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

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - OLIVER BROWN

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

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