NORMAN GILLER reflects on the outstanding talent of the sports journalists’ first Sportswoman of the Year, and embarks on another publishing venture in fear of the men in the white coats
As Rebecca Adlington received her SJA Sportswoman of the Year trophy from former winner Anita Lonsbrough last week, an old hack (it may have been me) was heard to say: “Follow that BBC!”
Roger Mosey and senior producer Michael Cole from the BBC were in the audience at the glitzy Grand Connaught Rooms last Wednesday, and were made to cringe through the afternoon, as a parade of great sportswomen were called on to the stage. When the BBC stage their Sports Personality of the Year awards show at the modestly named MediaCityUK in Salford, there is not a woman in sight in their top 10 shortlist.
Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner, but I just cannot get a sense of Salford being the hub of the sports or media world (ee bah gum, get ready for a chorus of criticism from my old Manchester mates).
The blame for it being an all-male list has been laid firmly by the Beeb bosses on the 27 national and regional sports editors who provided the independent shortlist. Now gifted and imaginative programme editor Carl Doran and his team are working on ideas how to raise the profile of this year’s outstanding sportswomen, while knowing not one of them will get a mention in the business end of the show.
They will then concentrate on coming up with a new structure for next year’s programme in the all-important Olympic year.
The first thing I would do is delete the word “Personality” from the title, and replace it with something like the all-encompassing BBC Sports Awards of the Year [Note from Ed: They can’t do that, Norm. The title is registered to… coughs… the SJA], or BBC Sports Champions of the Year.
It was show founder Paul Fox who in 1954 tied them to the “Personality” factor when he first came up with the idea in the wake of the Daily Express (1948) and the SJA (then the Sports Writers’ Association, 1949) 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. The weakness of it is that if you take it to the letter, somebody like Robbie Savage or Phil Tufnell would be a winner of a personality contest ahead of a Mark Cavendish or Mo Farah.
The BBC has to come up with something that will give women equal chance to get the acclaim their achievements deserve. We sports journalists have been acknowledging a Sportswoman of the Year since back in 1959.
The first winner was a lady 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 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 three days of their first meeting in 1961.
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.
Mary 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 roomate 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.
THE OLDER I GET, the madder my ideas become. This week I have launched a Spurs Writers’ Club, bringing together 45 bloggers, journalists and scribblers with the common denominator of being admirers (and occasionally admonishers) of Tottenham Hotspur.
We plan on producing a library of Spurs books, kicking off in March with The Glory-Glory Game and following it in May with a collective view of Tottenham’s fun and games under the Harry Redknapp baton.
There are 45 founder members. We are recruiting Associate Members, who will be listed in the first book and will be invited to submit contributions to future books that they will be offered at huge discounts.
So I have taken on the task of editing 45 chapters, each from a different author, and am also organising the printing and distribution of the books. Potty, moi?
The publishing world is in a tsumani of turmoil. I hear worrying reports on sales from local and national bookshops and it is hard to find a publisher full of Christmas cheer.
All members of the Spurs Writers’ Club are chipping in a modest amount to cover the overheads for the first print run of the Glory-Glory Game launch book, and each is on a far greater royalty than mainstream publishers pay to recruit Associate Members and sell books.
Under my master plan, nobody can get badly burned, and we have the satisfaction of recording Tottenham facts, feats and feasts on a permanent printed page rather than disappearing into the ether with few people having read our blinding thoughts.
Those two men in white coats approaching, are they umpires or have they come to collect me?
What a personality!
- Read Norman Giller’s previous columns for the SJA website by clicking here
- Your SJA annual subscriptions are due on Jan 1. Make sure that you don’t lose your membership, and the rights and privileges that go with it, including discounts on the forthcoming British Sports Journalism and Photography Awards. Click here for a standing order form