But has he got talent?

I’m not a big fan of what we might call the celebritization of our lives. In fact the notion that we should prostitute ourselves for fame – or more exactly TV fame – offends me deeply. So why all these auditions? Why am I, without any ironic context, being invited to the ritual humiliation of poor misguided singer A, or frankly delusional comic B?

I flash on the telly in all innocence – and generally some degree of mindlessness – to be confronted by another clodhoppingly tension-pregnant drumroll-heavy PAUSE… and my tired heart sinks. Everywhere there’s somebody awaiting a VERDICT. Was their singing ‘good’ enough? Was their dancing good enough? In the tabloid-stoked view of the great British public, do they look too fat/dodgy/chippy/chavvy/pervy? In the shlockingly coiffured opinionated opinion of The Judges are they, do they look The Part? Oh and can they sing or dance?

The faux meritocracy of these brutally engineered scenarios is the family fodder of our time; begging the question “What does that say about us?” Well (Oh Martian god of Universal Anthropology) it says we are (in an appropriately inappropriate word) mental.

And now, we have the announcement of candidates for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Is that the same cheap trick I wonder? Arguably not; witness a kind of historical precedent sentimentally loaded with some authentic respect, going back (I think) to my black-and-white childhood. Or so it feels.

For aeons the trusty Beeb has backslapped the testosteroned ones, fulfilling dutifully the role of foot-bather for footballers. Or, given the comparative lack of Brit footballing worldbeaters, athletes more generally. I think I remember David Hemery being coronated. Likewise Henry Cooper, Daley Thompson/Alan Pascoe? And surely George Best.

There’s a realness to these characters and to the tribal banter they so modestly – so black-and-whitedly? – exchanged with Coleman/Carpenter etc. that somehow legitimises the thing. They were proper sportsmen (and occasionally women) and I don’t remember the wholescale devaluation of human dignity being a pre-requisite for the evening’s viewing. There were bad speeches – do I recall a nervy Paul Gascoigne? – and bad choices – none of which included any members of the royal family. It wasn’t perfect but it seemed like perfectly good (sporting) family fare and we watched it religiously, year after year.

More recently I have to say the smarminess factor seems to have increased; or at least there’s been an upshift in the image-consciousness of a) the event b) the protagonists c) the guests. It’s not so much innocent Sunday Best suits and “I ran as hard as I could” as designer-sharp, platitudinous billowing. Does this mean the essential decency of the affair has been twothousandandelevened? Possibly. I’ve found myself avoiding the programme in much the same way as I swerve a broad swathe of Awards Shows. But the quality of my (mild) distaste for Gary Lineker’s sports-chic uber-grooming doesn’t compare with typical feelings against Cowell’s ouevre. Simply put Sports Personality does have some of what it says on the tin and is markedly less intrusive, less exploitative than the Got Talent/X-factor genre, in which personality seems to be largely confused for profile.

This year’s candidates for the unchallenged Pretty Much Most Singular And Respected Sporting Wotnot include – unlike most years – several genuine contenders. The full list is as follows;

Mark Cavendish – cyclist

Darren Clarke – golfer

Alistair Cook – cricketer

Luke Donald – golfer

Mo Farrah – athlete

Dai Greene – athlete

Amir Khan – boxer

Rory McIlroy – golfer

Andy Murray – tennis player

Andrew Strauss – cricketer.

Meaning there are no women. Which is almost certainly a disgrace but I’m not exactly sure … who might…

Easier by far is the whittling down from the seriously good but outflanked by the others (Strauss/Khan/Murray/Donald); to the second rankers, who might have won in a lean year but… (Farrah/Greene/McIlroy(?); and finally the real contenders – Cavendish, Clarke and Cook. It’s a good line-up. I favour the alphabetically advantaged trio particularly because it has felt like their year this year.

Clarke may be the housewife’s favourite, his extraordinary Open triumph being submerged in a vat of deliciously beery poignancy. He may even win it if the papers fill again with his ‘story’. Alistair Cook, by contrast, is a less demonstrative sort with only his genius with the willow to declare. He lacks perzazz but the boy is an opening bat! Frankly, I can’t see him winning it but he has shown a historically significant mix of quality and temperament to reach totals amongst and beyond the immortals of the game. However for me Cavendish should top the poll.

‘Cav’ is a god amongst cyclists. He is the torpedo after the exhausting stalk. As a sprinter in the wheelers union it’s his job to grab glory at the death, meaning that after a typical 80 miles in the saddle, he must burst through the very notion of hyper jadedness (after many hundreds of miles on the major tours) and then sprint away from the cursing pack.

Cavendish has done precisely this again this last year – better than anyone in the history of cycling. His record-breaking tour de France was an almost literally staggering tribute to his utterly exceptional wheeling-power and indeed his willpower. The proud Manxman knows that as the premier force in professional sprinting he is targeted race after race; he is proudly and hugely generously aware of the responsibility he has to his domestiques or support riders to ‘finish the job’. He is that special thing the monster sportsman (though gregarious) and indisputably the pack leader.

Cycling is a minority sport. It may be that because comparatively few understand the tactical resources expended or even the extent of the raw bravery necessary – particularly during the rampage that is the bunched sprint – the serial Green Jersey Man is overlooked. But he is different class, a true icon; loved and worshipped for his talent, his affability and his titanic shouldering of the burden. The winner, really, has to be Cavendish.

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