Sport on TV: Awards show with a personality defect

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The Independent Online
THIS year, for the first time ever, the winner of the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year Award was announced on ITV. It was that cheeky Jonathan Ross that did it, compering The British Comedy Awards, which were broadcasting at the same time as BBC 1's excellent Sports Review of the Year (Sunday). Hard to mistake the two programmes, of course, except during the sections on cricket and football. But Ross thought he could hold on to a few viewers by spoiling the other side's big moment. Which is to misunderstand the basic nature of the Sports Review, where it's not the winning that matters so much as the taking part.

After all, the Sports Personality of the Year Award is, in itself, a deeply troubled concept, largely because of a basic problem with the term 'personality'. In the sporting world, where a lunk like Ian Botham is welcomed and discussed as someone with the finesse of Cary Grant, we could hardly claim to be spoiled for 'personalities'. This linguistic difficulty was never more pronounced than 12 months ago, when the BBC's 1992 award went to Nigel Mansell. Mansell is indisputably a sporting genius, but, let's face it, he's about as charismatic as a W H Smith Do-it-All catalogue. Last year, for three minutes after the announcement, the sound on my television developed a low drone. It was Mansell's acceptance speech.

Dangerously enough, Nige was in the running again this year. When he spoke about his year on the IndyCar circuit, you weren't exactly riveted by the thought that here was a man who gets to earn millions, drive fast automobiles, live in the US and hang out with Paul Newman. It takes a real talent for boredom to make that kind of lifestyle sound like a desk job in a building society.

Mansell's main rivals for the 1993 prize were Linford Christie (the eventual winner), Sally Gunnell and Ryan Giggs - ie, two athletes with tunnel vision and a barely post-adolescent footballer whose public pronouncements on television thus far amount to approximately 32 words. Still, what other term could one adopt? 'Good Sport' wouldn't really strike the right tone, and neither would 'Top Person, Sports-wise'. So perhaps 'personality' it has to be.

Whatever, as regular viewers of the Sports Review know, the final handing over of the trophy is really just a whimsical decoration on an already thoroughly iced cake. It's the pictorial review of the year you tune in for - done in detail and excitingly paced. ITV's equivalent event, screened last month, took place in a brightly lit, echoey ballroom, featured a clutch of chiefly uninspiring end-of-term speeches and generally exuded all the fun of a crematorium workers' annual dinner dance. By contrast, Sports Review would appear finally to have attained the status of pantomime.

Festivity abounds and teary-eyed goodwill pervades the audience, to the extent that Jimmy Hill and Terry Venables can sit next to one another for 90 minutes without resorting to bitter personal abuse. Appropriately enough, they were surrounded by some of panto's biggest stars - Frank Bruno, Ian Botham and members of the present England cricket team, to name just a handful. Des Lynam, impeccable yet casual as ever, told Frank that his aunt was in love with him. 'I'm in love with your aunt, Des,' returned Frank, 'if she looks like you.' Bruno was never really in the running for this year's big award, but in any sensible alternative ceremony, he would have won 1993's Entrance of the Year medal for his burst through the curtains at Cardiff (possibly the only convincing use of a plum-coloured dressing gown in history). And here in the BBC's special studio on the South Bank, he received this column's special commendation in the Suit of the Night category for an alarmingly large puce number.

We looked back to the fictitious Grand National and watched a whole pack of pantomime horses on the gallop. John White, who rode home as the winner (oh yes he is; oh no he isn't) stepped into the studio. Des spoke to him, up on the gibbet from which he had probably felt like hanging himself on the day. Some half a year later he didn't have a lot to say. Understandable, really. Still, better gutted than garrotted, which was almost the fate of Richard Dunwoody when the tape failed to go up (Lucky Escape of the Decade).

We saw once more the amazing bowling of Australia's Shane Warne (look behind you]). We stared from the finish line, back through the hurdles to where Colin Jackson was settling himself on the blocks, flicking a leg out like a frog (Camera Shot of the Year). Wales's Paul Bodin thumped his penalty against the bar again. 'Oooooh]' said Barry Davies, clinching the Brian Moore Award for Best Faked Orgasm During a Moment of Sporting Intensity. And, among many moments of bliss, England's cricket selector Ted Dexter walked away with the Graham Taylor Award for Most Adorable Resignation.

And so on. Directly after the show, a trailer looked ahead to next year: the Commonwealth Games, the British Grand Prix, European Athletics, the Open golf event. And then the voiceover said: 'The BBC - Champion of Sport in 1994'. Well, possibly. But in the meantime, Sports Review of the Year was Sports Review of the Year. No contest.