I’m glad I can vote for both McIlroy and Pavey

NORMAN GILLER’s sorted out who is getting his votes for the 2014 SJA British Sports Awards. And who’ll be getting a kiss from him, too

While Nigel Farage is preparing by-election celebrations in Clacton, we sports journalists have our eyes on our own special election: the SJA British Sports Awards in December. Let’s bow the knee to our predecessors, who had the vision and imagination to make our voting lives easier.

Open champion Rory McIlroy gets Norman Giller's vote
Open champion Rory McIlroy gets Norman Giller’s vote

It was back in 1959 when the SJA – then the Sports Writers’ Association – introduced the Sportswoman of the Year award to go with the Sportsman of the Year trophy, which was first presented in 1949.

Ever since, we have been able to give equal acknowledgement to the outstanding male and female sports competitors, unlike the BBC that is hog-tied to its Sports “Personality” of the Year award.

Imagine how we would be wrestling between the choice of this year’s two outstanding candidates in golf master Rory McIlroy and running supermum Jo Pavey if old SJA members like Terry O’Connor, Sydney Hulls and Alan Hubbard had not canvassed for a separate vote for women.

Rory and Jo will be getting my vote, and if you can come up with somebody better you have clearly been observing a more compelling sports scene than me over the past 12 months.

The BBC, meantime, will be forcing viewers to choose between McIlroy and Pavey, both of whom have equal claim to their trophy, with Lewis Hamilton coming through with a late charge.

It was the then BBC television sports boss Paul Fox who in 1954 hand-cuffed them to the “Personality” factor when he first came up with the idea of an annual trophy in the wake of the Daily Express (which began in 1948, but is no longer held) and the SWA Sportsman of the Year awards.

Fox did not want to be seen ripping off the Express or SWA, and so came up with “Personality”, rather than Sportsman.

Their first contest was decided by a postcard vote, and the viewers managed to come up with Chris Chataway as the winner in the year that Roger Bannister became the history-making first man to break the four-minute mile and just for good measure also won Empire Games gold by beating John Landy in world record time in the “Mile of the Century”, and also secured the European 1,500 metres title. Mmmmm.

For the record, the first winner of our Sportswoman of the Year award is now based in the United States and answers to the name of Mrs Reese. Before that, she was married to former Olympic decathlon champion Bill Toomey, and earlier was Mrs Rand, when winning the award for a second time in 1964.

When she first collected the SWA trophy five years earlier she was Miss Mary Bignal, one of the finest all-round athletes Britain has ever produced. Just her achievements in the 1964 Olympics alone leave me feeling exhausted: winner of the long jump, second in the pentathlon and a member of the bronze medal-winning sprint relay team.

Somerset girl Mary was a beautiful English rose who made many male hearts flutter, none more so than champion oarsman Sidney Rand, who married her within five weeks of their first meeting in 1961.

World champion boxer Terry Downes (left) with Norman Giller
World champion boxer Terry Downes (left) at an awards dinner with Norman Giller

I can clearly state that Mary was the best all-round female athlete in the world in the 1964 Olympic year, when she took the silver medal in the pentathlon. The Russian winner, Irina Press – and her elder sister Tamara – suddenly disappeared from the athletics scene when compulsory sex verification tests were introduced in 1966. From then on, those in the know referred to them as “the Press brothers”. Between them in the early 1960s, they won five track and field Olympic gold medals and set 26 world records. Man oh man.

Rand made a clean sweep of the awards in 1964, also winning the Daily Express and BBC trophies, and certainly covered the “personality” aspect. She was always bubbly and full of fun and energy, and she and her Tokyo room-mate Ann Packer – 800 metres gold medallist and later Mrs Robbie Brightwell – filled acres of newspaper space, matched only by men’s long jump gold medallist Lynn Davies.

Lynn was missing from one of the Daily Express award ceremonies and – making apologies for his absence – the chairman of Express Newspapers, Tom Blackburn, announced to a full house at the Dorchester Hotel: “Wherever she is, we send her our love.”

Terry Downes, then world middleweight champion and sitting alongside me shouted: “Give ‘er a kiss from me when you see her, Tom.” Now that’s what you call personality.

Greg Rutherford, who has followed Davies as Olympic, European and Commonwealth long jump gold medallist, is one of the few who could challenge McIlroy for the Sportsman of the Year award. If Tom Blackburn was still around Rutherford could have found himself being introduced as Margaret.

As Nigel Farage might say, get voting.


Thu Dec 11: SJA British Sports Awards, sponsored by The National Lottery, at the Grand Connaught Rooms


Mon Mar 23: SJA British Sports Journalism Awards, sponsored by BT Sport, at the Grand Connaught Rooms. Entry forms will be available in October 2014

Wed May 13: SJA York Races Day, sponsored by Ladbrokes, at the Dante Festival. Click here to book your places

Mon Sep 14: SJA Autumn Golf Day, Muswell Hill Golf Club