayed a more chronic disorder than the perfectly excusable, temporary suspension of dignity and honesty it seemed at the time. Otherwise it is hard to know how to account for the fact that so many people persevered with Sports Personality of the Year – average audience 10 million, peaking at 14.5 million – after so terminal a challenge to their self-respect so early in proceedings.

Perhaps the ceremonial arrival of the trophy was deliberately choreographed as some kind of high-camp parody. But given the furious intolerance of sedition, when millions were meekly conscripted to the Olympics cult, you have to assume that all the pomp and piety vested in the procession had been intended in deadly earnest.

The trophy was reverently cradled in the hands of Mark Cavendish, last year's winner, whose sacerdotal status was underwritten by an escort of servicemen and Games volunteers. A classic formula for the reproof of dissidents: the parade of martial and civic exemplars. Likewise, I suppose, the designation of so many selfless people, not as volunteers, but as some Orwellian prefecture of "Games Makers".

But whereas the Olympics brought many incontrovertible benefits, to reassure those unnerved by the carnival's more sinister undertones, this ludicrous exhibition flaunted the way television not only supplied the spectacle, but became inflated by it. Though the trophy itself has a quaint, dated look, nowadays Sports Personality of the Year combines a mass culture of celebrity worship with the no less fatuous enfranchisement of the celebrity-worshipper. Television is turning democracy into bread and circuses, diverting the polemics of public life into constant television polls devised either to create celebrities or humiliate them. How fitting that the climax of this one brought together David Beckham and the Duchess of Cambridge, twin apogees of tabloid divinity, to endorse the people's choice.

As it happens, many Olympic heroes condense precisely those virtues that might best preserve society from its puerile infatuations. They have long toiled in sports that offered every fulfilment except fame. As such, you can rely on someone like Katherine Grainger not to be seduced by sudden adoration.

If only the same modesty extended to the agency of their transformation. If this is how the BBC can deal with a crisis of self-doubt, what might it do restored to fully engorged self-reverence? To watch Cavendish and his acolytes march through a tumult of music, strobes and applause suggested you had inadvertently switched to BBC 4 – the licence fee's last redemption – and a documentary about some primitive tribe, swarming ritually round a beachcombers' trinket, worthless debris from a shipwreck, as the votive offering that would secure them crops and contentment.

A happy few, provoked into a genuine change of channel, were rewarded by a masterpiece from Falcao, and the 89th and 90th goals of a record year for Messi – whose status as a genius, in his field, is no less obvious than the humility with which he abjures the swagger of celebrity.

Victor Cruz would understand. The same day, having discovered himself to have been the idol of a six-year-old victim of the Newtown massacre, the New York Giants receiver lined up against the Atlanta Falcons with "Jack Pinto, My Hero" inscribed on his boot. Two days later Cruz took his girlfriend and their infant daughter to visit Pinto's grieving family, and discovered that the slaughtered innocent had been buried wearing a replica of his No 80 jersey.

It seems safe to assume that Cruz only engaged with strangers in such unspeakable distress because he already had decency, courage and perspective. Nonetheless, he came away to speak movingly of henceforth seeing "life through a different lens". He would not be human had he not pondered the difference between his own jersey and the little boy's replica – in the end, none at all. Pinto's time came too soon, but some day Cruz knows that his own raiment of wealth and glory will in turn prove in vain. Even as he took due pride in the sunshine he had introduced to so brief a life, he can seldom have found his privileges so hollow. At some level, his fame had enabled him to offer comfort; in return, its worth was dismantled before his eyes.

Then there is Tito Vilanova, Messi's coach at Barcelona, this week rushed into cancer surgery: a man at the top of his profession, handsome and intelligent, looking forward to Christmas with his wife and children. The maddening thing is that Paralympians are the last people who need telling about perspective. Yet the BBC last Sunday favoured us with an excerpt of commentary announcing, of one, that "there is nothing this young woman cannot do".

By all means, let us each be inspired in 2013 by the heroes of 2012. But only if we remember that the most important things – when the trappings are stripped away – remain the same for all mortals.

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