Brian Viner: BBC prize is a nonsense, a bit like the monarchy

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The Independent Online

Assuming that the BBC is not found to have sneakily hired an actor to play Lewis Hamilton, and that an internal investigation does not reveal anomalies in the telephone voting pattern, and that the Queen does not burst backwards into the auditorium, or forwards out of it, complaining about having to wear her crown, and that nobody from the stinkingly corrupt banana republic formerly known as Blue Peter is permitted to have anything to do with the process, then tomorrow evening should yield a new BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

Speaking of the Queen who unless Freddie Flintoff turns out to be Ian Botham's love child is unique in being both mother and grandmother to BBC Sports Personalities of the Year I found myself last Saturday night arguing with the person next to me at a dinner party about whether the monarchy is, or isn't, a Good Thing. I took the pro-monarchy line (very non-U for an Independent columnist), contending that the Royal Family might be flawed, if not downright dysfunctional, but that on the whole I'd rather have the Queen or even her son or grandson as Head of State, than, shall we say, Roy Hattersley. I also offered tradition as a reason to keep things the way they are, which provoked disdain from my neighbour. Tradition is the very last reason to keep an institution alive, she thundered. I conceded that she had a point.

Had we been arguing about the existence of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year contest rather than the monarchy, many of the same pros and cons would have applied. Do we show it such reverence simply because it has been around so long? Is it not, in fact, a terminally flawed institution? It certainly casts a skewed perspective on our collective sporting preferences. Since 1954, there have been 17 winners from track and field, five more than from football, cricket and boxing combined. If Ricky Hatton loses his welterweight contest with Floyd Mayweather in Las Vegas in the wee small hours of tomorrow morning, the chequered flag will almost certainly descend on 'Pretty Boy' Lewis Hamilton, who has been the bookies' favourite for months. That will make seven winners from Formula One; between them, football and cricket, our so-called national sports, muster eight.

It's all a nonsense, and nothing makes it more of a nonsense than the loaded word "personality". Are we voting for the supreme sporting achiever of the year, or the most charismatic, or the one who's had most press, or the one who's coped best with the bushtucker trials, or who dances the finest salsa, or am I beginning to suffer from phone-in overload? There was a time when postal votes determined the winner, but that was palpably unfair on anyone who achieved something remarkable slightly too late for the White City postman. Voting by telephone is a better arrangement, but then Ricky Hatton might benefit the other way round; if he beats Mayweather, everyone else's achievements will be eclipsed.

Then again, if he does beat Mayweather, maybe everyone else should be eclipsed. From where I'm sitting, there should only be two contenders slugging it out for the big prize, and both of them, aptly, are sluggers. If Hatton loses, the nation really ought to pick up the phone and honour Joe Calzaghe. If Hatton wins, the "Hitman" should probably just edge it. Hatton, Calzaghe, Hamilton would be my top three in that instance. Otherwise: Calzaghe first, Hamilton second and Paula Radcliffe third, as long as she promises to come to the stage in a dress made out of two handkerchieves stitched together, as she is wont. If not, because it just wouldn't seem right seeing Paula wearing something sensible, then let's give Jason Robinson a share of the limelight.

I am, I confess, having my Christmas cake and eating it. Either the contest is a nonsense, or it's worthy of feverish speculation, which is it to be? In my ambivalence I think I represent most of you out there. We know we shouldn't be bothered and yet we are, rather. Moreover, even the cynics among us have to admit that the shortlist makes arresting reading, albeit more on account of the names omitted than the names included. Of the sportspeople considered most worthy of Britain's acclamation in 2007, not one is a footballer.

This tells us two things. Firstly, that our wonderfully-remunerated footballers, wallowing in their celebrity lifestyles, have done nothing while earning at least a billion pounds between them to feature in even a sporting top 10 this year. Secondly, that the word "British" in the names of institutions such as the BBC, really means English. Tell anyone in Glasgow that a shortlist of 10 contenders for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award does not include the name of James McFadden, and you will get shrift shorter than either of the Krankies. The very least we English can do, if only to counter accusations of petty regionalism, is anoint a half-Italian Welshman. Unless a Mancunian gives us reason to decide otherwise. Or Christopher Biggins makes a late burst on the blindside.

Who I Like This Week...

Shane Warne, which is perhaps a little perverse in the week that Ferntree Gully's most famous son lost his record as the most prolific Test wicket-taker of all time, but with his gracious congratulatory text message to Muttiah Muralitharan, Warne showed notwithstanding the odd scandal involving bookmakers, phone sex, and banned substances what a classy individual he is. Not so his spin-bowling mentor Terry Jenner, who used the milestone to belittle Muralitharan, once more raising doubts about the legitimacy of the Sri Lankan's bowling action. Muralitharan taking his 709th wicket was an occasion for generosity and acclaim, not mean-spiritedness.

And Who I Don't

Gavin Henson, who, with some friends, by all accounts ran amok on a First Great Western train from Paddington to Cardiff, occasioning enquiries by British Transport Police. As it happens, I am a fairly frequent user myself of that Paddington-Cardiff service, First Late Western as we regulars like to call it, and the very last thing it needs is antisocial behaviour to make the journey more of a misery than it invariably is. Moreover, Henson needs to achieve rather more on the rugby union pitches of Wales before he can behave like a rock star off them.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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