Let’s begin with Bob Nudd. Now, this may seem a strange place to start an article about the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards when the show has come up with its strongest shortlist since the 2012 Olympics and, in all honesty, even Bob himself seemed a bit surprised when I called him up this past week to talk about it. “You can probably guess why I’m calling,” I started. “No,” he stopped. “Is it something to do with the election?” Not the election Bob, but the other big vote. The one you should have won, back in 1991 when Nudd, four‑times world freshwater angling champion, one of the finest coarse fishermen ever to cast a line, was the (alleged) victim of one the great showbiz swindles.
That was the year Nudd won the second of his world titles, and the Angling Times ran a front page beseeching its readers to “Vote Bob” for Sports Personality of the Year. And they did. First in their thousands, then in their tens of thousands. Bookies across the country started slashing their odds when a flood of bets came in on Nudd at 100-1. And then, so the story goes, the BBC realised he was going to win. So it disqualified him on the grounds that orchestrated block votes were against the rules. Was Bob robbed? The BBC never confirmed or denied it. Asked about it at the time, it said: “We have received votes for Bob Nudd but he has never finished in the top three.”
Well, Spoty’s always been a peculiar sort of popularity contest, one in which you have to be liked in just the right way. More royals have won it (two, Princess Anne and Zara Phillips) than rugby players (one, across both codes, Jonny Wilkinson). The F1 drivers (Stirling Moss, Jackie Stewart, Nigel Mansell, twice, Damon Hill, twice again, and Lewis Hamilton) have done better than the footballers (Bobby Moore, Paul Gascoigne, Michael Owen, David Beckham, Ryan Giggs), and the figure skaters (John Curry, Robin Cousins, Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean) have done exactly as well as the cricketers (Jim Laker, David Steele, Ian Botham, Andrew Flintoff).
Even by these curious standards, this year’s contest seems particularly unusual since at least three of the people on the shortlist, Hamilton, Ben Stokes and Raheem Sterling, have, for large parts of their careers, hardly seemed that popular at all. At least in certain quarters. Sterling and Hamilton have both heard more boos than anyone that talented and successful ought to.
It was only three months ago that Hamilton was complaining, after he was jeered in Melbourne, Monza and Montreal, that he’s “the most booed in the history of all drivers”. He gets it in the press, too, though not nearly so badly as the other two.
Like them, Hamilton has sometimes deserved it; like them, he has more often not done so, especially when it’s the sort of front-page coverage that’s gone well beyond criticism into the kind of gleeful vilification that strains of the English media seem to revel in. Build ’em up, cast ’em down, build ’em up again, sell us their ruin, sells us their redemption.
This isn’t a new trick. It’s the way the game has been played for years. Ask Botham (1981) or Gascoigne (1990), who both know all about it. Their careers, the way they played and were packaged and sold, were both prototypes in their own way for what Stokes, Sterling and Hamilton find themselves going through today.
But there’s a big difference. Botham and Gascoigne won Spoty before the fall: Botham, in ’81, had failed as captain but was still England’s swashbuckling hero – high, wide and handsome – and Gascoigne in ’90 was the knockabout savant with a heart of gold. The worst was all ahead of them.
Stokes, Sterling and Hamilton have already had to face the same sort of BS, but the way they have dealt with it is very different and belongs much more distinctively to the era they are playing in. They have found a way to confront that hate and, by opposing it, to turn it to their own ends. Whether that’s Sterling’s game-changing Instagram posts calling out racial bias in the press, or Stokes’s Twitter notes criticising the Sun for invading his family’s right to privacy. Social media is the tool that they, their agents and managers have used skilfully to take control of their own stories by talking directly to their supporters. Hamilton’s decision to walk out of his press conferences and his threat to cut back access because of “disrespectful coverage” is another way around the traditional media.
They are athletes, and, in their ways, they are activists too, advocates for their beliefs and (this is the bit their agents love) their brands. This is the same game, played on the athletes’ terms rather than the editors’. It is still sport as soap opera, the stuff of heroes and villains, only these days everyone’s writing their own scripts.
You will need to squint a bit here, but I swear if you look back with the right kind of eyes you can see the day Bob Nudd was stitched up as one of the tipping points along the way in all this. The show really flipped, though, at the far end of the decade, when they rebranded it from Sports Review of the Year into Sports Personality of the Year. It stopped being a show for people who like sport, and became a show for people who don’t. And so, what was a highlights show, 90 minutes of clips of the good bits, became a text-in celebration, instead, of celebrity hashtag culture.
As for Nudd, he’s not bitter. “I don’t know how many voted for me,” he says. “But I know it was a lot, because the magazine had 50,000 readers, they were a pretty loyal lot and well, to be honest, I’m not really sure how many people voted for Sports Personality in those days. But I knew full well an angler could never win it, because we didn’t have the exposure. And besides, it allowed someone a lot more deserving to win instead.” (Liz McColgan, who won the 10,000m at the World Athletics Championships, if you were wondering.) And by the way, he’s going to vote for Stokes. “I’m a huge cricket fan, you see. I love Lewis Hamilton, too, but he’s already got one, hasn’t he? And I reckon everybody who deserves it should win the thing at least once. Shouldn’t they?”