A sporting smörgåsbord of a summer

Every year the football season ends, and every year the television and radio broadcasters roll out their trailers for the ‘summer of sport’, complete with soundtrack from Dodgy or Mungo Jerry.

You can forgive them for going a little overboard this year though, this year’s slightly different; in case you weren’t aware of it yet (although I’m not sure that’s possible), there’s the small matter of a summer Olympic Games in London to think about.

The games have become such a sporting behemoth that they have, and will, influence just about every other sporting event on the 2012 calendar.

London's Olympic Stadium

London’s Olympic stadium will be at the centre of the sporting world this summer. Photo: Phil Jones

With this in mind I’m going to add to the list of summer previews and give my take on the events in store for us in the next 3 months.

I won’t cover all the events, mainly because there are just too many to talk about, but I will give a brief overview of what I will be keeping an eye on, why it is worth your attention, and giving my prediction of how events might unfold (there’s no real insight involved in my predictions and any money lost from bets placed is not my responsibility).

Where to start then? Well we’re in the middle of the French Open tennis so that’s as good a place as any:

French Open Tennis (May 28 – June 10):

Why? – The potential for numerous pieces of history to be made. Rafael Nadal can set a record of seven titles in the Paris suburbs and join Bjorn Borg on 11 major titles. Novak Djokovic could become the eighth man to win the career grand slam, whilst simultaneously completing the ‘Djoko Slam’ of holding all four major trophies at once, and keeping alive his chances of completing the calendar Golden Slam. Federer could become only the third man to complete a second career grand slam were he to win, and Maria Sharapova could complete her first if the Russian gets her hands on the women’s title.

Who? – Nadal and Sharapova. I’d be stupid to bet against Nadal really. If Djokovic makes the final I’d still back Nadal, but he’d be less of a certainty to win. If he’s up against Federer though, then I can’t see the Swiss getting anywhere near the trophy. On the women’s side it just seems like everything has come together for Sharapova to triumph – the Williams sisters are both out, as is Francesca Schiavone and world number one Victoria Azarenka, Na Li hasn’t been too convincing either. I’d keep an eye out for Sam Stosur though.

UEFA European Championship Finals (June 8 – July 1):

Why? – It’s England in a football tournament, no matter how much we say we don’t expect anything, we can’t help but get caught up in the excitement. The Euros tend to provide more entertainment than the World Cup, less meaningless games and the football is generally of a higher quality. Any tournament with an Irish presence is better for it as well.

Who? – I’ll be very boring, play it safe, and say Netherlands v Spain in one semi, Germany v France in the other. That means the final could be a repeat of Euro 2008, but I’ve a sneaky feeling the Germans might just get their revenge and win their first tournament since Euro ’96.

Andy Murray at Queen's 2011

Andy Murray faces a potentially career defining summer in 2012. Photo: Carine06

Queen’s Club, Aegon Championships (11 – 17 June):

Why? – It marks the start of the British sporting summer, it means Wimbledon is just around the corner and there are few finer sights than watching a load of professional athletes slipping around at the back of a slick grass court.

Who? – If Murray’s fit then I’d take him to make it three titles in West London. He humiliated Roddick there last year and the American is worse now than he was then, suggesting that Murray’s only real competition will come from Big Willy himself, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

Olympics Athletics trials (22 – 24 June):

Why? – The cream of British athletic talent all fighting for their place at a home Olympics. There’ll be some surprises, athletes who come from relative obscurity to book their place in the Olympic village, and there’ll no doubt be the odd high profile one who misses out too.

Who ? – I’m going to go for James Dasaolu to make headlines for all the right reasons. I interviewed him last summer during another period of rehab from injury, even at that stage his only focus was getting fit for the Olympics in his home city of London. The second fastest Brit over 100m last year, he’s already bagged an A standard qualifying time this season – all he’s got to do now is finish in the top two in the trials for his dream to become a reality. I also reckon a certain Mr. Chambers will fail to qualify for the individual event, his form this season doesn’t look good and I think the emotional roller coaster he’s been on over the past few years may have finally taken its toll.

