SJA greatest Sportsman and Sportswoman: A look back at the last 71 years

PHILIP BARKER looks back at some of those who won our awards, and a few surprising omissions to give voters some food for thought on who is the SJA’s greatest Sportsman and Sportswoman.  

The British Sports Awards are the oldest of their kind. It was 71 years ago that the Sports Writers’ Association (as we were then known) named FIVE sportsmen of the year. 

This year we are inviting SJA Members to vote for their top British Sportsman and Sportswoman over the period of our awards -1949-2020. 

In 1949 world light heavyweight champion Freddie Mills was one of the SWA’s five global champions. Rationing was in force then, so no glittering ceremony, but soon our members were voting for Sportsman of the Year. 

In 1951, Randolph Turpin defeated Sugar Ray Robinson to win the world middleweight title on an electric night at Earls Court, a performance followed by a civic reception and then recognition as our Sportsman of the Year. Over the years other boxers have been recognised such as John Conteh, Lloyd Honeyghan, Ken Buchanan and Lennox Lewis.

Sir Chris Hoy receives the SJA President’s Award from Sir Michael Parkinson

And just what would our pioneer members have made of Nicola Adams, the first woman to win Olympic gold? 

Cyclist Reg Harris was one of our fabulous five in 1949. Would anyone have imagined that one day a British rider would ride up the Champs Elysees to win the Tour de France? In fact three have done so in the decade since Sir Dave Brailsford calmly outlined his vision to us at an SJA lunch in Fleet Street. 

For Sir Bradley Wiggins, Le Tour was the prelude to a golden summer at London 2012. But even his exploits were overshadowed by gold medal number six gold for Sir Chris Hoy. Waiting at the finish was Sir Steve Redgrave, winner of gold medals at five consecutive Olympics. How they heard one another in the cacophony of the velodrome suggested both also had superhuman hearing. 

Laura Trott (Kenny) is already the most successful female British woman Olympian but to start with our association had few female members and certainly no sportswoman award. 

Pentathlete Mary Bignal Rand was the first winner when the association did launch a Sportswoman award in 1959. She won again with a world record Olympic gold medal winning long jump at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. 

Other multi-eventers have also proved a hit. Mary Peters, Denise Lewis and Jessica Ennis-Hill more than once. No shortage of other winners from athletics, and in 2019, our newest World champion Dina Asher-Smith. 

Few footballers have received the ultimate SJA accolade but certain events at Wembley on July 30th 1966 demanded recognition. The votes were spread across members of Sir Alf’s golden team but none sufficient to win outright. So as former chairman David Hunn recalled, “interference was deemed necessary, the football votes were amalgamated.” For the only time, our sportsman award went to a team. 

David Walker presents the JL Manning trophy for services to sport to LOCOG chairman Lord Coe

1966 also saw the international flowering of one many still regard as the best footballer they ever saw. George Best inspired Manchester United to win 5-1 against Benfica in Lisbon. 

“What a player this boy is.” said TV commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme and the nation agreed.  He arrived home at the airport sporting a sombrero and was immediately christened “El Beatle”. 

A star and a showman were born, yet Best never won our Sportsman of the Year award.  Sir Kenny Dalglish did, inspiring a Liverpool double as player and manager.

In 2019 our Sportsman of the year was cricket’s Ben Stokes, inspirational in a first world cup for England’s men, followed up with an innings for the ages at Headingley. It evoked memories of Lord Ian Botham’s 149 on the same ground in 1981. “Botham’s Miracle” said the Daily Express but he wasn’t the SWA sportsman of the year. That was because Sebastian Coe was breaking world records all around Europe and was voted sportsman of the year for a third successive time. 

That is just a taster of the last 71 years. Now the decision is yours.

SJA Members can vote to decide who they think ranks as Britain’s greatest sportsman and woman over the past 71 years – the life of our British Sports Awards. Voting is open now and closes at Midnight, October 14. To vote click here