Where Did All The Female Sports Personalities Go?

For those of you who didn’t know – maybe you live elsewhere than the UK – every year the BBC runs a competition called the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. It started out in 1954 and has seen winners from a wide variety of sports. On the whole, men dominate this award ceremony, but in general the shortlist includes a good proportion of Britain’s best female sports stars, and on the odd occasion the ladies even win it. But despite their usual fair representation at the awards, it has not been since 1962 that the women won the top three places – the only time that has been achieved – whereas having three men at the top is a pretty common occurrence. So this week saw the unveiling of the whittled down shortlist of the ten candidates for this prestigious and well-promoted televsion event for 2011. It seemed odd immediately that all ten of the challengers this year are men. And given some of the borderline miraculous achievements of the ladies in sport, it begs the question: where did all the female sports personalities go?

The Ten Candidates For BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2011

Here’s a quick run down of the named candidates, as voted for by sports journalists from a whole range of sports and other publications:

  • Mark Cavendish (Cycling)
  • Darren Clarke (Golf)
  • Alistair Cook (Cricket)
  • Luke Donald (Golf)
  • Mo Farah (Athletics)
  • Dai Greene (Athletics)
  • Amir Khan (Boxing)
  • Rory McIlroy (Golf)
  • Andy Murray (Tennis)
  • Andrew Strauss (Cricket)

I’ve listed them in alphabetical order (even though I’d be fairly amazed, not to mention disappointed, if Cav didn’t win it after his successes this year!).

It is worth pointing out that the not-so-tiny matter of the exclusion of all Britain’s female talent has not gone unnoticed. The press has been all over it, and some of the ladies are pretty miffed to say the least – and rightly so!

My Sports Personality of the Year Shortlist for 2011

I should say that this is not a simple case of political correctness gone mad; however, I might still dare to say: “Women! Know your place!”

And for some women, their place is on top of the podium as taekwondo world champion; or as four times women’s ironman world champion; or as number one in the triathlon World Championship Series. So, here’s my list of ten, split down the middle with five men and five women, and of course…ladies first (in no particular order with respect to who I think should win the award):

Sarah Stevenson – Three Times Taekwondo World Champion

A woman with all the martial skill to achieve her ambitions of becoming taekwondo world champion and qualifying for the London Olympics, but also with the mental steel and determination of a British lioness to do so while both her parents battled with terminal cancer. Tragically, both lost their battles and left her to fight in 2012 spurred on by their memory. Surely a truly worthy candidate for Sports Personality of the Year, in this of all years. For a recent interview with Sarah by Donald McRae of the Guardian newspaper, click here. (Sarah Stevenson’s Official Website)

Chrissie Wellington – Four Times Ironman World Champion and Record-Holder

Chrissie Wellington (photo by Mariano Kamp; reproduced under CC2.0 License)

A simply unbelievable athlete, winning the women’s Ironman World Championship for three consecutive years from 2007 to 2009, and then winning it again this year, after illness last year prevented her from clocking up five consecutive years of endurance racing dominance. She also holds a number of – actually she holds ALL – world and championship records for the Ironman distance, including the world record, the Ironman World Championship course record, and the record for Ironman branded triathlons over the ironman distance. And what’s more, she is the only triathlete – man or woman – to have won the World Championship in her first year as a pro. Really, unbelievable! And I guess “unbelievable” is exactly what Chrissie thinks of the idea of there being not a single girl in the running for this year’s BBC Sports award, as she has decided to boycott the event. (Chrissie Wellington’s Official Website)

Helen Jenkins – Two Times ITU Triathlon World Champion

Okay, this is notionally a triathlon site, although I’m much more of a runner than anything else, so I’m biased, and Helen Jenkins is another awesome multiple triathlon world champion, winning the ITU World Championships in 2008 and then again this year, over the Olympic distance. She finished top of the pile in the ITU World Championships Series rankings for 2011, and so is this yet another female athlete not even worthy of consideration? Really? (Helen Jenkins’ Official Website)

Keri-Anne Payne – Two Times Open Swimming 10K World Champion

Really?! Here’s another strong candidate, Keri-Anne Payne, a long-distance pool and open water swimmer, and twice world champion at the open water 10K discipline, winning in 2009 and then again in Shanghai this year. This amazing endurance athlete – even Ironman triathletes ‘only’ swim 3.9km – became the first Brit to confirm her qualification in the 2012 London Olympics with this year’s World Championship achievement. Incidentally, Keri-Anne also notched up a silver medal at the Beijing Olympics, so maybe she will be a serious contender for gold in London – and finally, perhaps, get that nomination for Sports Personality of the Year next year! In a show of pure class and dignity, she said on Twitter: “We don’t need awards just the support from the Great British public!” (Keri-Anne Payne’s Official Website)

Katherine Grainger – Six Times Rowing World Champion

A seasoned rowing veteran, Katherine Grainger has competed in several formats but alongside ever-changing team line-ups has managed to stack up six world champions titles, mainly in Women’s Quad and Double Sculls races, and has been awarded silver medals in three consecutive Olympic Games, rowing in the Quadruple Sculls or Coxless Pair events. She defended last year’s world championship title this year despite being plagued by injury, demonstrating her mental and physical toughness. (Kath Grainger’s Official Website)

