SPOTY: It’s not (just) about the sport

The Sports Personality of the Year show has been brutally attacked by many for turning into a popularity contest. But these people are missing the entire point of the show. It is meant to be a popularity contest. If the sporting world were an American high school, pin up girl Jess Ennis would be prom queen, with the class joker Wiggins charming his way to prom king.

The award is not simply a recognition of sporting prowess: all of the sportsmen and women nominated have impressive collections of silverware already and need no proof of their status as astounding athletes. Instead, the award is about how the people themselves communicate with the public. The word ‘personality’ is key here: the supporters lining the Tour de France finish line in mod suits and stick-on side burns are testament to this. An athlete who jokes about raffle prizes as he is handed the trophy for winning the most prestigious cycling event in history is evidently going to be more popular and more of a sports personality than an athlete who is handed a trophy, smiles, waves, and leaves.

Critics of the ethos of the show have argued that Jessica Ennis achieved far less than athletes such as Mo Farah and Ellie Simmonds because she only won one gold medal at the London Olympics. Only one! However, the criteria for being shortlisted for Sports Personality, ‘represents breadth and depth of UK sports’, pretty much sums up Ennis’s sport. She does seven activities rolled into one, which pretty much ticks the ‘breadth’ box.

Ennis has also been criticised for only being nominated because she was the poster girl of London 2012. But the way I see it, this is exactly the sort of contribution that should be acknowledged: her face encouraged thousands of children to participate in sport and viewing statistics of the heptathlon must have rocketed from the thousands of men watching. Her personality contributed to the brand of the Olympics, giving her a deserved 22% of the vote and second place.

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Claims from disgruntled McIlroy fans that the British public is racist in not voting for the Irish golfer dominate one online thread, to the point where the IRA is mentioned. What these people fail to realise is that McIlroy only obtained under 2% of the vote not because he is Irish, but quite simply because he doesn’t have Bradley Wiggins’ epic sideburns. In actual fact, the last five winners have been Welsh, Northern Irish, Scottish and Manx. The fact is, Wiggo is hilarious. What other sportsman would invite a crowd of 16,000 to a free bar supplied by the BBC? McIlroy would not. That is why he got only 2% of the vote as opposed to Wiggo’s 30%.

What made me laugh the most, however, was the suggestion that Andy Murray should have won the award, rather than coming third with 14% of the vote, despite the operative word of the award title being ‘personality’. I can honestly say that I have seen him smile twice. Actually, one of those was a grimace of pain. This, for me, was the only failing of the show. Fair enough, Murray has done what no other British tennis player has done for generations. However, Tim Henman came second in the award show in 1997 without managing anything like the success that Murray has had this year. People loved him  and voted for him because of his personality, which is what the BBC is celebrating here. It is the sporting world’s equivalent of who has the most likes on their Facebook profile picture, and there is nothing wrong with that.