Tough decisions: voting’s making my head hurt

In this greatest year in the history of British sport, the choice of who should win our coveted SJA Sportsman and Sportswoman of the Year titles – the Daddy and the Mummy of sporting awards – has never been more challenging.

It’s given NORMAN GILLER quite a headache

Bradley Wiggins: the Tour de France winner pays keen attention to what the papers say, even French ones

When Bradley Wiggins became the first Brit to win the Tour de France – followed almost immediately by an Olympic gold medal – the men’s prize at this year’s SJA British Sports Awards seemed nailed on for him.

But, innocent as I am sure he is, how saddled is he with the fall-out from the shaming of dope pedaller Lance Armstrong? The strain is bound to tell on Wiggins: yesterday’s launch announcement in Paris for the 2013 centenary Tour was dominated by questions about Armstrong, who earlier this week was stripped of his seven Tour de France victories.

Cycling is in crisis to the point where double decathlon Olympic gold medallist Daley Thompson is calling for the sport to be thrown out of the Games.

It is as bonkers as Boris Johnson dangling on a zip wire over the Olympic Park. Track and field has been heaving with athletes taking the steroid to paradise for years.

Discussing this with another Express expat, Randall Northam – publisher, SJA Treasurer and athletics writer – he summed it up perfectly. “It is an entirely ridiculous, stones-and-glasshouses suggestion coming from someone from a sport that has given the world Ben Johnson, Marion Jones and Linford Christie,” he said. “If you are going to ban cycling from the Olympics because of drug cheats, then athletics, weightlifting and swimming would be next in line. Where would you stop?”

Kicking cycling out of the Olympics is not the answer. No, cleaning up the sport is the only way, with zero tolerance and instant life-long disqualification for anybody caught cheating.

Thanks to the cycling charlatan Armstrong, it seems to me that Bradley Wiggins has as much chance of becoming Sportsman of the Year as Victoria Pendleton of winning Strictly Come Dancing. That means it is not out of the question, but he is certainly not, as seemed likely, going to waltz to the title.

In any other year Andy Murray’s triple whammy of Wimbledon final, Olympic gold medal and then US Grand Slam would have assured him the award. But there’s the Olympic double of Mo-Mo Farah to consider, the plain sailing of Ben Ainslie, the velodrome victories of Sir Chris Hoy and the whizzing wheelchair deeds of David Weir.

Olympic boxing gold medal-winner Nicola Adams is one of a number of outstanding candidates for the SJA’s Sportswoman of the Year title

The women’s race is nearly as tight, with heptathlete Jessica Ennis a hot favourite but under pressure from smiling assassin Nicola Adams, clean cyclists Pendleton. Laura Trott and Sarah Storey, and coming up on the outside incredible Paralympian swimming sensation Ellie Simmonds.

And why do I refer to the SJA’s British Sports Awards as the Mummy and Daddy of sporting awards? A quick history lesson to show why the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year award will always be playing catch-up…

The first Sportsman of the Year award was introduced by my old paper the Daily Express, and it was a cyclist who was the inaugural winner back in the London Olympic year of 1948. Reg Harris, silver medallist in the sprint, pedalled to first place.

The Sports Writers’ Association (now the SJA) followed with their award in 1949, but lacked the publicity, muscle and money of an Express then selling 4.2 million copies a day.

BBC sports boss Paul Fox decided the Beeb should get in on the act in 1954, and to avoid being seen as a complete rip-off from the Express or the SWA, they called their award the “Sports Personality of the Year”. It was first featured in their midweek flagship Sportsview programme.

In a postcard poll, Chris Chataway pulled in 14,517 votes to beat Roger Bannister into second place. This was a complete nonsense in the year that Roger not only became the first man to break the four-minute mile barrier but also won the Empire mile title – in the “Race of the Century” against Aussie John Landy – and the European 1,500m gold medal.

It demonstrated, even then, the power of television: Chataway benefited from beating Vladimir Kuts in an electrifying 5,000m race, shown live on TV from London’s White City just two months before the award was announced. With all the new technology and progress in presentations, nobody has been able to beat the way Chataway and Kuts were picked out in a spotlight as they raced neck and neck on the final lap in their floodlit thriller.

The Daily Express and the Sports Writers’ Association got it right that year, and awarded their trophies to Roger Bannister, who should have been a mile ahead in the BBC poll. The judgement of our fellow members, the sports journalists, have been as reliable ever since.

The awards project used to be the biggest thing on the Express budget when I was in the sports team in the 1960s and ’70s. Sir Max Aitken, son of Lord Beaverbrook, was sports mad, and encouraged a glittering ceremony at which he used to make the main presentation. First man to hand over the BBC’s trophy to Chris Chataway was their own presenter, Peter Dimmock.

Roger Bannister en route to the first sub-four-minute mile: not good enough for the BBC award in 1954, he was the sportswriters’ Sportsman of the Year

Now the BBC awards show has grown so big they use our TV licence money to hire a major indoor arena for an evening of back-slapping (and some back-stabbing), while the Express does not even manage a whisper. This year’s SPOTY is coming live from the Excel Arena on December 16 – 10 days after our awards – in front of an audience of 15,000, and a spectacular show will be anchored by Gary Lineker, Sue Barker and the unstoppable Clare Balding.

The SJA ceremony, into its 63rd year, has settled down into a much-acclaimed lunch event, with the Sportsman, Sportswoman and Team of the Year winners chosen by members’ votes. Our distinguished President Sir Michael Parkinson will make the main presentations this year at the Tower of London in front of an audience of around 500 media colleagues, as well as many leading sports figures and other celebrities.

We have been recognising the exploits of our sportswomen with an individual award since back in 1959, when long jumper Mary Bignal was the winner. She won it again five years later as Olympic champion Mary Rand.

To their everlasting embarrassment, the BBC last year managed to have a shortlist without a single (or married) woman on it. They blamed it on “Fleet Street”, because it was the all-male sports editors who proposed the runners and riders.

No chance of a repeat this year. The shortlist for viewers to choose from has been increased from 10 to 12, and this time it will be decided by a mix of a dozen experts under the supervision of director of BBC Sport Barbara Slater, daughter of ex-Wolves and England footballer Bill Slater.

Joining Slater on the panel are Paralympic luminary Baroness Grey-Thompson, Olympic heptathlon gold medallist Denise Lewis, broadcaster Eleanor Oldroyd, sports journalist Sue Mott and UK Sport chair Baroness Campbell.

They will be joined in their deliberations by Sir Steve Redgrave, BBC’s head of sport Philip Bernie, programme editor Carl Doran (between them, the two men responsible for delivering SPOTY), and trio of newspaper sports editors Mike Dunn (The Sun), Matthew Hancock (The Observer) and Lee Clayton (Daily Mail). You will notice no female sports editor. That, chaps, should be an appointment waiting to happen anytime soon.

Now excuse me, I have a voting form to fill out. Pass the aspirin.


Thu Dec 6: 2012 SJA British Sports Awards. An Olympic year extravaganza at the Tower of London. Click here for more details, news of members’ discounts and a booking form.