Talking SPOTY

With BBC’s Sports Personality Of The Year taking place this coming Thursday (22nd Dec) and the furore regarding the all-male shortlist having died down temporarily I think it’s time for me to give my opinion on all things SPOTY.

Media City UK, Salford

Media City UK, the new home of BBC Sport, will host SPOTY 2011. Photo: Magnus D.

First of all the top-10 itself:

The Controversy

The fact that this year’s ten nominees are all male can be viewed in different ways. The most obvious is that the female sports stars of the United Kingdom aren’t receiving the same recognition for their successes as their male counterparts. However this is a fairly simplistic and reactionary view to take, not one that is totally incorrect, but one that needs more consideration.

The women that have been most successful in 2011 and could justifiably feel most aggrieved at being left off the list are Rebecca Adlington, Keri-Anne Payne, Chrissie Wellington and Sarah Stevenson. All of these women have been crowned world champion in 2011, however were you to ask a selection of the general public which sport they competed in I’d wager that the vast majority of people would come unstuck after Rebecca Adlington. The fact of the matter is that open water swimming, Ironman triathlon, taekwondo and to some extent swimming, are all minority sports.

We have male world champions in swimming (Liam Tancock) and squash (Nick Matthew) and plenty of other sports, who also failed to make the shortlist – suggesting that the issue isn’t solely one of sex but also the coverage certain sports receive. The fact that all the above mentioned females received three or more votes (out of 27) when Tancock and Matthew received none, could be viewed as positive discrimination (not my opinion but a possible interpretation).

Were the exploits of all our world champion athletes in minority sports publicised more, then I’m sure more of them would have featured more prominently in the voting. Unfortunately the nature of the competition means that success in your chosen sport doesn’t guarantee you recognition.

World Ironman Triathlon Champion, Chrissie Wellington

Chrissie Wellington has been very vocal in her condemnation of the shortlist. Photo: Mal Booth.

One thing we can categorically say was wrong though was Gary Lineker’s assertion on The One Show that “perhaps it hasn’t been the best year for women in sport”, I think we’ve seen enough gold medals around women’s necks in 2011 to refute that claim.

Onto the trivial side of things now but one of my biggest annoyances with SPOTY is people’s argument that just because the award features the word ‘personality’ in its title then past winners such as Nigel Mansell and Steve Davis, or current nominee Andy Murray, aren’t worthy because they lack ‘personality’.

The word personality has several different definitions, one of which being “a well known person in a certain field, such as sport or entertainment” (that comes straight from the dictionary by the way). Therefore the fact that some perceive a certain sportsperson to be boring should bear no influence on whether or not they are nominated.

Another of my annoyances is with those who solely criticise the BBC for the fact that this year’s shortlist is an all-male affair. The BBC make it quite clear that the shortlist is drawn up by sports editors from newspapers and magazines across the country. Therefore the majority of the ire that is spouted in the BBC’s direction should mainly be aimed at the journalists of the country who failed to recognise the fantastic achievements of our female athletes in 2011. I say the majority of the ire though as the BBC is responsible for selecting the publications that receive a vote so must take some flack for their choices.

The main cause for criticism of the BBC is the inclusion of the magazines Nuts and Zoo. I don’t think it is unfair to say that these publications are aimed squarely at the male market, and as such may skew the voting process in favour of male sportspeople (neither included a female in their top-10s). Why should publications whose primary objective is to titillate teenage boys get a say in who wins a sports award?

A popular argument I have heard to counter this bias is to include their female equivalent publications in the voting process. Unfortunately mainstream women’s magazines are not sport-specific enough to warrant a vote either in my opinion. Therefore my solution would be to just get rid of Nuts and Zoo.

The voting for a sports award should be restricted to publications whose sole focus is high quality sports journalism and the reporting of currents affairs, which by definition will cover sporting events. There should also be no local bias to the publication, therefore the BBC’s decision to include the local paper from whichever city is hosting SPOTY is also questionable. When you take a look at the Manchester Evening News’ top-10 you can see why I’m sceptical (their list included four Manchester based footballers and the Lancashire CCC captain).

I am pleased to say that as a result of the controversy the 2011 shortlist generated the BBC have announced that they are to review their list of publications who receive a vote.

The Awards

Enough of the politics now and on to the actual awards, my personal top-10 would be slightly different to the final shortlist but I’ll do my best to justify everyone’s inclusion.