Wimbledon Championships (June 25 – July 8):

Why? – Because it’s Wimbledon. Centre court has played host to some of the greatest finals of all time in the past five years and as is the way with any major tournament in this era, there are records to be broken. Federer could finally equal Pete Sampras’ record seven titles, or (depending on how events unfold in Paris) Novak Djokovic could march on to the third piece of the Golden Slam, Nadal could potentially win his twelfth major title or (whisper it) Andy Murray could win his first/second major title (OK 2nd is a little ambitious).

It’s not just the men’s draw that entices though, Sharapova will most likely be the favourite on the women’s side but those Williams sisters always save their best for the grass of South West London. Petra Kvitova won’t give up her title without a fight and Victoria Azarenka will be determined to reassert her authority on the women’s game. Throw into that the unpredictability of the women’s game at present and you may as well pick the quarter finalists out of a hat.

Who? – I’m going to stick with my Roland-Garros predictions and go for Sharapova and Nadal. Djokovic just isn’t quite on the high that he was last year, and if he’s not right on the top of his game then I think Nadal has the edge over him – as shown by the two clay court finals they’ve contested thus far this spring. You can never completely write off Roger either but his recent record at Wimbledon (only QF’s in the past two years) is worse than Murray’s, so you’d have to give Murray more chance than the Swiss magician.

On the women’s side, Sharapova has been pretty consistent in 2012, generally only losing to Azarenka, and should she make the final in Paris she’ll be coming to London with the number one ranking, a more consistent serve than she’s had for a couple of years, and potentially the confidence that comes with just having won a major title.

Dwain Chambers doing interview.

Will Dwain Chambers have be forced to run at in Helsinki to confirm a place at the Olympics? Photo: maxzix74

European Athletics Championships (June 26 – July 1):

Why? – Taking place the week after the trials, it’s surely the final opportunity for British athletes to grab the third discretionary place on offer at the Olympics if they didn’t perform at the trials. There may well be a lack of big names as the already qualified athletes will take a week’s rest in preparation for the games, but the competition is sure to be intense with so much at stake for those who do make the trip to Helsinki.

Who? – Who knows? It all depends what happens in Birmingham the previous weekend, who will have guaranteed their place and who will still be desperate to impress the selectors?

Tour de France (30 June – 22 July):

Why? – A sporting highlight every year for me. I can understand why people may find it boring and I can understand why some may be disillusioned with the regularity with which drugs cheats are highlighted in cycling. But I’ve been watching it since I was young, when I didn’t know what EPO was and when channel 4 gave me coverage in bite sized chunks at 6:30pm every evening. I remember Tom Steels blinding past me in 1998 to sprint to another stage victory, and I remember sitting having dinner in Lausanne, watching Marco Pantani ride past on his way to winning a post Tour criterium. Much has changed in the world of professional cycling since those days but much is reassuringly the same, Gary Imlach’s hair and the voices of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen are synonymous with the Tour de France, bringing an air of class to proceedings come those three weeks in July.

Who? – Without wishing to sound too myopically patriotic, Britain’s riders genuinely have the potential to make history at this year’s Tour. Bradley Wiggins has what will probably be his best chance ever to grab himself the yellow jersey in Paris, and Mark Cavendish doesn’t look to have much serious competition in defending his green jersey. Doubt comes in the form of Wiggins’ main rivals for yellow, whom we should know more about after this week’s Dauphiné, in which Brad is looking to defend his title from last year. There will also be doubt over Team Sky’s ability to support both Wiggins and Cavendish in their separate goals, the squad as a whole is looking good though and if any squad is capable of winning two jerseys, then I’d suggest Sky are the team to do it. With that in mind I’ll go for Wiggins in yellow, Cavendish in green and Cadel Evans and Pierre Rolland rounding off the podium places.

Test Series v South Africa (July 19 – 20 August):

Why? – The top two ranked test nations in the world going head to head. England desperate to hang on to top spot and Graeme Smith’s South African side desperate to wrestle it away from them. Eight of the world’s top twenty batsmen will be on show (four each), seven of the world’s top twenty bowlers (4-3 to England), the world’s best all-rounder, this series has it all.

