British sport used to be dead. You only have to look down the list of past winners of the Sports Personality of the Year award to see that. In 1994 Damon Hill won it for not quite winning the Formula 1 drivers’ champion-ship; three years later Greg Rusedski won it for not quite winning the US Open. David Steele won it for making four fifties in an Ashes series. Ryan Giggs once won it just for still being around.
But now things have changed. Last night three spirits came visiting. The Ghost of Sports Past poured a generous tumbler of Laphroaig, put on a DVD of 2012 and said, ‘We’ll never see a sporting year like that again.’ But he was soon replaced by the Ghost of Sports Present. ‘Rubbish,’ he said. ‘You think 2012 was a good year for British sport. What about 2013?’
And he was right, this has been an astonishing year. There are no also-rans on the Sports Personality of the Year shortlist. We have the first British man to win Wimbledon for 77 years; England winning the Ashes for the third series in a row; a thrilling Lions tour of Australia in which, after two nip-and-tuck matches, the might of Britain crushed the Wallabies; a second British Tour de France champion in Chris Froome; Mo Farah doing the double-double in long-distance running, adding two world titles to his Olympic brace; and Hannah Cockroft claiming two wheelchair sprint gold medals in the Paralympic championships.
Then we had A.P. McCoy riding his 4,000th winner; Ben Ainslie becoming the first Brit to win the America’s Cup in more than a century, leaping aboard a sinking Yankee boat to turn an 8-1 deficit into a 9-8 victory; Justin Rose becoming the first Englishman in 43 years to win the US Open; and Christine Ohuruogu winning the 400 metres world title.
All of these are deserving winners (the smart money has always been on Andy Murray, though at odds of 1-25 you’ll need a pile of it to make a smidgin of profit) but we could have easily drawn up a second team of ten more sportspeople who have done Britain proud this year.
It has not been a good year in the executive suites for we who love squash, with the IOC rejecting the sport’s latest bid to join the Olympic gang, but on court Sheffield’s Nick Matthew remains something to behold. Last month he won his third World Open title in four years, while in June, with James Willstrop and Daryl Selby, he won the world team championships for England.
Two years ago the BBC Sports Personality list was criticised for having no women. This year there are two but you could throw in five other female world champions: Non Stanford, from Swansea, became world triathlon champion at 24; Becky James, another Welshwoman, won two cycling golds in Minsk; Shelley Rudman became the first British woman to become world champion at going downhill head-first very fast on a tea-tray in the skeleton bob; Eve Muirhead was Scotland’s skip as they won curling’s world title; and Helen Glover, winner of Britain’s first Olympic gold at London 2012 in the coxless pair with Heather Stanning, and now world champion and undefeated all season with a new partner, Polly Swann. Stanning has just returned to training after a tour of duty with the Royal Artillery in Afghanistan but clearly the Olympic champion will have a fight on her hands to dislodge Swann from her seat.
Talking of rowing achievements, boaters doffed to the men’s eight, the first time Jürgen Gröbler’s squad have had a world champion crew in that event. In sailing, meanwhile, Ainslie’s feats in match-racing followed the achievement of Alex Thomson in becoming the first Briton to sail round the world in 80 days.
A highlight of the year for me was Europe’s crushing win over the US in the Solheim Cup, the first victory they had ever tasted on American turf. One of the darlings of the side and a huge golfing talent to watch out for was Charley Hull, a 17-year-old English girl who was picked as a wild card and won two of her three matches. At the opposite end of his career, Jonny Wilkinson proved he still has the old magic, pulling the strings at fly half for Toulon as they won their first Heineken Cup.
Finally, Christmas is the time to mention a fat bloke who brings gifts while we’re passed out on the couch, so raise a glass to Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor, one of our greatest yet least-fêted champions. Many thought the darts wizard from Stoke might have made his last step onto the oche when he was knocked out in the second round of the 2012 World Championship, but back he came this year at the age of 52 and won five sets in a row in the final to claim a 16th world title.
What a year it has been. But then there came another vision, the Ghost of Sports to Come. ‘You thought 2013 was good…’ he said. England will turn things round in the Ashes, he assured me, and beat the Aussies for the fourth time in a row, a feat last achieved in the 1880s. Then we will have a fabulous Six Nations Championship, in the middle of which Britain will do better than ever before at a Winter Olympics thanks to the likes of Muirhead and Rudman (the bar is admittedly set low). After that, Rory McIlroy will put his traumas of 2013 behind him and win the Masters before playing his part in Europe retaining the Ryder Cup; Murray will win Wimbledon again and Laura Robson will go deep into the women’s tournament. The Commonwealth Games in Glasgow will be a magnificent success and dampen rather than heighten the Scottish independence movement. ‘And will our footballers also win the World Cup in Brazil?’ I asked, my voice trembling with excitement. ‘Don’t be daft,’ he said, moving the whisky out of my reach. ‘I offer visions, not miracles.’
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Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times.
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