World Champion triathlete - Alistair Brownlee

Alistair Brownlee, closely follow by younger brother Jonny. Photo: Adolf Boluda.

My Top 10

Alistair Brownlee – the elder of the Brownlee brothers cemented his position as the undisputed king of the Olympic distance triathlon this year, he won the world series title, the world championships, the european championships and combined with little brother, training partner and biggest rival, Jonny and women’s world champ Helen Jenkins to take the world team crown as well.

Mark Cavendish – the Manx Missile has had a phenomenal year, first Brit ever to win the Green Jersey at the Tour de France and the first Brit since Tom Simpson in 1965 to pull on the rainbow jersey of the world road-race champion.

Darren Clarke – won the Open, not a stellar year otherwise but that one achievement can make a career in itself, let alone a single season.

Luke Donald – the first person to win both the European and PGA money lists in the same year, world number 1, PGA Tour and European Tour player of the year. He didn’t win a major but four tournament victories, 14 top 10 finishes out of 19 PGA events and the lowest scoring average on the PGA tour have made 2011 quite a year for Donald.

Mo Farah – 5K gold and 10K silver at the world championships meant Mo Farah had finally fulfilled his potential and announced himself on the world stage.

Dai Greene – adding the 400m hurdles world title to his ever-growing collection and beating all-comers in the Diamond league meant 2011 could scarcely have gone better for the Welshman.

Rory McIlroy – he became the youngest winner of the US Open for many a year with a dominant display of golf reminiscent of Tiger in his prime, pushed Donald all the way in the European money list and rose to number two in the world. To top it all off he’s started dating world tennis number one Caroline Wozniacki – the shaggy haired Northern Irishman has had a year to remember.

Keri-Anne Payne – she regained her world open-water (10km) swimming title this year, in the process qualifying for next year’s Olympics, and was dominant throughout the year to be named the FINA open water swimmer of the year.

Jonathan Trott – the South African born batsman has been Mr. Consistency in 2011 for England, playing a critical role in retaining the Ashes in Australia as well as contributing to the 4-0 whitewash of India which took England to the top of the test rankings. He also scored 5 half centuries in the world cup and was named the ICC cricketer of the year, England cricketer of the year and Wisden cricketer of the year for 2011 – not a bad set of awards to have to your name.

Chrissie Wellington – the Queen of Ironman triathlon won her fourth world title whilst carrying an injury, she also broke her own world record earlier in the year and remains unbeaten over the Ironman distance (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, 26.2 mile run).

My Omissions

I have omitted Amir Khan, Andy Murray, Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook from the official shortlist but as brilliant years as those four have had I think my four replacements have had better years.

Amir Khan has failed to capture the public’s imagination and lost his world title last weekend with an immature performance. Andy Murray may have had his most successful and consistent year to date but until he breaks into the top two or wins a major then I feel world champions deserve their place amongst the top 10 more than the Scotsman. Andrew Strauss may have captained his side to the top of the world but on a personal level he has not had the best year with the bat.

England Batsman - Jonathan Trott

Jonathan Trott has been a consistently high performer for England in all forms of cricket in 2011. Photo: TGIGreeny

My most controversial omission will probably be the one they call ‘Chef’. Alastair Cook had an outstanding winter with the bat but only really made one meaningful contribution in the test series against India (admittedly it was a magnificent 294). I believe Trott has had a more consistent year overall, contributing more in the 50-over format of the game, and warrants selection over Cook.

My Winners

SPOTY – Mark Cavendish

TeamEngland Test Side

CoachAndy Flower (England cricket)

Overseas – Novak Djokovic

Young SPOTY – Eleanor Simmonds

What Can We Learn?

With all that I have said regarding the lack of females on the shortlist, the lack of recognition for our world champions in minority sports and the way in which the shortlist is drawn up it is important to remember that this award isn’t the reason athletes take up sport. I don’t believe that people dream of becoming BBC SPOTY as a child, I believe they dream of being world champion, winning a major, setting world records or being world number one. This award is a nice accolade to go with all the other more important titles you must’ve won to be even considered for it, so we shouldn’t take it too seriously (not that I won’t complain to anyone who will listen if Mark Cavendish doesn’t win on Thursday of course).

