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Sport's apples and pears comparison season

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Matt Slater | 11:20 UK time, Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Who is better, The Beatles, Miles Davis or Mozart? Come on, that's easy.

How about Alfred Hitchcock versus Woody Allen? Picasso v Rembrandt? Or, to make things really complicated, Rembrandt v Hitchcock v The Beatles?

Better at what, I bet you are asking. Or you are wondering how anybody can make comparisons across such different art forms, eras and genres.

Yet millions of you will watch the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year show next month, with many dialling in to say you think a remarkable cyclist is better than a superb cricketer, or a champion golfer is superior to a great runner.

So comparisons might be odious but it seems we cannot help it.

Tom Daley

British diver Tom Daley won a SportsAid award at the SportsBall in 2007, aged 12. Photo: Getty

Last month, I was invited to take part in the decision over who should win SportsAid's 2011 One-to-Watch Award. Having not been consulted on the colour of my own sitting room or what I am doing for Christmas, I was enormously chuffed and said yes.

Then the shortlist of nominees arrived and I started to worry what my contribution to the debate would be, beyond suggesting we spoof for it, England rugby team-style.

Clearly, this would not do. The chosen 13-strong group of mainly teenagers deserved better. They deserved somebody who could assess complicated criteria, weigh up apparently incomparable attributes and reach objective judgements. Frankly, they deserved my wife but she was busy.

So it was with some trepidation that I arrived at SportsAid's HQ for a power lunch of sandwiches, crisps and serious chat about which junior world champion was better than the other.

As it happened, I need not have worried. The conversation was informed and lively but surprisingly consensual. Having started with what looked like an impossible task, my fellow judges and I soon arranged our print-outs into something like an orderly pile and announced a winner.

But before I say who that was and how we got there, I should say a bit more about SportsAid and who these nominees were.

Set up in 1976, SportsAid has dished out more than £30m in grants to the most gifted British youngsters across almost 70 sports.

An award from the charity is usually the first financial support an aspiring star ever receives and SportsAid's roll of honour reads like Jerry Maguire's Christmas card list - 18 of Team GB's 19 gold medallists in Beijing were helped along their way with a cheque to pay for that nice little run-around that got them to training, that pricey piece of kit or first overseas training camp.

Just how important this help is in an Olympian's career becomes apparent when you see how many of the alumni turn up for fundraisers, such as the annual ball.

That is when the winner of the One-to-Watch gong is announced and recent recipients include diving dynamo Tom Daley and sprint sensation Jodie Williams.

Which brings me to this year's crop, a heart-warmingly eclectic mix of sporting talent as you will find anywhere in the world.

They were, in alphabetical order:

- Sally Brown, 16, para athletics
- Desiree Henry, 16, athletics
- Joel Knight, 16, swimming
- Crystal Lane, 26, para cycling
- Jess Leyden, 16, rowing
- Phillip Marsh, 16, fencing
- Kieran Martin, 16, windsurfing
- Rebecca Martin, 15, archery
- Pamela Relph, 21, rowing
- Lauren Taylor, 17, golf
- Megan Viggars, 17, volleyball
- Rhys Walker, 17, badminton
- Jemima Yeats-Brown, 16, judo

A baker's dozen chosen from a long list of 70 of the 2,000 athletes SportsAid has funded this year. Those 70 were proposed by the national governing bodies of the sports in which they compete and it was now the panel's responsibility to pick one.

That august body was comprised of experts from the English Institute of Sport, Sport England, SportsAid and UK Sport, the BBC's voice of athletics Paul Dickenson, double world rowing champion Sarah Winckless and Sir Alex Ferguson's favourite interviewer, me.

I would like to think we all brought our own unique set of skills to the table but I suspect I was invited under the mistaken belief I would take good notes.

Strictly Come Dancing judges

The BBC's Strictly Come Dancing panellists judge celebrity performances. Photo: BBC

So how did we do it? Well, given that among those 13 we had three world junior champions, three European junior champions and four British junior champions, it was not easy. Particularly, when some of those "lesser" champions did not have a world championship to aim for in 2011 and won pretty much everything they entered. Like I said, apples and pears.

But the crisps were not going to last forever so we had to find a way to narrow down our choices to a more manageable number. To do this we looked at a range of criteria, starting with the recommendations we had received from their governing bodies and finishing with their results on the global stage.

In between those points, we were looking for progression and tangible evidence of their ability to translate their promise into the senior ranks.

All of us on the panel tackled this in our own way and some of my colleagues knew considerably more about the merits of each performance than I did. So I tried to think about it in terms of "newsworthiness", if that is a real word: which of these performances would grab a listener, reader or viewer's attention?

That is why I went for Northern Ireland's Sally Brown. I can't say why the others went for her too, but they did, and she was our unanimous winner.

Sally was born missing her left hand and part of her arm but has overcome that to become a phenomenal sprinter.

