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Dublin: 16 °C Friday 10 July, 2020

The Magnificent Seven: overlooked sports personalities

On the weekend that the BBC pick their sports personality of the year, Niall Kelly reflects on the ones that got away.

Image: Pa

AS THE BBC’s annual sporting knees-up rolls around once again, Niall Kelly takes a look back at seven of the greats to never win BBC Sports Personality of the Year

1. Lester Piggott

Under normal circumstances, “The Magnificent Seven” deliberately refrains from ranking or imposing any sort of hierarchy on the entries which are presented purely for your amusement and cerebral stimulation.

This week’s first entry is the rare exception which proves the rule. Lester Piggott is at number one, not by fluke or as the consequence of any arbitrary ordering process, but because he is the standout omission from the award’s 56-year history. Period.

Even for those who are far too young to have witnessed Piggott’s sublime talent first-hand, the statistics speak for themselves. In a career which spanned 46 years from 1948 to 1994, Piggott rode a remarkable 4,493 winners, including nine Derbies, eight St Legers, six Oaks, and three Prix de l’Arcs.

Impressive as the enormous figures are, they almost diminish the sheer magnitude of Piggott’s achievement by reducing it to a series of digits.

Each unit of that 4,493 represents a victory over his peers and rivals, each race presenting its own unique challenges and obstacles. It is no mean feat to ride your first winner at Haydock Park at the age of 12. Equally remarkable is the act of guiding a horse to Derby glory at the age of 18, as Piggott did aboard Never Say Die in 1954.

His 1977 Derby victory aboard The Minstrel sums up all that was great about Piggott. It was he who persuaded trainer Vincent O’Brien to give the horse a shot at Epsom, despite a lacklustre showing at the Curragh earlier that season. And it was he who sat poised, stalking his rival Willie Carson aboard Hot Grove before unleashing a perfectly-timed attack to seize victory.

Why Piggott’s career-long achievements have never been acknowledged in the form of a Sports Personality award remains a mystery. Sure, he may have been an unorthodox figure who once stole a whip from a rival jockey mid-race and a convicted tax evader who was ultimately stripped of his OBE.

Whatever the blemishes, Piggott was a legend.

2. James Hunt

Over the years, British Formula One has enjoyed a disproportionate amount of success at the Sports Personality of the Year Awards.  For proof, look no further than the fact that two of the three stars to have won the award twice – Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill – were F1 drivers.

Yet, there still remains the one that got away – 1976 World Champion James Hunt.

While Hunt was by no means the first British driver to triumph on the world stage, he was perhaps the most unexpected. When he joined McLaren at the start of the 1976 season, the 28-year-old Briton had three years’ racing experience with the Hesketh team, yet had only managed to record a single victory during this time.

Initially in 1976, it looked as though Hunt and McLaren would have little opportunity to make an impression, as defending champion Niki Lauda opened the season with seven successive podium finishes in his Ferrari to take control of the drivers’ championship.

Lauda’s campaign would ultimately prove to be the typical season of two halves, however. As the Austrian faded, Hunt capitalized, whittling Lauda’s lead down to a mere three points as they entered the final race of the season in Japan. With Lauda failing to finish, Hunt’s third-place finish was enough to see him bridge the gap, securing the drivers’ championship by a single point.

In any other year, Hunt’s achievement would almost certainly have guaranteed him the Sports Personality award. Timing, however, was everything, and unluckily for Hunt,  1976 happened to be the year of the Winter Olympics. It was at the Innsbruck games that figure-skater John Curry picked up a gold to add to the European title which he had won the previous month.

When Curry completed the set with a gold from the World Championships a month later, he virtually ensured that he would top the public poll at the year’s end, relegating Hunt to second place in the process.

3. Stephen Hendry

Unquestionably one of the greatest players ever to pick up a snooker cue, Stephen Hendry’s name is notable by its absence from the Sports Personality honour roll.

In 1998, teenage prodigy Michael Owen received the award on the basis of an outstanding goal which he scored in a World Cup game which England ultimately lost.

Hendry was not much older when, in the 1989/1990 season, he won the UK Championship, the Dubai Classic, the Asian Open, and both the Scottish and the Wembley Masters before convincingly beating Jimmy White to win his first World Championship.

Unsurprisingly, such a haul was more than sufficient to secure him the number one spot in snooker’s world rankings. To the BBC viewers and voting public, however, it was deemed only to be the second best achievement of the sporting year. It seems that the skill of shedding a few tears on a football pitch in Turin was more worthy of the accolade.

There was ample opportunity to correct this oversight in the years that followed, as Hendry amassed a remarkable seven World Championship wins and remained top of snooker’s rankings  for eight consecutive years.

If one standout year was needed to seal the deal, the 1995/1996 season was surely that. Hendry surprised no one by sweeping the board in snooker’s major tournaments, picking up the UK Championship and Masters titles yet again before adding his fifth consecutive World Championship by convincingly dispatching Peter Ebdon.

Though Hendry’s achievements were given a cursory nod in the form of a BBC Scotland Sports Personality award in 1997, he remains one of the most successful sportsmen never to receive the main prize, an aberration which is unlikely to have caused too many sleepless nights in the Hendry household.

4. Tanni Grey-Thompson

With only a handful of second- and third-place finishes to divvy up between them, jockeys, gymnasts, sailors, and rowers all feel that they have not received their fair share of recognition from the nominating panel over the years.

