The BBC Sports Personality of The Year award is without doubt the most acutely Christmassy of all sporting gong shows: family-friendly, centred around the TV, and most of all likely to end up with everybody arguing.
The award will be televised live from the corporation's new HQ in Salford on Thursday, and once again it has proved a divisive affair. The furore generated by the production of a 10-strong all-male main award shortlist seems certain to cast an awkward shadow over the ceremony.
There are other, more specialised sources of potential rancour, however. The destiny of the main award has already become a matter of keenly fought sporting parochialism, most notably in the aggressive viral marketing campaign promoting the claims of Mark Cavendish – favourite and a worthy winner – being staged by British Cycling, Cycling Weekly and the sport's diffuse but passionate support.
Cycling's governing body has been unashamedly vigorous in championing Cavendish, setting up a campaign website with a clock ticking down to the start of voting and urging its readers to Tweet in support with the hashtag £CAV4SPOTY (one account alone sent at least 60 Cavendish tweets in the space of half an hour on Monday night). British Cycling has also provided a downloadable "Cav Mask", which can be cut out and worn "in a cool landmark or just chilling at home" and posted on its web page.
Such mobilisations of support are becoming the norm: last year AP McCoy become the first jockey to win, helped in part by a co-ordinated campaign involving letters of support to newspaper editors, "AP McCoy needs you!" posters at racecourses around Britain and a similarly concerted twanging of social media networks.
This kind of direct action has grey areas. As happened last year some of the other sports represented – and there are five in golf, athletics, boxing, tennis and cricket – have privately questioned the appropriateness of such electioneering, while some athletes will no doubt be wondering why their own governing bodies have not done the same. For all its cosiness the award is big business, not only in terms of attendant sponsorial rewards for its winners, but for sports competing for profile and funding. There are also rules on this kind of thing: in 1991 Angling Times campaigned so energetically for the champion fisherman Bob Nudd to win the award that Nudd was disqualified from competing.
Rod Ellingworth, a former British Cycling coach and now race coach for Team Sky, has worked more closely than most with Cavendish. Unsurprisingly, he supports the campaign. "What matters most to us in cycling is recognition in a non-Olympic year," he says. "That would be a massive step forward in the bigger vision of making our sport more visible in the UK. People like to have a grumble but every sport needs to push, things go round in circles and this is cycling's time. The fact is Mark is a true personality, he wears his heart on his sleeve. It's his time and he deserves it."
This is the nub of Cavendish's claims on the award: in a year otherwise devoid of outstanding popular successes he is a genuine superstar of his sport. Nick Bull of Cycling Weekly has been instrumental in the magazine's own aggressive campaign to encourage voting for Cavendish. Three years ago, when Chris Hoy won the award (the second cyclist winner after Tom Simpson in 1965), Cycling Weekly urged Hoy fans to get three of their friends to vote with them. "This year it's five friends," Bull says. "It is simply because Cavendish deserves it. His achievements this year are stunning. People often miss the significance of winning the green jersey at the Tour de France. They think: 'Why isn't he winning the whole tour?' But that's like saying why doesn't Usain Bolt win the marathon. If Cavendish was French or Italian they would worship him. He is a phenomenon."
Behind him, the bookmakers place the surprise Open champion, Darren Clarke, and the world 5,000m champion, Mo Farah, as the second and third favourites.
Should Cavendish win, Thursday night could bring even more good news for cycling's mobilised militants. Among the favourites for Young Sports Personality of the Year is the junior road race world champion, Lucy Garner. A cyclist and a woman: she really would be a popular winner.
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