You can probably remember at least one thing that went wrong when the itinerant Sports Personality of the Year ceremony rocked up in Liverpool last year; a presenting gaffe, an erroneous montage, La La Land winning team of the year: you know, that sort of thing.
The chances are that it involved Mo Farah, who finally took home the prize gong after years of nominations but loveless luck in the public vote. It probably involved him being upstaged by his restless infant son; or, perhaps, it was the absence of Farah altogether that sticks in the mind, since a video link announcing his surprise victory suffered a sudden power outage, leaving the BBC camera crew working overdrive to fill the space with a myriad of audience close-ups, and scrambling twitter users everywhere to their Sky+ remotes to decipher exactly what Farah’s brand new coach Gary Lough thought was a ‘fucking joke’.
That’s the slapstick of the occasion, but it was also a year where the unwritten rulebook was thrown out of the Echo Arena; the carefully scripted spectacle thrown into chaos on a night where a motorcycle rider usurped the golden boy of boxing, an inspiring Paralympian was rightly garlanded, but the female nominees undeservedly filled the final four placings.
Casting an eye down the roll of honour, ever since the award began in 1954, the achievements have never seemed to translate linearly to success. ‘54 of course was the year that Roger Bannister flew round the Iffley track to clock the mythical 4-minute mile, but his pacemaker on the day, Christopher Chataway, was honoured at the awards after success at the European Championships.
In the era of a post-millennium medal explosion, the Olympics continue to sink their claws into the public vote every four years, the scale and the prestige and the sacrifices (and the legacy) casting clear light on the anointed people’s champion. Steve Redgrave, Kelly Holmes, Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins have all triumphed in years of feel-good global success.
But elsewhere, what exactly are we looking for in our Sports Personality of the Year? Maybe that’s the beauty of the award: the ambiguity and the freedom to ascribe a personal meaning to each vote; the ability of the award to capture a snapshot of the public’s sporting appreciation in the moment, even if it may seem quizzical to a student journalist in twenty years’ time.
It is just as conceivable, however, that last year’s whirlwind was the shot in the arm needed to modernise and to adapt to a generation where sports fans are increasingly a social media hivemind: a congregation asserting judgements on anything or anyone, a public forum where everything from Owen Farrell’s tackling technique to Marouane Fellaini’s haircut are scrutinised and disputed, and where Jack Wilshere wins goal of the season, every season.
The modern sports fan has an opinion on everything and their own personal feed on which to express it, no matter how articulate or reasoned, venomous or targeted. Typing “Harry Kane Sports Personality” into the twitter search bar is seemingly a hard-wired shortcut into observing the full spectrum first hand. It’s cringing to imagine the online bar brawls hosted on Twitter had it been around in 1997 when Greg Rusedski ousted Tim Henman to win the award: the two rival British tennis legions going racquet and tong.
And so, this is the playing field for a vote that has always held its own pocket of prominence late in the sporting calendar as a topic of conversation, but that faces eroding in greater context at the mercy of the internet. How does it evolve into a truly venerable award worth winning again, and not merely a reflection of who was campaigned online most effectively?
The signs are proactive, as for the first time, this year the nominees will be announced on the night, at least re-integrating a lost element of spontaneity, but social media will always be fertile ground, and for votes with more significant standing, too.