It's that time of year again.
Stand by your phone, steel yourself for an unprecedented crop of tear-jerking victory montages, and be prepared for the annual surprise of Gary Lineker's latest gloriously spiffy skin-tight shirt. The shortlist for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award 2012 has been announced, an occasion of heightened interest at the end of a year in which British sport has perhaps never shone so brightly. So often disparaged for its air of cosy provincialism – what we might call The Nigel Mansell Years – this time around the BBC's flagship sporting award show can present itself to the world as a celebration of genuinely grand-scale achievement.
Most notably the summer triumphs of the Olympic and Paralympic Games are reflected in the 12-person shortlist for the main award. Of the 12 names only one is not a London Games gold medallist, the golfer Rory McIlroy, who this year won the US PGA Championship and took part in Europe's rousing Ryder Cup victory. It is a depth of excellence that is emphasised by the meritocratic diversity on show: no footballers, cricketers or Formula One drivers are included, despite these sports' disproportionate television coverage and marketing spend. Three Paralympians make the cut and five of the 12 athletes are women.
In this last regard the BBC have taken no chances after last year producing a shortlist without a single female nominee. The list on that occasion was culled from the votes of 27 magazines and newspapers, including those keepers of the Corinthian flame, Zoo and Nuts. This time an expert panel, including the likes of Steven Redgrave and Tanni Grey-Thompson, voted on nominees. Their choices reflect a British sporting year that was both unusually glorious and unusually diverse, with seven of those listed competing in disciplines – sailing, women's boxing, rowing, Paralympic sports – that are almost invisible outside of the Olympic cycle.
The winner of the main award will be decided by public vote during the usual mob-handed live BBC1 show, with this year's bonanza edition to be broadcast in front of 15,000 people at the ExCeL Arena. As ever ahead of time there will be the usual arguments over what, exactly, the public is supposed to be voting for here, albeit the familiar barbs about use of the word "personality" in this context will be absent, that distinctive quality of home counties chumminess having been diluted in recent years – notwithstanding the triumph of royal sycophancy that helped Zara Phillips win the main award in 2006.
Instead the debate this year is about the nuances of achievement. In terms of sheer, unrepeatable sporting excellence the bookies' favourite Bradley Wiggins stands out. No Englishman had previously won the Tour de France, the greatest sporting endurance event. A subsequent gold medal in the men's time trial at London 2012 makes for an unignorable set of laurels. There are other competing extremes too: Andy Murray is the most globally renowned athlete on the list, a first British male tennis grand slam winner since Fred Perry and also a gold medallist this summer. For a one-off spike of individual excellence it is hard to cap Jessica Ennis being crowned the world's greatest female track and field athlete in winning Olympic heptathlon gold. In terms of success in the face of adversity the Paralympians David Weir, Ellie Simmonds and Sarah Storey provide an obvious headline turn. For longevity the list offers Chris Hoy and Ben Ainslie, one the most prolific British Olympic gold medallist ever, the other the most successful sporting sailor anywhere. Second favourite for the main award behind Wiggins, Mo Farah can already claim to be the greatest ever British long distance runner after his extraordinarily rousing gold medal performances at 5,000m and 10,000m in August.
If this is perhaps the most triumphantly garlanded lineup of nominees in the award's history it is no surprise this should be the case in the year of a home Olympics that athletes have been gearing themselves towards for seven years, sped along by unprecedentedly large targeted funding via the national lottery. In this regard there is an argument that both the shortlist and the grandeur of the Spoty awards show itself reflect what is increasingly the dynamic of British sport: well-funded elite achievement, twinned with an under-resourced and non-participatory wider public. Ten of the 12-strong shortlist were eligible for lottery funding, while Wiggins, portrayed so often as the outsider Kid from Kilburn, does also benefit from the resources of the cycling giant Team Sky.
For now, though, broader questions such as these will have to wait. So often an occasion of rather forced in-house gaiety, this year the BBC's venerable old sporting awards show – 68 years old in December – is instead an occasion to perform a celebratory double-take on a year of genuine and perhaps unrepeatable sporting riches.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Bradley Nikolaj
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