Aged only 15 at the time, the Londonderry-born athlete earned a bronze medal in the 200m at the International Paralympic Committee World Championships in New Zealand in January. It was her senior debut.

She then followed that up by winning a bronze medal in the 100m of the Paralympic World Cup and winning gold and silver at the junior world championships. Sally is considered good enough to perhaps one day emulate Oscar Pistorius and compete against able-bodied athletes.

Her world-class talent seemed pretty obvious to me and it required less of a leap of faith to see Sally with her sport's highest prize draped around her neck than the other nominees.

Others may see it differently and I will be intrigued to see how the Beeb's Young SPOTY panel makes its judgement next month. Sally and British Amateur Women's Golf Championship winner Lauren Taylor make that shortlist from the SportsAid selection but they are now up against the bigger names of Tom Daley and tennis starlet Laura Robson.

Having agonised over this kind of thing already recently, I am more than happy to duck that choice. And I will not be phoning in on 22 December. Probably. I think.

And as well as my blogs, you can follow me when I'm out and about at


  • Comment number 1.


  • Comment number 2.

    The BBC are shocking. Whilst your enjoying your Party in December you actually are failing to provide a decent roster of sport. Its all well and good talking about it...

  • Comment number 3.

    John, did you even read the article?

    I think it was a great read Matt...

  • Comment number 4.

    Good read matt, very enjoyable.

    A good light-hearted insight into how these awards are chosen. I mist admit that I don't watch a lot of youth sport but it is nice to know the upcoming stars of british sport.

    Do you know what Sally will be doing next with the money she will have been granted?

  • Comment number 5.

    four... now five comments!!

    Obviously this bog has not got people going

    Probably because its about sports personality of the year which is one of the "must avoids" in the BBCs calender

  • Comment number 6.

    Six comments, averageBBC_journalist.

    But you're right, this one hasn't "got people going" but then it's not about Manchester United. It also hasn't got a picture slot on the front page of the site, which is pretty crucial in driving traffic.

    I also think this blog, which I never expected to get more than a dozen comments, sheds some light on yesterday's furore about the men-only SPOTY shortlist. That debate isn't really about the relative merits of our male and female champions, it is really a debate about the public profile of female stars and "minority sports".

    I don't think this blog really is about SPOTY. Not directly, anyway. Sure, I use it as a peg to hang a story about my experience of trying to make comparisons between different sporting achievements but that's pretty standard practice for stories like look for a newsy "reason" to get it out there.

    But what I really wanted to do here was highlight some names for the future (mostly from "minority sports"), particulary Sally Brown. She has already achieved great things but will very probably never be a High Street name anywhere other than Northern Ireland. Doesn't that go to the heart of the SPOTY row? ie it's not an objective measure of success, it's a popularity contest with the added unfairness of that popularity being a by-product of media interest in your event?

  • Comment number 7.

    Paulyboy and Liverpaul85, thanks. Regarding what Sally does next, BBC N Ireland did a really nice report on her last week:

    I remember from her nomination interview that she spoke about winning a medal or two at London 2012 and then golds in 2016. Her main rival over 200m, her best event, is a Cuban about 10 years her senior. So time is on her side. She should still be winning medals in 2020, possibly 2024, although she has mentioned having a go at competing in mainstream events. The experts on the panel thought this was possible but she would have to move up an event to 400m or even 800m, as her disability (no left lower arm) would be a major disadvantage at the starts of the shorter sprints.

    Thanks for reading

  • Comment number 8.

    Matt Slater

    A reasonable read, but, given that you are sitting at the BBC, why moan about 'the added unfairness of that popularity being a by-product of media interest in your event', why not have a word with whoever decides content of the BBC Sport site?

    Personally, the older I get, the more contrived award ceremonies appear to be and the less interested I am in the winners.

    SportsAid may have dished out £30m in 35 years, but, how much does the Sports Personality of the Year evening cost now? £1m? Just for a bunch of people to sit around slapping themselves of the back for a couple of hours?

    As for the number of comments on here, well, since 606 in particular was bafflingly knocked on the head earlier this year, the level of interaction available through this site seems to have gone through the floor. Just what do the journalists who write up reports at the weekend actually do during the week? All this at a time that the interaction on BBC News seems to have gone through the roof.

    Overall, just disappointing. (Like Chelsea last night but that would be a comment for another time - if a 606 thread or blog existed for that.)

  • Comment number 9.

    9th post

  • Comment number 10.

    Fair comments, MrBlueBurns, but would it surprise you if I told you I am trying (in my own, small, insignificant way) to do exactly what you suggest. If you take a look back through the archive of things I've written about on this blog you'll see that I've looked at a pretty wide range of subjects, including things like women's ski jumping, Chrissie Wellington's low profile/high achievement, Keri-Anne Payne's incredible talent etc etc. It's been the same with the stuff I do for TV and radio. And I'm not alone here in trying to do that. Sure, we do a lot of football, rugby, cricket etc but I think you'll find a much healthier mix of sport and sports stars on our outlets than elsewhere....5 Live in the evenings during the week, the Olympic-related coverage on network TV, BBC News' evening Sportsday bulletins, World News and World Service....we do plenty - I think we can do more - but perhaps we don't jump up and down and tell enough people about it. So that's our challenge.

