The Last Word: Human engine must eclipse petrolhead vote

Golden girl Adlington's Olympic exploits should blow Hamilton's achievements out of the water
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The Independent Online

Maybe it would be different if Rebecca Adlington had taken the Eleanor Holm approach to Olympic swimming. Then again, the Mansfield Waterbabe would probably not have made it to the Water Cube in Beijing, let alone achieved her momentous golden double or even been in contention with Lewis Hamilton for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award that will be decided by public vote this evening. Back in 1936, Holm achieved the kind of splash that would have made her a sure-fire hit in this celebrity-worshipping, reality TV-obsessed era.

On board the SS Manhattan with the rest of the United States squad on their nine-day voyage to the Berlin Games that year, the backstroke swimmer outraged team officials by staying up all night drinking. At a stop-off in Cherbourg, she attended an all-day champagne party and collapsed into what the ship's doctor described as "a state close to a coma". He diagnosed "acute alcoholism".

Holm was the reigning 100m backstroke champion and had been unbeaten for seven years. She was dropped from the team yet still made a big impression in Berlin, wining and dining with the Nazi elite. "I enjoyed the parties, the Heil Hitlers, the uniforms and the flags," she recalled in later years. "Goering was fun. So was the one with the club foot." That would have been Dr Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's Minister of Propaganda.

Holm went on to find a more sober role in life, playing Jane in the film Tarzan's Revenge. Forget Phil Tufnell, Martina Navratilova and Nigel Benn; Holm would have been in her natural element swinging from tree to tree in the I'm A Celebrity jungle. One suspects that Adlington – a down-to-earth, affable soul – might prosper there too somewhere down the line, when she hangs up her swimming cossie and her goggles. In the meantime, we shall soon discover if her extraordinary feats in Beijing have been sufficient to win over the hearts and minds, and more importantly the texting digits, of the Great British Public. Or enough of them to walk away from the Echo Arena in Liverpool clutching the BBC trophy.

One can only hope so, if – as the bookies have been suggesting – it comes down to a two-way fight between Adlington and Hamilton. With the greatest of respect (i.e. with not very much at all), how can the accomplishments of someone whose success in the sporting world depends on a 2.4 litre V8 engine, some 210 litres of petrol and a vehicle designed with the aerodynamics of a jet fighter be compared with those of someone plunging into the deep end equipped with nothing more than natural talent honed over years of slavish dawn-to-dusk training?

Without question, it requires a considerable degree of fitness, and a colossal amount of skill, to manoeuvre a Formula One car to victory in a Grand Prix race. But it took an estimated $7m just to tweak the 300 components of Hamilton's McLaren-Mercedes car to get him to the fifth-placed finish that clinched the drivers' championship at Interlagos. It took Adlington 15 years of toil in the pool to tweak her human engine to the twin peaks of Olympic 400m and 800m freestyle gold, the latter in a time that shattered the supposedly untouchable world record held for 19 years by Janet Evans.

In doing so, aged 19, the Nottinghamshire lass rolled back the years and the tide of history for British swimming – as the first female swimmer from these shores to strike Olympic gold since Anita Lonsborough in 1960, and the first Briton to strike more than one since Henry Taylor claimed a hat-trick in the London Games of 1908. Not that Adlington would be the first golden girl or boy to be eclipsed by a motor-racing driver in Olympic year.

Back in 1992, Nigel Mansell claimed the trophy ahead of Linford Christie and Sally Gunnell, both winners on the track in Barcelona that year. Four years later, Damon Hill beat Steve Redgrave, after the rowing legend had taken his tally of Olympic golds to four with a victory in the coxless pairs in Atlanta. The power of the petrolhead vote should not be underestimated. It could conceivably sweep Jeremy Clarkson into Prime Ministerial office one day: Doomsday, as the saner amongst us would know it.

It would not be entirely surprising to find Kevin Keegan hosting the show tonight instead of that dynamic television duo, Sue Barker and Gary Lineker. After all, the BBC must be loving it – just loving it: all of this hype and controversy. In fact, whoever loses out tonight might console themselves with the thought that Keegan himself never lifted the trophy. Neither did George Best. Among the also-rans this year could be Britain's first triple Olympic gold medallist for 100 years, Chris Hoy, and the remarkable Rebecca Romero, a silver medal-winning rower in 2004 and a gold medal-winning cyclist in 2008.

It will be a similar story in the overseas section, with Michael Phelps, with his eight golds, likely to lose out to Usain Bolt – unless, that is, the judges go for the Eleanor Holm option and plump for Ivan Ukhov, the Russian high jumper whose slapstick failed attempts at the Grand Prix meeting in Lausanne in August led to censure for being drunk on a cocktail of vodka and Red Bull.