If any messages can be taken from the controversy this year’s award has created then hopefully they will be as follows:

  • Female sport is under-represented in the media when compared to the male equivalent
  • Successful athletes in minority sports don’t get enough coverage
  • Mainstream female publications need to feature female sporting role models more
  • The publications that criticised the BBC for not including any females in the shortlist should examine how their sports editors voted and how they cover female sport before castigating the BBC

Finally, because I’m very sad and some of you may be interested, I’ve trawled the voting list and counted just how many votes each sports personality received (out of a possible 27 votes):

27 – Rory McIlroy, 26 – Darren Clarke, 24 – Mo Farah, 23 – Mark Cavendish, 19 – Alastair Cook, 15 – Dai Greene, 14 – Andy Murray, Andrew Strauss, 11 – Luke Donald, 7 – Amir Khan, 6 – Rebecca Adlington, Stuart Broad, Jenson Button, 5 – Keri-Anne Payne, Graeme Swann, 4 – James Anderson, Alistair Brownlee, Sam Warburton, 3 – Gareth Bale, Carl Froch, Scott Parker, Sarah Stevenson, Sam Tomkins, Sam Waley-Cohen, Chrissie Wellington, 2 – Katherine Grainger, Victoria Pendleton, 1 – Nicola Adams, Ben Ainslie, Ian Bell, Dimitar Berbatov, Glenn Chapple, Hannah England, Jessica Ennis, Dario Franchitti, George Groves, Tony McCoy, George North, Shanaze Reade, Stef Reid, Jamie Roberts, Wayne Rooney, Paul Sholes, Louis Smith, Yaya Toure, Jonathan Trott, Judd Trump, Hayley Turner, Patrick Vieira, David Weir.

Photos: Media City – Magnus D, Chrissie Wellington – Mal Booth, Alistair Brownlee – Adolf Boluda, Jonathan Trott – TGIGreeny


To tweet or not to tweet?

Twitter may only be five years old but it has already made enough headlines to last a lifetime. It has quickly become the go to place for breaking news and to gauge the subjects on the nation’s fingertips.

The social networking site has many uses in the sporting world; athletes use it as a tool to converse directly with fans, clubs use it as another way to inform and update their loyal supporters, journalists use it as a medium to rapidly break news and event organisers use it as an extra means of publicity. It isn’t always a tool for good though, an errant tweet can land the user in plenty of hot water – as the saying goes, ‘act in haste, repent in leisure’.

Twitter Over Capacity

Twitter use has grown rapidly and it often faced server problems as they struggled to cope. Photo: Sandip Bhattacharya

The site’s growth in the past few years has been mirrored within the sporting world. As more and more people sign-up it is inevitable that some will fall foul of the tool’s immediacy and lack of recourse. Once a message has been tweeted it is there for the world to see, you may try to delete it but you won’t catch it in time and if it is newsworthy then someone will retweet it and the situation will snowball. Kevin Pietersen is a prime example of this, in 2010 he inadvertently revealed the England selectors’ decision to drop him hours before it was set to be officially announced. He didn’t stop there though, he further angered the selectors by launching into a four letter tirade about them and the merit of their decision. Pietersen insists that the tweet was intended as a direct message to a specific user and therefore not to be seen by the rest of his followers. This may be the case but it is somewhat irrelevant after the event, it was a stark lesson to sports stars the world over that life on the internet can never be truly private.

This wasn’t the first time a team selection had been let out of the bag early on twitter though. The first time I can recall it happening was before the second test of the 2009 Ashes series. Out of form opening bastman Phillip Hughes revealed on his twitter account that he had been dropped, two hours before the official announcement was made prior to the toss. Reports suggested that his manager took responsibility for the slip-up, he was still in Australia and claimed to have mis-calculated the time difference and tweeted the message too early. That is little consolation to Cricket Australia though who were seen to have lost an element of control over their playing staff, this was before the true power and independent nature of twitter had been discovered though it must be said.

Pointless Twitter

Many people, Sir Alex Ferguson included, fail to see to point of Twitter.

Nothing can truly claim to be a part of British sport until it has infiltrated the world of football, and nothing can truly be a part of football until there has been a scandal about it. So as the headlines over the last year can testify, twitter has definitely arrived. Darren Bent, Carlton Cole, Danny Gabbidon, Ryan Babel, and Wayne Rooney have all made the news as a result of ill-advised tweets. Offences ranged from retweeting a lighthearted photoshopped image (Babel), to a rage-fuelled sign-off from the site (Gabbidon), to offering a follower out for a fight (yep you guessed it, Rooney). One of twitter’s greatest selling points has proven time and again to be many of its users downfalls. The medium is so immediate, so direct, and the lack of censorship acts as a perfect illustration of why agents and managers started giving athletes media training in the first place.

