Time for the Beeb to push the vote out

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The Independent Online
In the beginning, when the British Broadcasting Corporation first trained their lenses on the wonders of our sporting world, theirs was the exclusive glory and the seriousness with which they performed their role as sole curators of the holy highlights was demonstrated most proudly in the annual Sports Review of the Year programme.

After 40-odd years, memories of those black and white days are a touch blurred but there seemed times when that pride strayed towards pomposity. It might have had something to do with the manner of the BBC's sports supremo of those days, Peter Dimmock, whose precise moustache and even more tightly clipped accent helped the channel to invest the occasion with a distinctly proprietorial air.

They stopped just short of creating the impression that the BBC had invented sport but left us in no doubt that our new familiarity with various parts of it were by courtesy of the Corporation. To a certain extent it was a forgivable attitude and there is no doubt that their commanding coverage of the big events and the quality of programmes like Match of the Day pleasurably illuminated our lives for years.

Since Dimmock's day, many good men have carried the torch with rising levels of professionalism and humility despite the gradual corrosion of the BBC's supremacy by rival channels and new technology. Yet, the annual muscle-flexing that will once more burst upon our screens for two prime hours this evening still carries a suspicion of the old arrogance which is manifested mainly in a refusal to change the format.

The programme invariably attracts high viewing figures, which understandably encourages them to keep to the same formula, but the traditional method of selecting the Sport Personality of the Year by viewers' votes has attracted more criticism this time than I can remember. This is because of the healthy number of genuine candidates the year has produced and a nagging conviction that random voting can't do justice to them. England neglected to win Euro 96 and Britain didn't do very well at the Olympics but with Steve Redgrave, Damon Hill, Frankie Dettori, Alan Shearer, Laura Davies, Tim Henman and Stephen Hendry among the chief contenders you have a hot contest that may deserve more profound judgement than the whim of the unknown viewer.

My sheltered life has so far kept me from meeting anyone who has ever voted for the BBC Sports Personality. They exist, of course they do, but we are never told in what numbers. Neither is it easy to build a profile of a typical voter. Is he an ardent sports fan with a pint in hand and a fag drooping from the corner of his mouth? Or is she a middle-aged matron liable to be attracted by the more socially acceptably sports or even a dimple and a heart-stopping smile?

No award ever commands unanimous approval but we are more likely to accept the judgement of an identifiable group of people than a haphazard mass. Certainly, there is no comfort to be drawn from past results; the list of sports stars who haven't won it is far more impressive than those who have.

It doesn't help that the system is so vulnerable to abuse. We've had the parallel example of Tony Blair's disqualification by the BBC's Today poll because of an organised voting surge by Labour supporters. In the early stages of the Sports Personality voting, a large number of votes arrived in favour of the gay former footballer Justin Fashanu. This was an obvious ginger group, if you pardon the expression, and quite properly acted upon by the BBC. But others have existed in the past and most probably were active before votes closed on Friday morning.

Without thorough deliberation, how can you decide between the exceptional brilliance of Dettori on one September afternoon at Ascot and the months of pressure and hours of blinding concentration that took Hill to the world championship? Without deep analysis of the effort involved, how can Redgrave's fourth Olympic gold medal be compared with Laura Davies's continuing excellence on every type of course and climate the world of golf can provide? Also to be considered is the timing of the period over which voting takes place. Most of them would have been registered before Tim Henman reached the semi-final of the Grand Slam Cup in Munich last weekend. What if he'd won it?

I'm not privy to what shape tonight's programme will take. If it is like past shows, the highlights of the year will be slapped on the screen, personalities in the audience will be asked mainly meaningless questions and the announcement of the awards will be coaxed towards a crescendo.

How much better it would be if a panel of experts were to consider the year and the achievements therein and use video footage to investigate and analyse before judging which was the supreme performance. It might not produce such a frothy and generally acceptable programme but it would intrigue the real sports fan and give the BBC an opportunity to show they have the ability to react creatively to difficult times.

An hour and 40 minutes later, in Heart of the Matter on the same channel, Joan Bakewell chairs a debate on sport and morality and asks if violence is the inevitable consequence of competitive sport. I'm not sure about violence - but bullshit undoubtedly is.

THE USUAL bewilderment was expressed last week about what possessed 74,000 to make the tiresome trek to Twickenham on a wintry Tuesday to watch a game contrived 115 years ago for fresh-faced and tactically unfettered students and now being played by dour and disciplined squads largely comprising educationally late developers drawn from around the world.

It is no mystery. The Varsity match itself, a curiously enticing ritual, is merely the centrepiece of the biggest outdoor piss-up in British sport surpassing even such fluid occasions as the various Five Nations games, the Derby, Grand National and Henley. There was a day when football matches would have earned a place in the list but a severe clampdown has slapped a sobriety on the game. If the same soused crowds who flocked to Twickenham with clanking car-boots and well-flasked hips decided to visit Old Trafford, Elland Road or Ibrox they wouldn't be allowed within a mile of the ground.

The Varsity match reaps the benefit of good behaviour. Having only recently ceased attending it after 20 years of car-park roistering, I can vouch that despite its high alcoholic content the event is good-humoured and trouble-free. It also has the priceless advantage of taking place in the firm's time.

In wishing it continued success, I have to bristle a little at the suggestion that the event appeals because it is the last bastion of amateurism. It bulges with commercial interests. Jonathan Davies recalls that, although never a Varsity player, he was invited along to say a few words to guests in one of the marquees in 1988. Then a union player, he was quietly handed an envelope containing pounds 400 in notes.

He was invited back to perform the same task the following year by which time he had moved over to league. This time he was given a cheque for pounds 250. Puzzled, he politely enquired why he'd been given less than before. "Ah, but you were an amateur then," they explained.