Who? – Take your pick really. Dale Steyn is the best bowler in the world, Vernon Philander is chasing him for that moniker and James Anderson would like to have a say in the matter too. Andrew Strauss could become England’s most prolific century maker of all time, Kevin Pietersen always likes to put on a show against his former compatriots, Ian Bell loves batting in the English summer and Jacques Kallis is a match winner with bat or ball. Were it any other year this would be the most anticipated sporting contest of the summer.

Olympic Games (July 27 – August 12):

Why? – The biggest sporting occasion in history, in London. Do I really need to add anything more?

Who? – Too many to mention and that’s why I love the Olympics – wherever you look there are stars being born. The obvious star is a certain Jamaican sprinter, Yohan Blake will push Bolt all the way for the sprint double but I think Bolt will still win both and add the relay title to cement his place in sporting legend.

Elsewhere I think Jess Ennis might just falter, but I reckon Phillips Idowu, Mo Farah and Greg Rutherford could all have a golden summer.

In the hockey I think the GB women could go all the way to the final. They beat the world number 1s Argentina twice recently, however the Argentinians were missing their star player in Luciana Aymar, so I’ll hold fire on predicting a definite gold. The GB girls are more than capable of delivering it though. For the men I think the best they can do is fifth, since winning the European Championships in 2009 and a silver in the 2010 Champions trophy, they seem to have been on somewhat of a downwards spiral of results – I’ll go for a German victory over Australia in the final.

Laura Trott riding for GB

Will Laura Trott ride away with omnium gold? Photo: Rob Duin

We won’t be as all-conquering in the velodrome as we were in Beijing. I still think we’ll come away with five golds though; both pursuit teams, the women’s omnium and one each from Sir Chris Hoy and Vicky Pendleton – not a bad return really!

On the road (providing safe passages through the Tour) I think it’ll be win or bust for Mark Cavendish, IF he makes it over Box Hill 9 times and is still on the front then the gold is his for the taking – if not then someone like Tom Boonen or Thor Hushovd is more than capable of riding away with gold. In the time trial I think Wiggins can get a medal, probably not gold but I’d be surprised if he didn’t make the podium.

For the women I’m not so au fait with the opposition, although in Nicole Cooke and Lizzie Armitstead we have two of the best road racers in the world, and Emma Pooley has previous in the time trial as well.

In the triathlon I’d be hugely shocked if there wasn’t a Brownlee on the top step of the rostrum. Don’t ask me to say which one but Jonny’s early season form and Alistair’s pedigree suggest that if they’re both fit they’ll be fighting between themselves for gold and silver. For the women then Helen Jenkins looks to be in top form so far this season, she’s not as far above the rest of the pack as her male teammates but anything less than a podium place would be a big shock.

I could keep going and going but my knowledge starts getting a bit patchy for other sports now, so I’ll let you make up your own minds as to who’ll take home the medals in the greco-roman wrestling.

Novak Djokovic at the French Open

Will Djokovic have had a record-breaking summer when he gets to New York? Photo: Carine06

US Open Tennis (Aug 27 – Sep 9):

Why? – For every reason I’ve mentioned previously. Nadal, Djokovic and Federer are a joy to behold, throw in Murray’s penchant for the hard courts and crowds of New York and we’ve got the recipe for another cracker on our hands. On the women’s side, Serena would dearly love to put last year’s meltdown in the final behind her, Sharapova could well be coming to New York with two major titles and an Olympic gold medal round her neck, and Azarenka could have bounced back on the hard courts she loves to be a favourite again.

Who? – We’re still three months away from the action kicking off at Flushing Meadows with an awful lot of tennis to be played in between so it’s too early to say really. All the usual suspects will be there, but I’d throw the names of Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin Del Potro, Agnieszka Radwanska and Caroline Wozniacki into the mix as well.

That’s me done for now, no doubt I’ll go into more detail for specific events as the summer progresses. I’d be interested to see how many of my predictions you agree with though, and if anyone fancies calculating how much I’d win if I put an accumulator on all my predictions then you can have a cut of the proceeds when they all come good!

What have I missed?:

Three golf majors, England vs. Australia ODI series, a summer of Formula 1, a summer of Moto GP, Royal Ascot, Eastbourne tennis, domestic T20, Paralympics, Vuelta a España, World T20.

Enjoy your summer.

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