Grainger’s gold-medal thanks to the sports media

As the curtain came down at the end of a year that made us proud to be sports journalists – and especially British sports journalists – the cherry on the icing on the cake was provided by one of our greatest Olympic competitors, IAN COLE writes

Gold-medal endorsement: Katherine Grainger thanks the sporting media for its Olympic coverage
Gold-medal endorsement: Katherine Grainger thanks the sporting media for its Olympic coverage

Katherine Grainger, whose gold medal on the lake at Eton Dorney had reduced grown men and women to tears, paid tribute to us sports journalists as she came up to make a presentation at our annual British Sports Journalism Awards night.

In a rare but sincere message to the media, Britain’s greatest female rower thanked those whose task it is to write and commentate on sporting greatness for their part in making London 2012 the greatest show this country has seen.

“You guys captured the whole mood of the Olympics perfectly,” said Grainger. “Somehow you absorbed the spirit, the drama and the whole essence of our love for the Games and you managed to translate it for the public, for your readers, viewers and listeners.

“And for that, this is a genuine thank you from all the athletes.”

It was a touching moment, applauded by almost 400 diners sitting beneath the chandeliers in London’s Grand Connaught Rooms, an evening supported by Laureus and BetVictor which attracted the best of British sports journalism and had the bonus of some fine sporting celebrities, notably former All Black great Sean Fitzpatrick, representing Laureus.

The purpose of the evening, of course, was to unveil a new set of champions of our own trade – a Sports Writer, Sports Photographer and Sports Broadcaster of the Year, as well as many other awards including the Sports Newspaper of the Year and Laureus Sports Website.

My memories of a spectacular night are dominated by Clare Balding and David Walsh.

Balding, who has risen from SJA committee member and part-time showjumping scribe to one of the most familiar faces on TV in about 20 years, was clear winner of our Broadcaster of the Year award.

She anchored many of BBC television’s Olympic transmissions and C4’s Paralympic coverage. In the space of a few weeks last spring she commentated on a Boat Race, which became a front page story when a protester swam in front of the crews, the Grand National and then the Diamond Jubilee pageant on the Thames.

Her busy year had taught her one thing, she said. “Just hold out the microphone in front of the person you are interviewing – and shut up!”

As for Walsh, his face seemed to be on the screen as a shortlisted nomination for almost every award (in fact, it was five!). The Sunday Times man had to be content with a unique double, winning the Sports Feature Writer and Sports News Reporter in the same year. An achievement which amused him. “I’ve never been accused of being a news reporter before,” he said.

Walsh’s greatest success of the evening, he admitted, was to get his daughter, Mollie, photographed beside Balding.

Among the customary Oscar-style acceptance speeches from 24 winners there was genuine emotion from the Mail on Sunday’s Martha Kelner and Patrick Collins, who had seen their popular sports editor Malcolm Vallerius depart suddenly a couple of weeks previously.

Collins, five times Sports Writer of the Year, now has the distinction of being named Sports Columnist five times.

Competition among our photographers was as fierce as ever. The one-off London Games Portfolio category produced a wealth of images from the Olympics and Paralympics. Winner was Adrian Dennis from Agence France-Presse.

Well Times'd: Tim Hallissey, sports editor at The Times, accepts the Sports Newspaper of the Year trophy from Garianger and SJA chairman Barry Newcombe
Well Times’d: Tim Hallissey, sports editor at The Times, accepts the Sports Newspaper of the Year trophy from Garianger and SJA chairman Barry Newcombe

Dennis also submitted evidence that a snapper’s life is not all glamour, however, and his portfolio which included images from the Austin Healey Vintage Car Festival and the world darts championships, impressed the judges sufficiently to award him the top accolade of Sports Photographer of the Year.

A great result for news agency AFP in the face of the customary strong entry from the major photo agencies.

It was a pity that the Telegraph’s Paul Hayward was not present to reclaim in person the Sports Writer of the Year award he last won in 1996 but work comes first and Hayward, like several of his rivals, was in Montenegro with the England football team.

Also on active service overseas were Michael Atherton of The Times, winner of Specialist Correspondent for a third time, and members of the Test Match Special team, voted Best Radio Sports Programme by the SJA membership.

The value of TMS, especially abroad, was emphasised only a few hours after the last celebratory drink was downed in London when those of us snuggling under the duvet with our earphones on a freezing night heard Jonathan Agnew and Michael Vaughan commentate from Auckland on England’s victorious draw to save the series against New Zealand.

Not selected for that tour was Wisden editor Lawrence Booth of the Daily Mail, which meant he was in the room to receive Sports Scoop of the Year for the Kevin Pietersen Test texts scandal. Writers sometimes forget that interviews are often only as good as the interviewee but Booth made a point of thanking Pietersen for his part in the scoop. As well as praising Head of Sport Lee Clayton for finding a back page space for cricket during the Olympics.

We also saw Oxford University undergraduate James Gheerbrant, 22, become the second winner of the David Welch Student Writer award and our own chairman, Barry Newcombe, take home the Doug Gardner Award for services to the SJA. We hope Newcs was suitably embarrassed to see himself improperly attired in a 1970s picture of a British tennis writers’ team which took on the Americans at a Davis Cup-tie.

The award was well-deserved for a man who stands down after seven years as SJA chairman – the longest in our 65-year history – and who has served at four Olympics as BOA media attaché. He’s come a long way since he ran the latest fish prices from Northampton Market to the offices of the Northampton Chronicle.

And we at the SJA have come a long way since this event was scrambled together in a room above a back-street pub.

A great night, then, smoothly and professionally hosted by presenter Jim Rosenthal and expertly organised by Martin Castle and his team from Start2Finish.

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