I shouldn’t just focus on the pitfalls of twitter though. Sportsmen and women have used it as a force for good and this should be noted. Yes there are many sportspeople who have got into trouble because of their tweets but there are far more who use it as a tool to reconnect with their fans and become human again. Not just in this country but around the world as well, we revere our sports stars and put them on a pedestal that is impossible for us to ever reach. Managers and agents then build a wall around that pedestal to further distance us from our heroes, only allowing us to hear from them in sanctioned press conferences and interviews where they give calculated answers to keep their sponsors happy and their noses clean. If twitter can humanise our sports stars then its use should be encouraged.

A recent example of this is Judd Trump, the 21 year old snooker player who made a name for himself by tweeting in the mid-session intervals during his run to the final of this years world championships. Mid-game tweets are not always desirable though, the NBA have banned its players from using twitter and other social media sites from 45 minutes before the game until after all official post-match press obligations have been completed. This is likely to be due to the loss of impact that its own coverage will attain if news and opinions have already been broken by players on their personal twitter feeds.

The majority of the England cricket team are regular tweeters and used it as a tool to keep in touch with supporters on their recent tour of Australia and the Asian sub-continent. The camaraderie between the group is clear to see as they regularly engaged in gentle ribbing and mocking of one another in their spare time, a tactic which ingratiated themselves to their fans as it shows they don’t take themselves too seriously.

Twitter on mobile phone

The rise of smartphones has made tweeting on the move more accessible. Photo: stevegarfield

Twitter can be a fantastic way to connect with fans and display your personality away from the sporting environment in which athletes are normally seen. Graeme Swann is a prime example of this, a sample tweet from his timeline will see that he is just a normal person like you and I, with a good sense of humour: “I saw on the news that today is supposed to be judgement day? Do I have time for a cheese n pickle sandwich before the machines rise?”. There are others as well, many believe that Mark Cavendish, the bolshy yet prodigiously talented cyclist, is made for twitter. His  sponsors may disagree as he has hardly cultivated a squeaky clean reputation in his short professional career so far, but twitter gives him an uncensored voice to air his views and convince some people that there is more to him than the arrogant, surly character people perceive. A recent tweet of his shows his dedication to his team and his gratitude for the efforts they make for his ultimate glory: “Haters will hate. But a group of people who support me like my incredible teammates did today will always mean more. So proud of you guys.”

Of course for twitter to work you need to have the personality to show off in the first place. Andy Murray is persistently labelled as boring and monotonous, I personally don’t think this should matter too much but it has to be said that he doesn’t help himself. His description of himself on twitter simply reads “I play tennis”. However dig a little deeper and you will see a sense of humour in there that many people miss. This was tweeted on 1st April: “Ross hutchins (doubles player and training partner) will be my new coach alongside dani starting in barcelona! Can’t wait to get startedd, full statement on personal website”, followed by “Felt like I needed another yes man”. All of which was a thinly veiled jab at the critics questioning his decision to surround himself with a team of friends rather than a single coach who would question the Scots views.

All of this pales into insignificance when viewed against the impact twitter can really make on a global scale though. As a tool for breaking news it is now unsurpassed, the first I heard about Wouter Weylandt’s recent death in the Giro d’Italia was via twitter. Of course some tweets must be read with caution, due to the speed with which news is now disseminated there are bound to be some errors, but on the whole you get enough of the story to go on before you can read a full report.

Not only can twitter break news, but it can also break governments as well, as the recent uprising in Tunisia demonstrated.

So twitter really is a powerful tool, one that the world is only just discovering the full potential of. Sports stars were some of the first to realise its strengths, and some of the first to experience its pitfalls. With the world-changing around us at such a pace it is impossible to say with much certainty whether twitter is here to stay, but you can rest assured that it hasn’t finished writing its headlines yet (just ask Ryan Giggs!). Be those headlines good or bad is up to the user, just remember one thing for the future – tweet if you want to, but tweet with caution.

Photo credits: Twitter over capacity – Sandip Bhattacharya, Pointless little messages – jmilles, Mobile twitter stevegarfield