HERE’S a great pub quiz question: how many Scots have won the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year in the award’s 58-year history?
The answer is just four: Chris Hoy (2008); Liz McColgan (1991); Jackie Stewart (1973); swimmer Ian Black (1958).
Black also came third the following year, making him, apparently, our most successful sports personality of all time, which isn’t hard because runners-up spots have been even harder to come by than winner’s gongs. Swimmer Bobby McGregor (1963), Formula One driver Jim Clark (1965) and Stephen Hendry (1990) are Scotland’s only runners-up, while Jim Clark (1963), David Wilkie (1975 and 1976), Kenny Dalglish (1986), Sandy Lyle (1988), Colin McRae (1995) and Andy Murray (2012) are the only Scots to have finished in third place.
All of which means that there are several obvious absentees.
Where, for instance, is Olympic 100 metres gold medallist Allan Wells? The answer is that, in 1980, he finished behind Olympic gold medal-winning ice skater Robin Cousins, second-placed Seb Coe, who won gold and silver at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and gold-medal winning decathlete Daley Thompson. Looking back now, it’s the sporting equivalent of Ultravox’s Vienna being kept off the top of the charts by Joe Dolce’s Shaddap You Face.
There are any number of Scots who could, or even should, have been in the picture – boxer Ken Buchanan, golf’s Colin Montgomerie and cyclist Graeme Obree spring to mind. But, in fairness, the vagaries of the Beeb’s selection process affect all nationalities. It seems incredible, for instance, that, in 1971, when the British Lions became the first side to win a series against the All Blacks in New Zealand, the undisputed standout player Barry John finished third behind Princess Anne and George Best. It was a non-Olympic year when Manchester United finished eighth in the league.
And can you imagine how James Hunt felt when he finished behind figure-skater John Curry after having just won one of the most remarkable Formula One world championship campaigns of all time? Or how world champion Stephen Hendry felt when beaten into second place by Gazza on the basis that the Geordie cried at Italia ’90? Although that was a rare case of the award actually being won on the basis of personality rather than performance.
The list goes on and on, and includes the strange case of Bob Nudd, the angler who got a winning total of more than 100,000 votes in 1991, only to be disqualified because he had benefited from a concerted campaign by Angling Times, thus giving McColgan a clear run.
Not all of the strange choices have been in the dim and distant past, however. How, for example, could Mo Farah not even make the top three last year after bringing the house down while winning two golds on the track at the London Olympics? And how could cyclist Mark Cavendish’s admittedly impressive stage wins on the Tour de France be enough to win him the main prize in 2011, beating golfer Darren Clarke just months after he had won an emotional first major at Royal St George’s? And why do the bookies believe that Chris Froome’s remarkable Tour de France win earlier this year may not even be enough to get him on the SPOTY podium tonight?
The recent Scottish Sports Awards gave a foretaste of the difficulty when it comes to comparing competitors from different sports.
Andy Murray was always going to win for a third consecutive year, but his three rivals were all entitled to ask what they could feasibly have done to increase their chances, short of competing in a different sport. Eve Muirhead led a Scotland curling team which was the undisputed best in the world, which won the world championship, got to the final of the European Championships and became the first non-Canadians to win back-to-back grand slams.
Boxer Ricky Burns retained his world title after going ten rounds with a broken jaw while, after winning gold at last year’s Olympics, canoeist David Florence completed the unprecedented feat of becoming world champion in both the single and double classes. And pity poor Scott Brash, the showjumper from Peebles who recently became the first Scot to become world No.1 (no one else has even come close) yet wasn’t even nominated.
Of course, no one is suggesting that Murray didn’t deserve to win the Scottish Sports Personality of the Year, or that he won’t merit the same status if he is anointed by the BBC this evening as the odds of 1-20 suggest he will (although Jenson Button was also a hot favourite in 2009, only to be pipped by Ryan Giggs). The Scot’s straight-sets Wimbledon win was an iconic moment that left a nation rapt, with his last set against Novak Djokovic 2013’s most watched television moment, with 17.3 million viewers.
Yet spare a thought for some of the likely losers. Ben Ainslie has won gold at the last four Olympics and this year masterminded arguably the most stunning comeback in sporting history when he took over the Oracle boat in the middle of the America’s Cup and turned around a seemingly hopeless 8-1 deficit to win 9-8. Yet one bookie is offering odds of 800-1 on him becoming the first yachtsman to win. The same goes for Froome and second favourite Tony McCoy, who has ridden an unprecedented 4,000 winners and has been champion jockey for 18 consecutive years.
Although he ticks two boxes in that he is a man competing in a solo sport, it’s also true that Murray’s likely triumph will come in the face of the fact that Scots rarely win the trophy, and the fact that tennis has not traditionally been adept at mobilising its constituency to vote. That may have something to do with the fact that British tennis stars have been in short supply of late, although Greg Rusedski won in 1997 on the back of a US Open final appearance, while Virginia Wade won SPOTY in 1977, the year she won Wimbledon, and Ann Jones won in 1969 after winning Wimbledon.
Yet none of the event’s manifest flaws will bother Murray this evening as he makes what is likely to be another deadpan recorded acceptance speech from his Miami base. This is one year that no one will ever look back on as an aberration.