However legitimate their grievances may be, they pale in comparison to the overlooking of decorated Welsh Paralympian Tanni Grey-Thompson.

Over the course of a massively successful career, Grey-Thompson competed in track events at five successive Paralympic games, winning a total of 16  medals in the process.

Add to this her six victories in the London Marathon as well as a multitude of world records and you begin to get a sense of just how successful Grey-Thompson was.

Remarkable as her five-medal haul at the Barcelona games in 1992 was, it was not until Grey-Thompson bagged four more golds in Sydney in 2000 that the BBC finally sat up and took notice, presenting her with the Helen Rollason Award “for outstanding achievement in the face of adversity”.

When it came to the main prize, however, it appeared that Grey-Thompson was a victim of unfortunate timing. 2000 was always going to be Steve Redgrave’s year, the much-loved rower having won gold at his fifth successive Olympic games before announcing his retirement. Grey-Thompson would have to settle for third place.

While nobody would deny Redgrave a deserved victory, the somewhat uneven nature of the playing field was made evident as the awards were presented.  Despite the fact that Grey-Thompson’s performance should have earmarked her as a genuine contender for the main award, the BBC failed to install a wheelchair ramp which would have allowed her to access the stage to claim her prize, defending its oversight on the grounds that the results were not known until moments before the awards were presented.

5. George Best

Officially, the Sports Personality award is presented in recognition of the sporting individual who “most captured the public’s imagination” in any given year. Understood literally, there can be few more deserving candidates than George Best.

Despite an ostentatious playboy lifestyle which often threatened to intrude on his football career, Best was one of the all-time greats, a truth which was confirmed by his remarkable 1967/68 season for Manchester United.

Although United were unable to successfully defend their league title, Best set the league alight, scoring 28  times in 41  games to finish as joint top scorer and win the Football Writers’ Footballer of the Year Award.

To top it off, it was Best who broke the deadlock against Benfica in extra-time of that season’s European Cup Final, notching his team’s second before driving them on to a 4-1 victory.

Further suffering was to be inflicted on his already-crowded mantelpiece with the addition of European Footballer of the Year Award.

Over the four seasons which followed, Best would add a further 92  goals in all competitions to his tally, a remarkable haul for a player who traditionally plied his trade on the wings.

Despite his undeniable popularity with the public, the Sports Personality award eluded Best. Following his third place finish in 1969, it was widely expected that 1971 would be his year.

However, it seems that everyone forgot to factor in the obsession of the British public and the BBC with all things regal. Best was pipped by the most unlikely of opponents, Princess Anne, whose gold at the 1971 European Eventing Championships was enough to propel her to victory.

6. Tony Jacklin

For those who feel that Graeme McDowell’s success at Pebble Beach will be sufficient to see him awarded the 2010 Sports Personality crown, the fortunes of the last European golfer to win the US Open, Tony Jacklin in 1970, should serve as a cautionary tale.

Despite adding a seven-shot victory on American soil to his victory in The Open Championship the previous year, Jacklin possesses the somewhat dubious honour of finishing as the BBC’s runner-up in both 1969 and 1970.

Whatever about Jacklin’s claim to the award in 1970, the decision to choose Wimbledon Ladies’ Champion Ann Jones over him in 1969 may well have been a mistake, especially considering Jacklin’s involvement earlier that year in one of the most memorable Ryder Cup matches of all time.

With the match between the United States and Great Britain & Ireland at Royal Birkdale tied at 15½-15½ , the fate of the cup hinged on the final match-up between Jacklin and, arguably the number one golfer in the world at the time, Jack Nicklaus.

A hole down as he lined up his putt on the 17th green, Jacklin nervelessly drained a 50-foot monster to level the match going into the final hole.

The events which subsequently transpired on the 18th green have gone down in sporting folklore. As Nicklaus holed out, leaving Jacklin with a two-footer to tie the match, the American picked up his opponent’s marker and conceded the final putt.

Although the act made little tangible difference with the cup destined to return to American irrespective of Jacklin’s putt, “The Concession” has since been regarded as one of the great acts of sportsmanship.

Had the roles been reversed with Jacklin picking up Nicklaus’ marker instead, would success at the 1969 Sports Personality awards been guaranteed for the British golfer?

7. Ellen MacArthur

When it comes to remarkable sporting achievements, there are few more impressive feats than a solo, single-handed circumnavigation of the globe.

More than 70  days alone at sea. Less than 20 minutes of sleep at a time. Round-the-world boat races unquestionably feature among the ultimate tests of individual endurance.

To complete such a challenge once is remarkable. To do so twice is inspiring.

On February 7, 2005, British sailor Ellen MacArthur’s B&Q/Castorama passed the finish line near the French coast at Ushant a mere 71 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes and 33 seconds after she had set out on her voyage.

In doing so, MacArthur set a new world record, an achievement for which she was awarded the title of Dame of the British Empire. And second place in the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year award.

Nor was this the first time that MacArthur had been awarded the runner-up prize by the BBC; in 2001, her second-place finish in the prestigious Vendée Globe race had similarly been overlooked.

On this occasion, the award went to David Beckham, a nominee whose unremarkable season had been distinguished by a single injury-time strike of a dead ball which had allowed England to qualify for the following year’s World Cup in Korea and Japan.

On one hand, a young lady who had spent over three months alone at sea, braving the elements with minimal food and rest. On the other, a man who eventually managed to kick a stationary football to a high degree of accuracy after multiple unsuccessful attempts.


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About the author:

Niall Kelly

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