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Home / News / Chrissie – SPOTY: A Window of opportunity

Chrissie – SPOTY: A Window of opportunity

The Ironman World Champion on her absence from the BBC's Sports Personality nominations... and what it says about the current state of UK sport

The announcement of the BBC’s Sport Personality of the Year 2011 nominees caused controversy last week when no female athletes made the shortlist. One such absentee was Chrissie Wellington, who recorded her fourth Ironman World Championship win in October. Here’s what the 220 columnist had to say on the SPOTY process…

“The build up to the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY) Award has caused more than a few raised eyebrows. The selection process is relatively simple. The BBC selects a panel of ‘leading sports experts’ from various national and regional newspapers and magazines, who are asked to choose their top ten sportsmen or women “whose actions have most captured the public’s imagination in 2011”.

From these nominations the shortlist is compiled. This list of publications and their nominations is at the following link here.

I have been vocal in my reaction to the shortlist and I wanted to pen a blog as my personal contribution to the wider debate.

The issue for me is threefold. First, the exclusion of women in the shortlist, and the lack of female nominations overall (and of the 58 past winners of the main award, just 13 were female); second, the lack of representation of so called ‘minority sports’, and third the scant attention paid to para-athletes.

Let me be clear. The river runs much deeper than SPOTY. Awards are, by their very nature, subjective and you will never be able to include or recognise everybody. More significant is that the SPOTY process and shortlist has shone a spotlight on some important issues pertaining to the media coverage of, and overall support for, women, para-athletes and minority sports.

Before I go on, I want to make clear my respect for every athlete who made the shortlist. However, the list clearly reflects a view that the performances by the 10 male nominees were superior to those by any single female athlete. Is this really true? Have women simply achieved less across the board, or has their success been in, so-called, minority sports that have not been extensively covered by the mainstream media?

I‘d contend that there have been many outstanding performances by female athletes that would have merited their inclusion in the list. They include Keri-Anne Payne, Sarah Stevenson, Hayley Turner, Helen Jenkins, Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins, Dee Caffari, Lizzy Hawker, Rebecca Addlington and many more.

Aside from Rebecca these women hardly featured in the nominations: but if you take their performances into account it seems somewhat erroneous for one BBC presenter to justify – and effectively endorse – the all-male list with the claim that “it hasn’t been a great year for women in sport.”

It is not all doom and gloom. I feel fortunate to participate in a sport where women and men compete on a level playing field, racing on the same course at the same time, and for the same prize money. The triathlon media covers men and women’s participation and race results in equal measure. The number of female participants is growing exponentially, and sponsors and federations do not seem to demonstrate gender bias when it comes to support.

In addition, I’d like to give credit to the mainstream media – including the BBC – whose coverage of triathlon, and Ironman, has increased over the past few years. But there’s still a long way to go. This is exemplified by some Tweeters who have claimed never to have heard of any of the above female athletes. And therein lies the issue. SPOTY honours ‘the sportsman or woman whose actions have most captured the public’s imagination’. For sportswomen to actually get into the public’s imagination would be a good starting point.

Don’t get me wrong. Tokenistic mentions are not what’s needed. Women should feature solely on merit: because they have reached the global pinnacle of the sport that they have devoted their lives to.

Not only a gender issue
The SPOTY shortlist also highlights the lack of visibility of para-athletes and also of minority sports per se. In short, success in the water or in martial arts is deemed inferior to triumph on the football pitch, athletics track or tennis court. There have been performances by men and of para-athletes that have failed to even cause a ripple in the British media. These include Nick Matthew, Liam Tancock and Alistair Brownlee. Para-athlete successes include those by David Weir, Katrina Hart, Sam Ingram, Ben Quilter, Libby Clegg, Jon Allan Butterworth, Jody Cundy to name just a few. But their performances have passed practically unnoticed.

I welcome the BBC’s announcement that a review will be undertaken of the SPOTY nomination process, in consultation with a range of stakeholders. While the current process has been in place since 2006, and this is the first year that a female has not featured in the shortlist, I disagree with the BBC’s assertion that this system is “fair, independent and robust.”

Although I don’t have an issue, per se, of the inclusion of Nuts and Zoo, I believe that equivalent publications with a predominately female audience, for example Sportssister, are also included. I would suggest that the shortlist be developed by a panel of sports industry professionals, from a range of different bodies: radio, TV and print media; UK Sport staff; ex professional sports men and women; previous SPOTY winners, including coaches and unsung heroes. I would also suggest that the nature of the Award itself be clearly defined (e.g. is it for performance, personality or a mixture of both?)

Much has been made of my decision not to attend the SPOTY ceremony. Contrary to reports I have not called for a widespread boycott. I simply feel that I personally need to ‘walk the talk’. I do not feel able to support an event which endorses and perpetuates the message that a) not one single women has done anything of sporting note, relative to their male counterparts this year, and that b) the achievements of those participating in minority sports are somehow inferior to those in more high profile (better funded) sports. To have been so openly critical of the process and its outcome and then sit there in a posh frock implicitly lending my support would be hypocritical of me.

Why does the SPOTY shortlist matter?

Let me be clear. I didn’t take up triathlon for public accolades or to become a millionaire. I craved the challenge of pushing my body and mind to the limit. Being shortlisted for SPOTY couldn’t have been further from my mind. I believe professional sports people serve as representatives and ambassadors but, currently, the attractive wife of a male sports star is more likely to attract column inches than a female sportsperson. Is it no wonder then that young girls no longer aspire to be a successful swimmer or taekwondo player?

Participation in sport is an extremely powerful tool for tackling deep-rooted social issues: obesity and other health problems, bullying, truancy, crime, unemployment and so forth. But without the support of the media/sponsors/federations, athletes do not have the visibility necessary to enable us to inspire, encourage and enthuse, and hence drive participation in all sports. The growth in public participation in cycling galvanised by the gold medal winning performances of Mark Cavendish, Victoria Pendleton and Chris Hoy, among others, is a case in point.

So, to me, SPOTY presents a missed opportunity. But paradoxically, it could be a valuable window of opportunity too. For the issue has prompted debate and dialogue. The fact that the issue is up for discussion is a step forward, and will hopefully serve to catalyse change on issues we can all agree on. That is, that sport has a tremendous power – and we need to encourage a growth in participation amongst women and men. And that the media increases its coverage of a range of sports, celebrating the best that Great Britain truly does have to offer.”

For a full transcript of Chrissie’s column, head here.

Profile image of Matt Baird Matt Baird Editor of Cycling Plus magazine


Matt is a regular contributor to 220 Triathlon, having joined the magazine in 2008. He’s raced everything from super-sprint to Ironman, duathlons and off-road triathlons, and can regularly be seen on the roads and trails around Bristol. Matt is the author of Triathlon! from Aurum Press and is now the editor of Cycling Plus magazine.