The BBC Sports Personality of the Year is the sporting equivalent of EastEnders and the death sentence. The intellectuals pan it, the masses love it. And ultimately, there is no saving the masses from themselves.
Well, actually, there is this year as The X Factor happens to be on at the same time. So at least one of the choices tonight will be straightforward. Watch the sickening exploitation and humiliation of young people who are only throwing themselves on the mercy of the voting public because of a childhood wish to fulfil a dream. Or you can watch Simon Cowell on the other side.
The general opinion seems to be that ITV will come out emphatic winners in this battle of the emotion-capitalists. But I'm not too sure. For a certain, perhaps more mature, section of society the Sports Review of the Year – as, sadly, it is no longer known – is a fixed point on the calendar and is as traditional at this time of year as religion.
For 55 years, those bizarrely loyal viewers have witnessed sportsmen, and the occasional sportswoman, humbly step up to receive that petite silver trophy with the Dalek on top. And for 55 years those bizarrely loyal viewers have argued over the merit of the winner. The award's success has unarguably been down to its flaws.
Alarmingly for those of us who take perverse pleasure in cultivating Celtic chips on both shoulders, one of these imperfections has been addressed in the last two years. Before 2007, there had only been two Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish recipients in 32 years. Which could be described as rather incredible and rather prejudiced; unless you genuinely believe there was nothing remotely absurd in Princess Anne knocking George Best and Barry John into second and third.
But then Joe Calzaghe prevailed in 2007 and Chris Hoy followed in 2008 and the English showed how blessedly magnanimous they truly are. So much for all those bitter Welsh columnists who insisted they remove the "British" part out of the show's title.
However, one flaw is still apparent and it happens to be the central flaw. Here we are, more than half a century in, and nobody can agree which criteria the candidates should possess. In its must-read "SPOTY Voting and Judging: Terms and Conditions" (who says the Beeb takes its little award show seriously?) the organiser tries to be unequivocal: "this prestigious award will be given to the sportsman or woman whose actions have most captured the public's imagination". The problem is the BBC's edict does not even make it pass the first stage.
That is the fault of the 30 newspaper and magazine sports desks (including, it must be said, The Independent on Sunday) which drew up the shortlist. Journalists ignoring a brief? Scandalous. Yet a quick scan at the nominations will reveal their deliberations had little to do with "capturing the public's imagination" and everything to do with the best sporting achievements of 2009. The critics, themselves, are only multiplying the show's failings.
There is an easy method to exemplify this. How many times did you hear anyone raving about Beth Tweddle's gold? Go on, be honest, did your neighbour lean over the wall and drool over the perfection of Tom Daley's two-and-a-half somersault with pike? I doubt whether Mark Cavendish was discussed at many car-boot sales. In fact, I'd wager that tonight will be the first time many
will have heard of one or more of these "sporting personalities". Yes, a lot will see the highlights of Daley's heroics and be impressed enough to give this amazing schoolboy their vote. But this is mere retrospective acknowledgement. Did any of Beth, Tom or Mark really capture the public's imagination at the actual time of their glory?
If you take the word "public" as meaning a large percentage of the British population then the answer has to be an entirely respectful "no". The reality is that outside of the Olympics the public imagination is caught by very few sports. Football, cricket, rugby, tennis, golf, boxing, athletics, motor-racing, horseracing... that's about it. If you believe any differently you are either biased or on the shortlist panel.
So who should it be on strict interpretation of the BBC's definition? Surely few would deny that praise has rung out for Ryan Giggs from most public houses for the past few years and as the most popular player in the most popular sport he should be there, no matter what any of the "he's not even the best player in the Premier League" point-missers may claim.
Andrew Strauss was not only the captain but England's man of the series in the Ashes and would have been a shoo-in if the coverage was on terrestrial TV. That's how daft this event is and, quite frankly, its enduring appeal is a mystery.
There are other reasons why I'll be tempted to tune into The X Factor; not least John Inverdale. I'm a huge fan of Seve Ballesteros and cannot bear the thought of all that schmaltz dished out when he is given the Lifetime Achievement Award – for the second time. It may be hard to remember in this cascade of sentiment, but Seve is a champion because of the way he extricated himself from seemingly impossible positions on a golf course; not because he survived four operations for brain cancer. Note to Gary Lineker's speech-writer: the two are unconnected.
But there you are. Whatever, or whoever, catches your imagination, just remember to vote for the fame and not the feat. Or better still don't vote at all. And even better still don't watch at all. British sport and it's so-called "personalities" would not be any poorer without it. Those SPOTY Herberts.
Letter of the Week
As a golfer of 35-plus years, I have held many of the golfing pros as figures to emulate but have been sceptical for years of the claim of Tiger's "greatness". The man I'd hold as great is Jack Nicklaus, who was competitive in five decades and always behaved impeccably in his private and sporting life. To those of us who've survived the temptations life throws before us and survived without transgression, Nicklaus is to be congratulated. Tiger was never going to be great until he'd achieved all the things Jack has. Sadly, Tiger has proved my point.
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