Murray leads stellar line-up for SPOTY
The shortlist standard for BBC award is astonishingly high but tennis’s world No 1 merits a third coronation
To understand the level of sporting excellence that now passes for normality in this country, it helps to spool back 25 years. In 1991, the figure who attracted the most votes for BBC Sports Personality of the Year was not exactly a headline name. Indeed, he derived his greatest fame from his skill in catching a few unsuspecting mirror carp. But a rousing show of unity among the angling fraternity ensured that Bob Nudd, no less, was propelled to the top of the public poll.
Britain cannot claim a monopoly on such perverse outcomes. In Australia, the 2012 award for Sportswoman of the Year was given, in a defiant display of Antipodean chauvinism, to Black Caviar, who happened to be a horse. The BBC, at least, could not countenance the thought of its cherished bauble being handed to a fisherman, giving it to Liz McColgan instead. A quarter of a century on, it is difficult to imagine that such hijacking of the award by niche pursuits would be possible again.
Even among the expanded cluster of 16 nominees at tonight’s ceremony in Birmingham, the shortlist standard is astonishingly high. In 2016, one needs to have won a minimum of an Olympic gold medal, two Paralympic golds, a Premier League title or a Masters green jacket to make the cut. As ever, the exclusivity of this club is also illustrated by the pedigree of those excluded. The British waited 109 years to toast a champion in the Tour de France but today, it seems, there is no room for Chris Froome, who this year won it for a third time.
The pedestal reserved for homegrown heroes has become a crowded place, and it has happened with jolting suddenness. In 1997, Britain could muster no finer feat than that of Greg Rusedski, who took the BBC’s top honour after he reached the US Open final – and lost. Never, though, was there a more glaring paucity of worthy contenders than in 2006, when Zara Phillips took the famous silver-plated camera for her triumph at the World Equestrian Games in Aachen, an event that few outside the Jilly Cooper set even watched.
Andy Murray, a racing certainty to become the first triple winner of the prize this evening, has shredded such modest precedents, establishing a benchmark with which Britain is not familiar. Unlike Rusedski, once acclaimed as a sensation of British tennis for competing in a single major final, Murray has played in 11 of them. Over the past 12 months, for good measure, he has also thrown in a second Wimbledon title, a second Olympic singles gold, and the year-end world No 1 ranking, a distinction that required him to win 24 straight matches to earn.
Perhaps the most instructive sign of Murray’s brilliance, though, is that he will not even turn up to accept his latest accolade. Already, by his own description, he is in “intense pain” at his winter training camp in Miami, putting his body through all manner of purgatory to be ready for next month’s Australian Open. It might not be an undue strain for him to fly back first class from Florida for the BBC’s soirée, but the very best appreciate that their time in the global elite is finite. Murray, after a decade in the contrails of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, sees that this is his moment to plunder. All the ephemera – the tributes, the glad-handing, the black-tie orgies of self-congratulation – can wait for another day.
Murray’s case to prevail is indisputable, even in a period when Britain has eclipsed every expectation of sporting accomplishment. The SPOTY shortlist is always Olympicheavy in a Games year, but justifiably so after the glories in Brazil this summer. A haul of 67 medals in Rio, including 27 golds, means that Britain is one of only two countries to have increased its swag of precious metal at five successive Olympics. The only parallel is with Azerbaijan, who did not even begin competing as an independent nation until Atlanta 1996.
There remain some baffling inconsistencies in SPOTY’s logic. Study the 2016 list closely and one is struck by more than a suspicion of quota-filling.
Sophie Christiansen, for example, has a wonderful story. She was born two months prematurely with quadriplegic cerebral palsy and in Rio she grasped a third gold in paradressage. But there is no plausible argument, besides claiming that it might be politic to include at least two Paralympians – Dame Sarah Storey being the other – that she merits an invitation tonight at the expense of Froome.
The cyclist has compiled a catalogue of stunning achievement at the Tour de France, the most punishing test of sporting endurance on the planet. The problem is one of perception, arising not so much from Le Tour’s dark history of drug scandals as from the notion that Froome is not truly British. He was born in Kenya and lives in Monte Carlo, having spent so little time in Britain that his grip on local geography is a touch uncertain. When he tweeted his apologies for not going to last year’s SPOTY gala, he said that he was sorry he could not be in Dublin. The ceremony was taking place in Belfast.
It is a similar affliction for Mo Farah, whose standing in the public estimation is not helped by the fact that he has made his home in Oregon. He bequeathed the defining memories of London 2012 with his two distance golds at the Olympic Stadium and yet did not even make the top three of the SPOTY rundown. This year he became only the second man in history, after Finland’s Lasse Viren, to complete the ‘double-double’, but he is likely to be frozen out of the SPOTY podium places once more. Given the choice, floating voters are always likely to be persuaded by the homespun Yorkshire charm of Alistair Brownlee above the transatlantic lifestyle of Farah.
A third Murray coronation will at least protect the credibility of the overall award. The sporting deeds of 2016 deserve a stirring night of celebration, but it would be naive to suppose that this particular honours system is not as plagued by petty injustice as any other.
The pedestal for home-grown heroes has become crowded, and it happened with jolting suddenness
Firm favourite: Andy Murray, above during his Wimbledon final victory over Milos Raonic, is odds on with the bookmakers to win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award