What we need right now, I think, is for a vote to work out the way everyone reckoned it would. Post-Brexit, post-Donald Trump, we’re not looking for any more surprises. On 18 December we need Andy Murray to be crowned Sports Personality of the Year.
That’s what should happen, right? The greatest British sportsman of this or any other year scooping the last prize available to him before 2016 ends. Wimbledon champion? Olympic champion? Then climbing to No.1 in the world in his sport – an ascent no less steep than the walk from one end to the other on the average Scottish municipal tennis court not very long ago? These are his credentials and there’s no question that he should win the prize.
But in some minds there probably is. Other athletes came back from Rio with gold medals, including Mo Farah, Max Whitlock, Alistair Brownlee and Nicola Adams. They should be high up the roll-of-honour, sure, but they don’t surpass Murray.
If the contest was being judged objectively by hard-nosed professional adjudicators then I don’t see how a Grand Slam, runner-up in two other Slams, Olympic gold plus enough of these weird-looking trophies from the ATP tour including five in a row to fire him to the Uptown Top Ranking position, can possibly be beaten.
But it’s being judged by the public who might have their own ideas. They may think that having bestowed this honour on Murray twice in the past three years is enough. I don’t.
If Murray deserves an unprecedented three – no-one in the history of the award has ever scored a hat-trick – then three is what he should get. The likes of Farah, Brownlee and the rest would, in any other year, be worthy winners. But they’re not going to want the prize for themselves in this particular year through the punters feeling the need to share the gongs around. They wouldn’t want to win through sympathy votes, or by an extension of the “everyone gets a prize” philosophy at large in schools.
These elite athletes fought against that attitude – the plucky Brit attitude, fostering bridesmaids and, let’s be blunt, losers – throughout their careers to become the best in their respective fields. They are ruthless sluggers and born winners who would accept that Murray’s achievement in 2016 has not simply been about being the best in the world with a racquet, a brilliant drop shot, an even more outrageous backhand topspin lob and a willingness to stay out there for four hours and two minutes – the duration of his Olympic final victory over Juan Martin del Potro – but about him being the greatest of the greatest.
No.1 at tennis for a Brit in any era would be astonishing. No.1 in this era is superhuman so it was fitting that after his most recent success in Paris, the arena’s futuristic furniture enabled him to be photographed as if emerging from a space lab where they can build stupendous tennis super-robots.
Murray, though, was assembled on a funny little planet called Dunblane and then sent out there to joust with Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal. Let’s run through these names again: Djokovic, Federer and Nadal. They comprise the most brilliant epoch in the men’s game there’s ever been. Murray demanded entry to this gilded group and eventually secured it in 2012 when he won his first Slam and first Olympic title (achievements, incidentally, which only got him third place in Sports Personality of the Year). 2016 for Murray tops 2013 and 2015 when he won the prize. But we cannot rescind one of the earlier awards and replace it with Sports Personality for this year out of some silly idea of fairness among the different sports. At the supreme level, sport doesn’t function like that. The BBC, whose award this is, loves diversity. But the prize cannot be diverted anywhere else this year; it just can’t.
Only four men have won Sports Personality twice – Henry Cooper was the first, in 1967 and 1970. Then came Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill prior to Murray’s double. Is his achievement greater than theirs? You shouldn’t compare, although dear old ̓Enry, left, was never king of the world like Murray, while Mansell and Hill, who both were, could follow the paths plotted by two great Scots, Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart. Murray in tennis had to write the book on how to go from a great hope in whites to a bona fide champion; most Brits before him had been nice, polite semi-finalists at best.
Now we come to the “personality” bit and whether it’s important. Murray has taken a long time to endear himself to the nation at large and by that I mean a goodly number in the English Home Counties who aren’t really sports fans as, say, a country like Australia understands the concept, but more than anything want their tennis players to be ideal son-in-law material with sensible haircuts and impeccable manners.
These people used to think that losing sportingly was preferable to winning at all costs and, in their way, have held Britain back out there on the field. But Andy has worn ’em down; they’ve sampled winning and they like it.
On the morning of his elevation to No.1, Murray was the subject of debate on Radio Five Live. The presenter started out by saying he found him “dour” and I thought to myself: bloody hell, here we go again, the best of the planet still isn’t enough for some people. But to be fair to the man he concluded with approval for Murray’s lack of ingratiation, the steadfast refusal to be “bubbly”. In the final reckoning, PR isn’t what matters. What’s important is that he’s winning and this year has done it more often than anyone else.
Is Sports Personality important? It’s a bloated and self-important show for sure but votes for Murray will be further evidence that we’re turning into a grown-up sporting nation who’ve grown bored with the hard-luck tales. Either that or it’s acknowledgement of the fact his fabled Calvinistic reluctance to look like he’ll be appearing on Strictly Come Dancing any time soon still amounts to a personality.
And, by the way, it does.