On Sunday night the annus mirabilis of British sport will conclude with one of 12 contenders being crowned BBC Sports Personality of the Year. The famous trophy – a silver-plated camera on a tripod with the name of each winner engraved on individual shields attached to the plinth – has always been prestigious. But never more so than in 2012, a year of unprecedented sporting success.
In the year that London hosted the Olympics and Paralympics, Britain far exceeded its medal expectations. So Jessica Ennis raced to a glorious gold in the heptathlon, Ellie Simmonds won four Paralympic medals in the pool, Mo Farah became the first Brit to win the 5,000m and 10,000m double, David Weir sprinted to four wheelchair golds, Ben Ainslie clinched his fourth consecutive sailing gold, Chris Hoy became Britain's most successful Olympian with six golds, Nicola Adams became our first ever female boxing champion, and on it went. There was a time in August when David Bowie's Heroes seemed to ring out on an hourly basis over east London.
This was also the year Andy Murray became the first British man to win a tennis grand slam in 76 years (not forgetting his Olympic gold) and Rory Mcllroy won the USA PGA championship by a record eight strokes. In most years any of these feats would have been enough to win the award. But not 2012. According to the bookies the overwhelming favourite is Bradley Wiggins, first Brit to win the hideously tough Tour de France, who followed up with Olympic gold in the time trial. Jessica Ennis, poster girl for the Olympics and fifth in Google's top 10 trending people for 2012, is third favourite with most bookies.
There is no money attached to the unappealingly acronymed Spoty, but there is a load of kudos. Voted for by the public, it is the ultimate recognition for any sportsman or woman. It can appear unseemly for candidates to be seen to be overtly presidential about campaigning – pressing flesh, kissing babies, begging for votes – but make no mistake they want to win.
It's at this time of year that any number of interviews with candidates appear when they have nothing obvious to sell apart from their sincerity.
A couple of weeks ago Mo Farah was on the road trying to get a Christmas number one with his Do the Mobot single, championing his charity, and mentioning to anybody who'd listen how much he'd love to win Spoty. "It would mean so much to win it," he said. "It would be massive, of course it would." We could have a contract put out on Wiggins, I suggested to the second favourite. He grinned. "Nah, it's just up to the public. As an athlete I did what I had to do, and that's it. Then the phone lines are open."
Perhaps the most brazen campaigner was Kelly Holmes back in 2004 after she won double gold in Athens. Eight years ago I interviewed her when she was on the final run-in to being named Spoty. Vote, vote, vote for Holmes – she made no bones about it. Ostensibly, she was promoting her book, but really the only thing of interest to her was winning Spoty. "It's the greatest honour a sportsperson can be given in the country. So for me to win that would just top off my year completely," she said at the time. "If you think my two gold medals and years and years of dedication are worth voting for, then I'll be very grateful," she told me in no uncertain terms. As we parted, she rammed home her message. "Don't-for-get-to-vote-for-me," she said, poking me in the chest with each syllable.
"Bradley campaigning? You've got to be joking," laughed his agent, Jonathan Marks. After all, Wiggo's reputation rests on his cool. "I think he'd break our knees if he thought we were actively campaigning for him because it's so opposed to what he innately believes in; you do it on merit. He'd feel desperately uncomfortable if there was a sense of the public being coerced or manipulated. And sometimes it can be quite ugly." In what way? "A lot of campaigning is done by commercial partners. If you're enhancing an asset you've bought into you can see why they do it. But Bradley's only commercial partner is Fred Perry, and it's not really their style." Having said that, Marks added, Wiggins would love to win.
Many all-time greats have won Spoty – from England's World Cup-winning captain Bobby Moore to Henry Cooper, Sebastian Coe, Ian Botham, Daley Thompson, Steve Redgrave and Andrew Flintoff. Sometimes the award throws up surprises, not least when the winners are notably lacking in personality. Cooper is one of three two-time winners – the others are dullish Formula One drivers Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill.
RBS has sponsored Andy Murray since he was 13. Media manager David Gaffney said the bank might have been more keen on making capital out of Spoty a few years ago, but not any more. "Post-bailout we changed the way we did sponsorship. We thought it wasn't right for us to spend loads of money promoting a brand. In bygone days, we might have lobbied and seen it as opportunity to get brand exposure. The bank was growing aggressively, and we were looking for global profile. Andy was useful because he was a globally recognised athlete, achieving on world scale."
Today, said Gaffney, RBS's branding would have more humility to it. So Murray's campaign is about working at grassroots in the community with his programme Set For Sport. "Everything we do now is about getting kids and parents to visit the website." If Murray won, Gaffney said, it would be great for RBS, but not in a way it could or would want to monetise. "The metrics by which we judge success is by how many people participate rather than increased global exposure."
When jockey AP McCoy was shortlisted for Spoty two years ago, the racing industry got right behind him. Racing For Change, a body set up to boost awareness of racing among the non-racing public, campaigned ferociously. "Racing had never won in Sports Personality of the Year's 56-year history at that time, and we thought it should," said spokesman Nick Attenborough. The first thing Racing For Change did was encourage the Spoty panel to nominate him. "We tried to educate them about why McCoy was so special; we wanted to show how somebody who has ridden 3,000 winners, starves himself to death every day and has broken pretty much every bone in his body is extraordinary. Then the next thing we had to do was convince the public to vote for him."
How did it do that? "We printed lifesize cardboard cutouts of him and put them on racecourses, and there was a sash on it saying 'Vote McCoy'. Small quirky things like that. Ladbroke's did a viral email campaign, and one or two racecourses took unsponsored races on telly and called them 'Vote McCoy Handicap Stakes". Did it have a knock-on effect? "We certainly think so. The following year's Grand National had an extra million viewers, and racecourse attendances were a record last year."
For Dominic Curran, deputy managing director of sponsorship agency Synergy, the main value of winning Spoty is for the individual rather than the industry or sponsor. After all, once you win it you're up there with the best.
"The show is something we grew up with, something you remember watching when you were a kid. Sports people themselves are often the greatest historian of their own discipline. One of the things winners always do when they pick it up is look at previous winners. That must be such a moment, being there with your own heroes. So I think its value is more in personal branding than for commercial reasons."
Multiple Paralympic medallist Ellie Simmonds said she couldn't wait for Sunday night – being at London's ExCel centre for the live televised show with friends and fellow achievers, celebrating their special year. "There are three Paralympians in the top 12. That is incredible. It's never happened before." What would it mean if a Paralympian won? "Everything. It would show we were up there with the Olympics."
Had she been campaigning? "British Swimming are doing stuff; they are putting the hashtag #voteforellie on Twitter." If she won, she said, she's bound to embarrass herself by crying. "I'm so emotional, it's awful." But, she said, that's getting ahead of herself. She's convinced that Wiggins will win. "My choice would be Bradley because of what he's done. Tour de France is so gruelling, winning it so hard, and he's the first Brit. Then coming to a home Olympic games and the expectation to get gold and he did. Amazing. And he's got a great personality."
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Fighting Irish 1977
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