Cavendish’s talent outshines all at star-lit awards

PHILIP BARKER toured the tables at the 63rd annual SJA British Sports Awards. Photographs by STEVE ROWE

For the first time for three years, and despite having moved to a venue with more room, the SJA’s British Sports Awards had put up the “sold out” signs nearly a month beforehand, and yesterday’s 63rd staging of the annual awards did their best to recognise the widespread sporting excellence of 2011.

One national newspaper reporter claimed that there was a “lack of sports stars at the event”. The reporter must have failed to recognise world champions such as Mark Cavendish, Kath Grainger and Anna Watkins, Dai Greene, Sarah Stevenson, Tommy Hill and Chrissie Wellington, or Jonathan Trott and Andy Flower from the world’s No1 Test cricket team, jockey Hayley Turner, rugby’s Ieuan Evans and World Cup-winner Lawrence Dallaglio, or golfer Alison Nicholas.

The best Games yet: world champion sculler Kath Grainger tells John Inverdale her expectations for 2012

For many of the sports stars present, any review of 2011 inevitably prompts thoughts of 2012. Olympics in Sydney, Athens and Beijing had brought forth silver medals for rower Grainger. Now, she told John Inverdale as he toured some tables immediately before the presentations, she said she dreams of becoming the first British woman to win Olympic rowing gold and doing it in London, or at least in Eton Dorney.

“I don’t need a wallchart to count down the days,” said Grainger, the winner of the world double sculls title in the summer with Anna Watkins, part of a large contingent from British Rowing and their sponsors, Siemens.

Grainger was speaking for the whole squad when she said, “Everything is focused on the Games.

“Sydney was a great celebration of sport, Athens had its history and in Beijing everything was done to make things as good as they could be. But London has got the potential to be the greatest of all Olympic Games.”

Dai Green, the 400 metres hurdles world champion Dai Greene revealed he’d played his part in a plot to make sure coach Malcolm Arnold was there to pick up his award.The latter had been due to attend a coaches meeting but Greene and others pulled a few strings and instead, the man who has attended every Olympics since 1968 was to be found on table 23 instead. “He saw me and asked me what I was doing here? ” said Greene, a winner here himself last year.

After his own exploits in Daegu, Greene be under the spotlight in London but observed “pressure is a media invention”.

Champion of champions: Mark Cavendish

As John Inverdale did his flit between the tables, the Mail on Sunday’s Patrick Collins spoke of his sporting highlight of the year, “Watching Barcelona winning the European Cup and playing the sort of football you’d never seen before”, noting that Sir Alex Ferguson probably felt the same.

For Owen Slot of The Times, Mo Farah’s victory in the Daegu 5,000m was “exhilarating”, the more so because he’d bounced back after disappointment in the 10,000m just a few days before.

British Olympic Association Chairman Colin Moynihan said that he wants Court of Arbitration for sport to make a decision on the doping bye-law dispute with WADA as soon as possible. “If anything the tide has turned in our favour,” he said. “The IOC Athletes’ Commission has voted to support the British position. The world is following the lead that we have shown, and I am hopeful that when we come to the revision of the WADA code, the position the BOA have taken will be adopted.”

It is in the nature of this glittering event that it provides an eclectic mix of sporting stars, with rugby players rubbing shoulders with taekwondo fighters, golfers with rowers.

Thus on table 23 SJA member Louise Poynton, the sports editor for a group of local newspapers in Surrey and Sussex, brought along as her guest British Superbike champion Tommy Hill, who was thrilled for the chance to meet another speedster on two wheels, Cavendish.

Hill, from Lingfield, won the British Superbike title by 10 inches from the American John Hopkins in a dramatic race to the chequered flag at Brands Hatch in the final race of the season, a race many regard as one of the best motorsport races ever.

“It is great to be able to meet someone like Mark, who has done so much for his sport and been recognised in this way,” said Hill.

“We are all here to win and it’s been great to hear what they have to say about their careers and share their experiences, sacrifices and setbacks to come through and win,” said Hill.

Over on table eight with our designated charity, Cancer Research UK, former high jumper Dalton Grant said that the 2011 achievements of Sportsman of the Year Mark Cavendish overshadowed all else. “But talent still has to be worked on,” he said.

Grant was delighted to reflect on London’s success in winning the right to stage the 2017 athletics world championships. “We don’t want to have a white elephant but we need to inspire the next generation. Having the Olympics here, the world’s coming to London. We can put the G back into Great Britain to show the world.”

Grant helped another former track and field champion, Derek Redmond, with the charity draw – where all the winnings were put back into the collection pot. Both admitted they would love to turn back the clock.

“If ever I could have rolled back the years to compete, I would have done here,” Grant said. “The highlight of my career was the 2002 Commonwealth Games, being able to compete in your own country and having that support.”

A few seats away could be found Gail Emms, Olympic badminton silver medallist in 2004. She is gearing up for a BBC commentary gig in 2012 and is optimistic again about British prospects for a medal .

“I have been down on badminton for the last few years because no one has been performing and I was getting a bit concerned that no one was stepping into my shoes and really going for it. Then Chris Adcock and Imogen Bankier just went ‘right we’re having this’, and ended up with a silver medal. I think the media are realising there’s more than just football, rugby and cricket out there.”

If proof of that were needed, witness Sky Sports News, who gave our awards prominent coverage, even as the goals were going in on a busy Champions League night. It really is less than eight months to the Olympics.