Plaudits for para athletes: 60 years of recognition at the SJA British Sports Awards

The Bill McGowran Trophy for excellence in para sport has been a staple of the Sports Journalists’ Association’s British Sports Awards since 1963; in its 60th year, we look back at the history of the prize ahead of the naming of its next recipients at the gala event on December 7 in London…

By Philip Barker

2017 SJA Sportswoman of the Year Hannah Cockroft with then SJA President Pat Collins – Cockroft had been a Bill McGowran Trophy winner in 2013

The Sports Journalists’ Association’s 75th anniversary British Sports Awards at The Oval in London will also mark 60 years since the SJA instigated recognition of the achievements of those in para sport.

The prize, pioneering for its time, was introduced in 1963 on the passing of Bill McGowran, a stalwart member of our Association in its early days and our bulletin editor from 1956 until his passing in 1963.

The most recent winners of the Bill McGowran Trophy were England’s wheelchair rugby league team, Alfie Hewett (pictured) and Maisie Summers-Newton

The first winner of the Bill McGowran Trophy was Paralympian Dick Thompson, who had broken his back in 1948, leaving him paralysed from the waist down.

Thompson competed at the 1960 Paralympic Games in Rome, where he took gold in the club throw and three in javelin events. He also competed in wheelchair basketball and swimming.

Thompson took part in four Paralympics and was honoured with the MBE for services to Paralympic sport. He died in 2020.

The SJA British Sports Awards 2023 will be held at The Kia Oval, London, on Thursday 7 December (12pm to 4pm) – book tickets here

The next year, the award went to a woman for the first time. Valerie Forder won para swimming gold at the 1964 Tokyo Games and also silver medals in archery and fencing to cap a remarkable performance.

She won three more swimming golds in 1968 and two further golds in athletics.

Forder had met her future husband John Robertson at the 1962 Commonwealth Paraplegic Games in Perth. She competed under her married name at the 1976 Games in Toronto and won another bronze again in fencing.

The award mirrored the growth in prominence of Para sport. Margaret Price, who became the first person to win the award twice, won five gold, two silver and two bronze at the 1980 Games, held not in Moscow but in the Dutch town of Arnhem.

It was not until 1988 that the Paralympics were automatically staged in the same city as the Olympics.

Price became such a personality that she was even surprised by Eamonn Andrews and his famous red book on the TV programme ‘This is Your Life’.

2009 recipient Ellie Simmonds, with two-time winner Tanni Grey-Thompson

Our own roll of honour also included Baroness Sue Masham, a Paralympic gold medallist in swimming and table tennis. She became the first Paralympian to take her place in the House of Lords.

Later, Lady Tanni Grey-Thompson, winner of Paralympic gold at every Games from 1992 to 2004, followed her into the chamber.

Tanni won the Bill McGowran Trophy in 1994 and 2000, took our Spirit of Sport Award in 2004, and was also runner-up behind Kelly Holmes in the poll for our Sportswoman of the Year that same year.

In the wake of London 2012, and at every gala since, the McGowran Trophy has been awarded to both an outstanding Para sportsman and Para sportswoman, with marathoner David Weir and swimmer-turned-cyclist Dame Sarah Storey the first joint winners.

The next year, discus thrower Aled Davies joined wheelchair racer Hannah Cockroft on the SJA honours list. Both had followed up Paralympics success with gold medals at the 2013 World Para Athletics Championships in Lyon. Six years later, Davies would claim the McGowran Trophy for a second time.

In 2017, Cockroft was also voted our SJA Sportswoman of the Year, ahead of World Cup-winning cricketer Tammy Beaumont and tennis player Johanna Konta.

Storey came close to emulating Cockroft in 2021 when she was edged out for the main Sportswoman award by her fellow cyclist and Dame, Laura Kenny. Storey had returned to the SJA McGowran podium in 2020 alongside Para tennis stars Alfie Hewett and Gordon Reid.

Then in 2021, she won again after her exploits in Tokyo, where she moved ahead of swimmer Mike Kenny to become Britain’s most successful Paralympian of all time. Sir Lee Pearson – third on that ParalympicsGB multi-medallist list – was also recognised for his three golds in Para dressage in Japan.

Last year, the stage was filled by England’s wheelchair rugby league team after their World Cup triumph (the only previous team winners of the award had been from GB wheelchair basketball in 1997, 2002 and 2018).

They were joined by swimmer Maisie Summers-Newton – who in 2022 added Commonwealth Games gold to her two World Championship victories – while Hewett, who won Australian and French Open titles, claimed his third McGowran Trophy success.

The anniversary of Bill’s award coincides with 75 years of the SJA, originally known as the Sports Writers’ Association.

It is equally appropriate that our association took flight in 1948, for not only was it an Olympic year but at the same time, the renowned neurosurgeon Sir Ludwig Guttmann instigated sporting events for wheelchair users at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire.

In time, they were to become the Paralympic Games.

Tickets to attend the SJA British Sports Awards 2023 are available to purchase through the awards website:
Tickets are available for individuals, groups and tables of 10 or 12 people. Ticket price includes a sparkling drinks reception; a three-course lunch with tea and coffee; and half a bottle of table wine per person.

TABLE OF 10: £1,200
TABLE OF 12: £1,440

* All Prices ex VAT

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