Of course this means that SPOTY – the irritating shorthand by which the award has come to be known – has approximately sod all to do with sporting personalities, a point that can be well illustrated by a quick glance at past winners which include the likes of Michael Owen, Nigel Mansell, Zara Phillips, Nick Faldo and Damon Hill (TWICE!). While they may well have excelled in their respective sporting fields they hardly lit up our lives with dazzling wit and repartee.
Rather SPOTY (eugh!) is a signifier of sporting achievement: sportsmen and women are judged not on their persona but on the magnitude of their success. Yet because athletes representing a whole number of sports are involved objective criteria are inevitably impossible. Modern codified sports may operate on the basis that success and failure are quantifiable, thus the team that scores the most goals/tries/runs/points is deemed the winner, but how are we supposed to measure the relative merits of success across two or more sports? Is Chris Hoy’s sixth Olympic gold medal a greater accomplishment than Rory McIlroy’s eight-shot victory at the US PGA Championship or Wiggo's Tour and Olympic double more impressive than Mo's long-distance double? Well, don’t ask me, how the bloody hell am I meant to know?
The irony of it all is that, in the main, the shortlist for this year’s award flies in the face of the oxymoronic history of the Sports Personality award. Not only does it contain a number of candidates who you might actually consider to be ‘characters’, it is also chock full of wonderfully interesting biographies. From the Somali asylum seeker (Mo Farah) to the trailblazing female boxer (Nicola Adams) all the way through to the rower who won Olympic gold after three consecutive silvers (Katherine Grainger) there is a wealth of backstory providing a human interest angle to counterbalance the medal count. The selection is also more inclusive than in previous years: five of the shortlist are women, and three are Paralympians.
None of which, unfortunately, gets us any closer to working out who ‘deserves’ the award. And the issue is complicated further by the question of nationalism. Sporting triumphs are assessed by what each person has achieved but are then, in turn, measured against the past successes (and, more accurately, failures) of British sportspeople. So it is not enough to say that Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France, you must say that he is the first Briton to ever win the event. Similarly, one cannot talk of Andy Murray’s victory at the US Open without noting that he is the first British man to win a Grand Slam tournament since Fred Perry some 76 years ago. Thus the line-up of sporting heroes not only competes against each other but also against a country’s sporting history. At one and the same time such comparisons both inflate and diminish the scale of today's success. And all the while politicians argue that sporting glory is a cause for happiness and an indication of the health of the nation.
It is this nationalism, as much as the acronym itself, which makes me baulk at SPOTY. And, in the year of the London Olympics you can expect tonight’s BBC event to be as much an exercise in self-congratulatory backslapping as it is an award ceremony. But as someone once said – I can’t for the life of me remember whether it was Marx or Trotsky – you can’t be neutral on the question of Sports Personality of the Year. Without doubt it’s about time a (non-royal) female athlete won the award again, and it is also an excellent opportunity to mark the success of athletes who competed at the Paralympics. Any socialists tuning in tonight should keep their fingers crossed that either Sarah Storey or Ellie Simmonds will cap 2012 with yet another victory.