No awards given when hosts get it wrong

With just one week remaining for SJA members to cast their votes for the 2009 British Sports Awards, NORMAN GILLER looks back on past, less glorious, awards nights

As I sit considering my votes for the SJA British Sports Awards there is a smile on my face that even Leonardo could not capture. I am remembering one of the funniest (and most embarrassing) moments ever at a sports awards ceremony.

The place, the Dorchester Hotel, Park Lane. The year, 1968. The event, the Daily Express Sportsman and Sportswoman of the Year awards. It was the year of the Mexico Olympics, and hurdler David Hemery, pictured here, was making a clean sweep of the men’s awards.

Who can forget his scintillating world record-breaking victory – 41 years ago this week – with BBC commentator David Coleman getting so carried away on a jetstream of jingoism that he shouted: “… and who cares who’s third?”

This coincided with Sheffield’s brave John Sherwood bursting his lungs to throw himself across the finishing line to snatch a bronze medal. The phrase inspired the birth of Private Eye‘s Colemanballs (there’s a link to the original clip of that great race here – not often seen unedited on the BBC these days).

Two months later, Hemery was at the Dorchester to collect his Express trophy. Veteran Express Newspapers chairman Tom Blackburn was charged with reading out apologies for absence, and there was stunned silence, followed by stifled giggles and then an explosion of laughter when he announced: “Lynn Davies is unable to be with us, but we send her our love wherever she may be …”

We Express reporters tried to hide our blushes as we joined in with the laughter, and boxing champion Terry Downes — sitting alongside me — did not help matters by shouting at the top of his voice: “Give ‘er a kiss from me when you find ‘er.”

I don’t think our beloved SJA chairman Barry Newcombe will need to do his homework before introducing our guests on December 9.

How times change. The Express trophy was the one to win when it became a pioneer of the sports awards ceremonies in 1948, with Reg Harris pedalling 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 million copies a day.

Paul Fox decided the BBC 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”, featured in their 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 John Landy – and the European 1,500m gold medal. It demonstrated, even then, the power of television: Chataway benefited from beating Vladimir Kuts in a thrilling 5,000m race, shown live on TV from London’s White City just two months before the award was announced.

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 was their own presenter, Peter Dimmock.

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.

The SJA ceremony, approaching its 61st year, has settled down into a much-acclaimed lunch event, with the Sportsman, Sportswoman and Team of the Year winners chosen by SJA members’ votes.

SJA members can cast their votes for the Sportsman, Sportswoman and Team of the Year by clicking here.

But there are those among us who will remember it as an annual dinner and dance when we were able to show off our ladies, DJs and Strictly Come Dancing footwork.

A bit of name-dropping for which I am becoming infamous [Editor’s note: “becoming“, Norman?]. In 1976, the guest list for my table at the SWA dinner dance included Eric Morecambe, Joe Bugner, Terry Lawless, Frank McLintock and their wives. I think I must have been earning well in those days.

The winner that year was graceful world and Olympic champion ice skater John Curry, who had recently been outed as gay by the German tabloid Bild-Zeitung. What a shock that was!

The comedy for the evening was provided by ventriloquist Roger de Courcey and his blue bear Nookie. While he was doing his act, John Curry nipped away for a comfort break. De Courcey spotted Curry returning to his top table seat and ad-libbed through the mouth of Nookie: “… it is good to feel the Christmas spirit among us all, and here comes the fairy for the tree”.

There was a little embarrassed laughter, a lot of mutterings, some booing and jeering and, to my right, Eric Morecambe stepped out of character by shouting: “Disgraceful.” Definitely a low spot in sports awards history.

From looking a one-man race, this year’s SJA Sportsman of the Year award has suddenly developed into a too-close-to-call contest. Andrew Strauss seemed set to waltz away with it, but now Jenson Button has raced into pole position, alongside great champions including Carl Froch, Tom Daley and triple jumper Phillips Idowu.

The votes close in a week’s time. I’d had better hurry up and make up my mind, but first, I must wipe this smile off my face.

Read previous Norman Giller columns by clicking here.

Book tickets for the glittering SJA 61st annual British Sports Awards, being staged in London on December 9 – click here for details and booking form

â–¡ UK Sport is the longest standing lead sponsor of the Sports Journalists’ Association, with a partnership that goes back more than a decade. Sky Bet is the SJA’s newest partner, the sponsorship being announced in October 2008.

Both partners support the SJA’s two prestigious annual awards events, including the presentation of a special UK Sport Award for excellence at the SJA’s Annual Sports Awards and the sports betting writer of the year at the SJA’s British Sports Journalism Awards.

The SJA Annual Sports Awards are the longest established of their kind in the United Kingdom, having been first staged in 1949.

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