Those boring tennis players didn't get a look in

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The Independent Online
THEY GOT 500,000 telephone votes in the space of 10 minutes for last weekend's BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Think of it. Half a million people. Or, more accurately, 499,981 people, as my wife voted 20 times for Michael Owen.

That figure assumes, of course, that no one else in the country decided to sway the voting - or, as my wife would have it, decided to make sure that justice was done and those bloody boring tennis players didn't get a look in.

Where were you when you heard Greg Rusedski was Sports Personality of the Year? Can't remember? Neither can I.

It wasn't possible to find out what proportion of the vote went to Liverpool and England's 18-year-old hotshot. Figures of that kind simply weren't publicised, a BBC publicity spokeswoman told me, because they might show that the winner had won by a huge margin, and the runners-up - in this case, Denise Lewis and Iwan Thomas from the world of athletics - might be upset about discovering their portion of the votes.

Now shoot me down in flames if you don't agree, but I think Lewis and/or Thomas would probably be able to master their tears in such a circumstance.

Be that as it may, I suspect young Mr Owen won by a very large margin - and rightly so.

The spokeswoman said there had been a complaint about the fact that the final topic to be reviewed in the programme before the telephone voting started - care of the same company that co-ordinates the Eurovision Song Contest - was the World Cup. Biased towards Owen, right? When she said a complaint, that was what she meant. The BBC has received one letter expressing this opinion. From a Mrs Henman. Not really.

What probably clinched the vote for Owen was the piquant contrast between the jaunty young man who made a time-out signal to indicate he had hit the stanchion after converting his post-match penalty in the World Cup match against Argentina, and the defeated boy who stood with dark eyes brimming after it was all over.

His was not a full-scale, shirt-wiping Gazza blub; but there were enough echoes of that emotive scene from the 1990 World Cup to access a similar well of public sympathy.

This week I found myself defending the award decision when a friend insisted Owen did not deserve it because it was all down to his efforts in just one game.

Just one game? Essentially, it was even less than that - just one goal. But what a goal, and at what a moment. Along with Dennis Bergkamp's clinically precise effort for the Netherlands in the quarter-final, Owen's inspired incursion into Argentinian territory produced what many will remember as the goal of the World Cup.

You could argue that in terms of personality, Owen had less going for him than either of the athletes in his wake. Lewis, especially since her pre-Olympic photo-shoot in scarcely more than red, white and blue body paint, has become an increasingly high-profile figure with a natural warmth and vivacity. Beyond her competitive career, the world of television presenting beckons.

Thomas, with his Just William, through-a-hedge-backwards hairstyle, is a patently nice, affable bloke. His scattiness is also endearing, as BBC viewers discovered after he had won the European 400m title in Budapest.

During the post-race interview, with a little prompting from fellow Welsh athlete Jamie Baulch, he gave those watching at home a glimpse of the hastily cut-down shorts he had had to wear under his running gear because he had run out of underpants.

Would Michael Owen ever appear in nothing except red and white bodypaint. I think not. Would Michael Owen ever run out of underpants? I think not.

Certainly not while the proud mum who cried during his award ceremony still holds sway over his smalls...

As for personality - the only clear public sense of that derives from the way he is on the pitch. Off the field his exuberance is kept under careful check. In terms of the game he loves to play regularly with his dad, Owen always hits straight down the centre of the fairway.

His role model in this appears to be his captain in the England team, Alan Shearer, who also happens to share his kit manufacturer. Owen's short speech of acceptance last Sunday night was an object lesson. In it, he paid tribute to the team support he received for both club and country and concluded with the tabloidesque reflection that the award was a nice early gift for his birthday the following day.

There was no need for anything fancy - it was just a case of having to tap the ball over the line. No wonder Glenn Hoddle, joining in the applause afterwards, could be seen mouthing the words "Well Done".