And for the men, I chose four out of the published top ten shortlist, and added Ali Brownlee, who together with his brother Jonny completely dominated the 2011 triathlon circuit, coming out number one in the ITU World Championship rankings. Here’s the list of five I have chosen:

Mark Cavendish – Road Cycling World Champion & Tour de France Green Jersey Winner

The Manx Missile really tore up the roads this year, with another five Tour de France stage wins to take his overall stage win tally to 20. He also won the points classification, becoming the first British cyclist ever to win the coveted Maillot Vert (Green Jersey). To put icing on the cake, Mark then went on to win the 2011 UCI Road World Championships in Copenhagen, to become the first British winner of the title since Tom Simpson in 1965. A really fantastic year, culminating in him being awarded an MBE, bestowed just this week; and of course the prospect of him becoming a daddy, an achievement Mark cherishes above everything else.

Mo Farah – 3000m, 5000m and 10,000m World and European Champion

Somalia-born Brit Mo Farah is a worthy contender for the Sports Personality award, having won both European and World Championship titles over several years in various long-distance running events, notably the 3000m, 5000m and 10,000m. This year’s World Championships saw him beaten into silver medal place in the 10K by the narrowest of margins. He made up for it by scoring an emphatic victory in the 5K event at the same race meeting. (As a runner over the same distances, it makes me wince that Mo’s personal bests are twice as fast as mine!)

Alistair Brownlee – Two Times Triathlon World and European Champion

Omitted from the shortlist this year, nevertheless Ali Brownlee had a storming season in 2011, culminating in him winning the ITU World Championships for a second time (he won his first world title in 2009). He also became the European Champion for the second time this year, defending his title which he first won in 2010. He’s one of those guys who just never looks like he’s going to lose, when I’ve seen him race.

Dai Greene – 400m Hurdles European, Commonwealth & World Champion

Okay, another one who is on the current shortlist, and rightly so. His career has blossomed over the last two years, with European and Commonwealth titles last year, and culminating this year in his elevation to World Champion at Daegu.

Rory McIlroy – Golf US Open Winner and Record Holder

Also on the real list, Rory McIlroy won the 2011 US Open, his first major, by eight shots, and managed to collect numerous records along the way. His aggregate score of 268 – 16-under par – was a new record for the US Open, beating some of the greats, such a Jack Niklaus and Tiger Woods. This particular competition received a lot of media interest as it was Rory’s first major tournament win, and because he did it with such class.

So What Went Wrong This Year?

It’s hard to say what went wrong with this year’s nominations – apart from the fact there’s no women in the shortlist, obviously. Some of the nominations from the various publications had no women, whereas many others did include female sports stars. Among the ones nominated but failing to get to the shortlist were Rebecca Adlington (swimming), Victoria Pendleton (cycling), Jessica Ennis (heptathlon) and several of the ones also on my personal shortlist above.

Victoria Pendleton (photo by Stuart Webster, modified by Baldborris99); Jessica Ennis (photo by Adam Kerfoot-Roberts); Rebecca Adlington (photo by Michiel Jelijs, modified by Jonas Kam). All photos reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0 License.

Among the various excuses were that next year is Olympics year, so the likes of Adlington, Pendleton, Ennis and a whole bunch of others will have a better shout for 2012’s award. And one journalist – a brave soul indeed – even ventured to put forward the notion that the men on the list are great sportsmen and have great personalities – it is, after all, Sports Personality of the Year. The implication of that, though, is that he was saying the women are great sportswomen but just have lousy, boring personalities. If I were him, I’d be running for the hills and a safe hiding place – but in fairness I’d put money on most of these female endurance athletes to catch him up and give him a kicking! I shall not name him for the sake of his safety.

For the most part, it seems that sports which get a lot of exposure on TV produce names which get onto the list. Cycling has made a huge comeback in recent years and is now more popular than it has been for years in the UK. Triathlon on the other hand is not something which is routinely aired on television, although I have seen a little more in the run up to London 2012. Long distance swimming, on the other hand, or taekwondo, are pretty non-existent for much of the population, and Sarah Stevenson has received more local exposure where I am in Yorkshire because of her triumphs despite horrendous tragedies in her personal life.

Who knows, maybe next year we’ll get an all female line-up for the BBC’s flagship sports awards show, but I seriously wouldn’t hold my breath. Was that a pig flying by? Oh, no, it was a journalist; looks like they caught up with him.

What do you think of my shortlist? Spot on or spot off? Who have I missed out who should be on the list instead? Have your say in the comments below.

Photo Credits:
1. Chrissie Wellington by Mariano Kamp.
2. Victoria Pendleton by Stuart Webster. Derivative work: cropped by Baldborris99.
3. Jessica Ennis by Adam Kerfoot-Roberts.
4. Rebecca Adlington by Michiel Jelijs. Derivative work: cropped by Jonas Kam.

All photos reproduced with permission under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution and/or Share Alike Licenses.


Neil (nickname Ironman) is an avid runner and sports fan, who writes about all things triathlon-related, especially running and cycling. He also writes about sports injuries and regaining fitness - mainly from personal experience rather than academic knowledge - although he does study that too!

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