Sports Personality of the Century

Sunday, December 12, 1999 by

The importance of sport in our society is rarely properly scrutinised. It is without question that we believe sporting stories are appropriate subject matter for our news vessels, sitting without incongruity beside matters of life and death. But then again, we often view our sport in Bill Shankly terms.

Tonight’s celebration of a century of sporting achievement provoked memories unshackled from any particular sporting arena. There was a gamut of emotion on display. The emotional symbolism still bound up in Muhammad Ali played out again tonight as John Inverdale rather foolhardily attempted to seek erudition from six of his successors. An awkward silence concluded this section of the programme as Ryder failed to find his cue and Inverdale tried to decide whether a fill was appropriate. Only Ali seemed unconfused. Yet, this was not the only occasion that presenters missed their cues, or VT editors delayed in running the next montage. On one occasion the overseas Sports Personality of the Year (no less) got no further than “I would like to say …” before Clare Balding decided it was time to introduce the snooker. Predictably, Des Lynam was conspicuous by his absence.

Hyperbole abounds in sports reporting, so it was refreshing to hear Inverdale describe this year’s Rugby World Cup final as “drab”. In fact, predictably, Inverdale’s interviews were easily the most engaging, displaying his ability to ask questions designed to unveil a little more of the sportsman’s thought process. He always displayed an ability to consider sporting achievements within their appropriate context. Yet most other matters tonight were dealt with as affairs of state. Clips were accompanied not by pop music (as is current tradition), but classical music. The Manchester United montage contained byte after byte of news reports. Tellingly, this section betrayed a little of this decade’s biggest British sports story, as radio commentary was tagged to footage from other places than the BBC archive.

John MacEnroe (another straight talker) regaled us with his reminiscences (1980: “It taught me a lesson – I got more respect for losing than winning”) and gushed still with his passion for tennis. Yet, once again, Ali’s presence was felt even in this most traditional of sports. As the night continued it was the sporting figures that had stoked controversy that emerged as the real heroes; MacEnroe, Alex Higgins, Piggott; the mercurial geniuses or controversialists, not the hoarders of titles and trophies. Yet there is no inconsistency here. This programme is deliberately titled to ensure that it is the personalities that are celebrated and assessed (after all an award for best Sportsman not personality would be as nonsensical as an attempt to rate Lennon, Picasso and Joyce). As usual, this was an occasion for the BBC to position themselves at the heart of British heritage. The awards were prefigured with the usual stock BBC music, and pomp. Yet it was difficult not to question their significance.

Finally, Best, Bradman, Nicklaus and Owens, paled in front of Ali (he amassed more votes then the others combined) as Sports Personality of the Century. His frailty was as affecting as you would expect it to be. The applause was obvious and long, and his speech shaken. Why bring him here to collect this? In a night of uncomfortable moments this was the most uncomfortable.


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