IN 1997, Greg Rusedski was named BBC Sports Personality of the Year after losing the final of the US Open. This year Andy Murray, who actually won the US Open, may not even finish in the top three.
That is how competitive the voting is for the 2012 award, the winner of which will be announced live on BBC 1 tomorrow night. And that in turn is a sign of how phenomenally successful the year has been for British sport.
Murray, the first British man to win a Grand Slam title in 76 years, is by no means the only contender whose triumphant achievement is likely to be overlooked. Ben Ainslie, who won his fourth consecutive Olympic sailing title at London 2012, is expected to be closer to the bottom of the list than the top. And our most decorated Olympian of all time, Sir Chris Hoy, is also out of the running according to the bookmakers, although in his case that must be partly attributed to the fact that he won the award four years ago in the wake of the Beijing Games.
So whoever wins, millions of viewers are sure to feel a sense of injustice, believing that the achievements of their favourites have been unfairly overlooked.
But let’s face it: better by far to have experienced a year like this one and to be mildly disgruntled for a couple of hours one evening in December, than to live in less successful times and have just enough highlights to fill a single programme.
A look back on the podium places since the title was first awarded back in 1954 shows there have indeed been some extremely unsuccessful times over the past half-century and more. No disrespect to each and every winner, who all no doubt excelled in their own disciplines, but was athlete Dorothy Hyman really the greatest British sportsperson of 1963?
Or how about Princess Anne eight years later? Or cricketer David Steele in 1975? Michael Owen scored a brilliant goal in 1998, at the World Cup for England against Argentina, but did that really mean he deserved to win the title?
And those are just the winners. When we look at those who came second and third, there are a fair number whose contribution can best be described as fleeting. Show jumpers Paddy McMahon and Marion Coakes, for instance, are no longer household names, if they ever were.
So when the announcement is made tomorrow night, let us not dwell on any perceived injustice. Instead, let’s just wallow, one more time, in the glories of the past 12 months.
For Murray. it was the year when his promise was realised, and he at last won that elusive major title. He had always said that the US Open was the most probable tournament to provide that first win, and so it proved – although Wimbledon played a significant part, in two respects. First, the Scot had to swallow the disappointment of losing to Roger Federer in the final. Then, a mere 18 days later, he could celebrate victory over the same player in the Olympic singles final – a vital stepping stone to that triumph at Flushing Meadows.
For Hoy, this was the summer when he cemented his status as one of the true greats in our sporting history. He entered London 2012 with four Olympic golds to his name: he left a fortnight later with six.
Ainslie, like Hoy, gave further proof of his greatness this year. A silver medallist in Atlanta 1996 while still a teenager, he won gold at the three following Games, but seemed to have slipped out of contention at the halfway point of this year’s Finn class. Then, angered by the way his two leading rivals had ganged up on him, he stormed back to claim the hardest-won victory, but also the most satusfying, of his career.
Like Ainslie, Katherine Grainger has been at or near the top of her sport for well over a decade, but in her case these Olympics were a triumph for a different kind of perseverance. Having come second at the past three Games, she could have been forgiven for concluding that the greatest prize would always elude her. Instead, finding in Anna Watkins the perfect rowing partner, she claimed gold with what looked like consummate ease on the waters of Eton Dorney.
For Bradley Wiggins, too, Olympic gold seemed almost automatic, so dominant was he in the time trial. By that time, of course, he had become the first Briton to win the Tour de France, an achievement which on its own would have put him among the favourites to be named Sports Personality. The double triumph has made him the favourite.
After injury ruled her out of Beijing, Jessica Ennis had a long wait before proving herself the best all-round sportswoman on the planet in the heptathlon. She also had to cope with the pressure of being the face of the Games, the member of Team GB who, above all others, was expected to deliver. She did so emphatically, destroying the opposition on an unforgettable night in which British athletes won three golds in an hour.
Mo Farah and long-jumper Greg Rutherford were the other two that Saturday, and Farah was back a week later to complete the long-distance double. An immensely popular figure, he is rated third favourite behind Wiggins and Ennis.
The Games ended the day after Farah’s second win, but the action at Olympic Park soon resumed when the Paralympics got under way. David Weir, who in the spring had won his sixth London Marathon. claimed three golds in the stadium and a fourth – the marathon, of course, on the road.
Over in the Olympic pool, 17-year-old Ellie Simmonds took two golds to match her tally from Beijing. Named BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year in 2008, she has also won ten world championship titles in her career.
Sarah Storey, who won swimming gold at the Paralympics as long ago as 1992, claimed four more cycling titles this year to add to the two she won in China in 2008. Her individual pursuit gold – Britain’s first of the Paralympics – was especially memorable, as she caught her opponent before the halfway mark of the 3,000-metre race.
Back at the Olympics, there was also a first for boxer Nicola Adams. Women’s boxing was at last included on the programme for these Games, and the flyweight took the first title on offer.
In such company, US PGA champion Rory McIlroy might easily feel he has become embroiled in an unfair fight, one in which he is outnumbered 11 to one: all the others on the dozen-strong shortlist are Olympians and Paralympians. The golfer from Northern Ireland should at least be able to call on some moral support from his Ryder Cup team-mates, who may well end up with a collective title of their own following that unforgettable comeback at Medinah.
In another year, McIlroy would surely find himself among the favourites for the main award, but, as we know, 2012 has been a lot more than just another year. And at least he made it on to the shortlist: notables to be missed out entirely include cyclists Laura Trott and Jason Kenny, both Olympic winners, and Paralympics sprint champion Jonny Peacock.
• The winner will be announced during tomorrow’s live show on BBC One. Presented by Sue Barker, Gary Lineker and Clare Balding from the ExCel Arena in London, Sports Personality of the Year will be broadcast live on BBC One, BBC One HD and BBC Radio 5 live from 7.30pm.