If only Steve Redgrave had a Mohican ...

This word 'personality' should be dropped from sport's most high-profile awards ceremony
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The 50th BBC Sports Personality of the Year jamboree takes place on Sunday, preceded every evening this week by a programme called Simply The Best, in which the merits are considered of each decade's past winners. What all this leads up to is a mass vote to elevate from a shortlist of five, one from each decade, the Golden Personality of the Last 50 Years. At least that will imbue Sunday's programme with an element of uncertainty, since rugby union's golden boy Jonny Wilkinson has the 2003 prize sewn up like a mailbag.

Having tired of becoming tired with these endless votes to decide the best of this, the greatest of that, I have decided to enter into the spirit of this one, and do some gentle lobbying. A BBC insider, although not Andrew Gilligan, told me before the voting began that the three sporting stars considered favourites for the overall award were the oarsman Sir Steve Redgrave, the cricketer Ian Botham and the late Bobby Moore, footballer.

However, those men must first be voted the greatest in the decade in which they were declared Sports Personality of the Year, which means that in the 1994-2003 category, considered last evening, Redgrave (the 1997 winner) had to see off the claims of the England football captain David Beckham, victorious in 2001. Whether he did, we'll find out on Sunday.

That could be tricky, although of course it should be no contest. Beckham's sporting achievements are Lilliputian alongside Redgrave's acquisition of five gold medals in five separate Olympic Games. Yet the Great British Public rarely gets Beckham in perspective. And BBC votes have a worrying record of going skew-whiff; it is not so long since viewers declared Men Behaving Badly the corporation's greatest situation comedy of all time, to the embarrassment of even its creator, the undeniably talented Simon Nye.

If Redgrave overcome Beckham, I feel sure he will win overall, even against such giants as Bobby Moore and Ian Botham. But, in any case, there is an irony in those two men vying for a title which includes the word "personality". Redgrave, although he has cheered up since retiring from competitive rowing, is a man of decidedly dour temperament. And Beckham, while by all accounts a decent fellow, kind to his wife, his children, his tailor and small dogs, can hardly be said to fizz with charisma.

Now, even those of us who have never, nor would ever, vote in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award - on the basis that comparing an oarsman with a footballer is like comparing an apple with a banana - are prevented by its very longevity from writing it off as a cynical exercise to attract viewers. After all, there weren't many viewers to attract in 1953, since when the programme has manifestly become something of a national institution.

But it has always had the wrong name. The word "personality" is a gigantic red herring; viewers are voting for achievement, not personality. Otherwise, the dazzling personable racing-driver James Hunt, decathlete Daley Thompson and boxer Frank Bruno would not have been pipped by, respectively, the figure-skater John Curry (1976), the middle-distance runner Steve Ovett (1978) and the golfer Nick Faldo (1989).

Faldo, incidentally, is, like Redgrave, a man who has mellowed considerably since turning 40. As with Redgrave, his fierce pursuit of excellence did not leave much room in his life for social niceties. But it was always pointless to say, as many did, that Faldo was a great golfer, if only he could be a nicer person: it was precisely because he was a difficult person that he became a great golfer. Those who celebrated his achievements had no right to castigate his character - without the character there would have been no achievements.

That rule - I call it the "Faldo rule" - applies to many in sport in a variety of ways. Paul Gascoigne (Sports Personality of the Year 1990) would not have been the footballer he was had he not also been inclined to belch into microphones and wear plastic breasts, while the self-destructive, addictive streak in George Best (second in 1971) was there, somewhere, in his scintillating runs down the wing.

All of which is a further reason why this word "personality" should be dropped from British sport's most high-profile awards ceremony; it clouds the issue. The issue is achievement and that is why Redgrave should win.

Botham was a cricketing colossus, Moore a footballing titan, and both inspired a generation of youngsters but neither had the iron will and extraordinary self-discipline that characterise the greatest British sportsman of the past 50 years. Unfortunately, Redgrave's wife is a doctor rather than a pop star, he lives in Marlow not Madrid, and as far as I'm aware, he's never had a Mohican or worn a sarong. So, he'll probably come second.