    As for SPOTY, I have no idea how it costs but I do know it delivers a big audience and that is important for the BBC in terms of our relevance, value for money, entertaining people and perhaps even educating them. I know the 'round-up' sections are never enough to satisfy everybody but I also know from the feedback we get that they go a long way to informing huge sections of the public about all the great sport we play beyond the Premier League, F1, Wimbledon and so on.

    In regards to 606, come on, we've done that to death, haven't we? And I can promise you that those guys who do the reports at the weekends are busy during the week too....who do you think writes the dozens and dozens of stories the website writes every day? Stories that are read by millions of people, by the way.

    Anyway, thanks for reading/commenting and commiserations on last night.

  • Comment number 11.

    SPOTY is a farce anyhow, when Ryan Giggs won the popularity contest voted by prawn sandwich Man U fans across the country. Scrap it and come up with a decent concept, like the idea of fellow sports stars voting but that wouldn't allow the X Factor voting hysteria they are desperate for. As for lack of females, it is simple, they haven't achieved enough in sports that are popular, Emmeline Pankhurst would be turning in her grave at the thought of token females in there just to appease the PC brigade.

  • Comment number 12.

    #10 Matt Slater

    Thanks for the response. I would say though that I am not complaining for complaining sake and I do think that the BBC website is the best there is. Overall, the breadth of coverage is the best there is, but, given your public service remit, I would imagine that this breadth should be the default position n'est pas?

    I'll take your word for the value that SPOTY brings, but, as #11 twitwithnoname has alluded to, I think it's value has been eroded and, in the case of Giggs, cheapened in recent years. Remember Zara Phillips? A 'personality' that could barely string a sentence together? I cringe even now to think about her acceptance speech!

    Finally, you rightly champion the BBC coverage and then say that interaction such as 606 (which, I think you will find, has NOT been done to death) is more than made up for by the number of articles written during the week. Come on, hand on heart, have you seen what seems to pass for a news story on BBC Sport somedays? Nothing more than idle gossip, micro updates to a story that has little merit in the first place (check yesterday's 'update' to the Tevez story, what is the point), has there been a Beckham story to push up the agenda today etc etc

    And anyway, of course BBC online is popular. It's one of the very few sites that people who work in more restricted working environments can access!

  • Comment number 13.

    As a regular reader of Matt's blogs I have to say that the level of stick he gets for daring to stick his neck out and write on something different is extraordinary!

    Over the past few years he has consistently written, well informed and impartial articles on a variety of subjects including finance in football, olympic wranglings, doping, minority sports and even the impact of spot fixing in cricket on non-league football. Yet in the comments section of almost every article he gets abuse from someone who either hasn't read what was written or just fancies venting their frustrations with the BBC in general.

    Here are a couple of suggestions:

    i) read the article properly prior to commenting, it usuallly saves you looking like an idiot.
    ii) if you have a frustration with BBC Sport (and lord knows it has it's faults) don't take it out on one of the few contributors who actually takes the time to go behind issues and do some journalism on an interesting subject. Why not give some stick to the main offenders (I'm thinking of David 'paraphrases the press release' Bond) or the BBC themselves via feedback forms?

    Fair play to you Matt for putting up with a lot more drivel than I would.

    Re. Nominations and Awards - it's always going to be a subjective process and there will always be complaints. I think it's a fair observation to say that a nominee will usually just 'connect' with the panel for whatever reason and stand out. With regard to nominations for SPOTY is it right that Nuts and Zoo both get a vote? They are hardly prime examples of high end sports journalism are they? Maybe next year a couple of more credible publications might give you a more balanced list than lads mags.

  • Comment number 14.

    #13 thomasbrolin

    Why not give some stick to the main offenders (I'm thinking of David 'paraphrases the press release' Bond) or the BBC themselves via feedback forms?
    Did that in an exchange of emails at the start of least season. All I got was pretty standard responses from someone who just parroted the party line. The person wouldn't even acknowledge the particular points I made for the most part. Just stuff luck 'we appreciate your feedback yadda, yadda, yadda, our content is always under review yadda yadda yadda, keep looking for improvements etc etc etc).

    Proved to be a waste of time unfortunately.

  • Comment number 15.

    Attempting to post a response here but doesnt seem to be working...

    Will this get through

  • Comment number 16.

    @Matt Slater

    Good point, I agree that the issue does go to the heart of the matter.

    But is it a matter worth debating?

    What may be of interest to you as a proffesional journalist may not be as interesting to the general public (as evidenced by lack of posts)

    This may be one of those cases where the media likes the topic, just like Beckham or Phil McNulty's obsession with Mourinho, while we are really not that interested.


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