Serious business this picking a Sportsman and Sportswoman of the Year, says NORMAN GILLER, who has even seen grown men almost come to blows over the outcome of the Association’s annual ballot
Do you think you could ever feel strongly enough about who wins the SJA’s British Sportsman of the Year award on December 7 to want to punch a colleague on the nose if your choice does not collect the coveted trophy?
Unlikely as it may seem, I once saw two illustrious members of the Association, back in the days when it was the Sports Writers’ Association, almost come to blows over the vote in the Olympic year of 1956, when 3,000 metres steeplechase gold medallist Chris Brasher was declared the winner.
Back then I was the sports-room copyboy on the late, lamented London Evening News, and was a witness to former sports editor Bill McGowran and his boxing correspondent Reg Gutteridge having an almighty bust-up.
Those were the days when, to save money, the Association’s committee meetings were held in the news conference room on the second floor of Carmelite House, down at the Embankment end of one of the many tributaries that ran off Fleet Street.
Reg was never short of an opinion or three, and he told the committee members what he thought of – and I quote – “another bloody runner nicking the trophy”.
With some justification, he thought the winner should have been fellow Cockney Terry Spinks, who at 18 had won the Olympic flyweight boxing gold medal in the same Melbourne Games where Brasher had survived a disqualification to take the steeplechase gold.
The veteran McGowran, who had been the longest-reigning SWA chairman and the main instigator of the annual Awards dinner (now lunch), bristled at what he interpreted as personal criticism aimed at him. At one stage he and Reg were nose to nose until pulled apart by the then secretary Dave Caldwell, of the South London Press.
Bill’s name lives on in the SJA Hall of Fame. This will be the 50th year that the Association will have presented the Bill McGowran Award for Disability Sport – thought to be the first such annual prize in the world recognising achievement in what we now understand as Paralympic sport.
Over the next half century that Reg was a committee member – and one-time chairman – of the Association, he continued his grumble that track and field athletes were too heavily favoured in the votes.
There is some evidence to support his view. Of the 62 previous winners of the men’s award, 22 have been athletes. Sebastian Coe collected the trophy a record four times (yet his great rival, the maverick Steve Ovett, did not win it once).
And you should have heard Reg on the theme of Henry Cooper, who was twice BBC Sports Personality of the Year yet never once made it into the top three of the SJA’s lists of the years’ top performers.
Dear old Reg has now joined Bill McGowran in the great press box in the sky, from where it seems he could be looking down on another athletics-led awards ceremony this year.
Mo Farah must be the front runner for the men’s award this year, with hurdler Dai Greene chasing, and world athletics championship silver medallists Hannah England and Jessica Ennis – who would score a third successive victory if she wins the poll come December – are leading contenders for the women’s prize.
For my men’s vote I am tossing up between US Open golf champion Rory McIlroy and cricketer Alastair Cook, who was Bradmanesque with his batting in the Ashes series. I want Mo to win it next year as Olympic champion.
THE UPCOMING SJA awards lunch – at the Connaught Rooms in Covent Garden – gives me the opportunity to revisit one of 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 was making a cleansweep of the men’s awards. In the SWA vote he beat Olympic middleweight champion boxer Chris Finnegan into second place (I won’t repeat what Reg said!).
Who can forget Hemery’s scintillating world record-breaking victory – 43 years ago this month – with BBC commentator David Coleman getting so carried away on a jetstream of jingoism that at the end of his commentary he shouted: “… and who cares who’s third?”
It so happened that Sheffield’s brave John Sherwood, his lungs bursting, threw himself across the finishing line to snatch the bronze medal at just the moment Coleman delivered the fateful line. This piece of commentary inspired the birth of Private Eye‘s Colemanballs column (though as the Eye approaches its 50th festivities, I note that they now refer to “Commentatorballs”: a decade after his retirement from lip-mike, can David Coleman really be so forgotten?).
Two months after his triumph in Mexico City, 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 world middleweight 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 wonder who our President Sir Michael Parkinson will be presenting the main awards to on December 7 (which happens to be the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor, which President Roosevelt said was “a date which will live in infamy”)?
Whoever it is, we can count on Parky to at least get their gender right.
- Who will you vote for as Britain’s Sportsman, Sportswoman and Team of the Year? See Ian Cole’s overview of the leading candidates by clicking here.
- Mo Farah’s historic claim on your votes.
- Mark Cavendish keeps his promise in his race of his life.
- England’s Ashes-winning cricket team are top of the world.
- SJA members can cast their votes by clicking here.
- The awards will be presented at our gala annual lunch in London on December 7. Don’t miss out on being there – click here for a ticket booking form, with SJA members entitled to buy two tickets at half the usual price.