Last Sunday night Lewis Hamilton won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award for the second time, a deserved winner after his record-breaking season in Formula 1. The Sports Personality of the Year (or SPOTY, as I shall call it from now on) has been awarded annually since 1954, when athlete Christopher Chataway was the first winner. The first SPOTY recipient that I remember as a news story was Princess Anne in 1971, and every year since then I have been aware of who has won. Most years I have watched at least part of the ceremony. This gives me knowledge and memories of 50 years’ worth of awards.
Unlike other lists that have grown gradually over the last five decades (such as Booker Prize-winning novels and Oscar winners) the list of SPOTY winners since 1971 has not been embedded in my mind in quite the same way. With Booker Prizes and Academy Awards there is more time to learn about the nominations beforehand. Reading the books and watching the movies takes up a lot more time than watching the awards ceremonies. I have looked at lists of Bookers and Oscar winners far more often than the list of SPOTY winners.
During the summer, prompted (as so often) by a question on a TV quiz show, I decided to address this. I spent time reading about the winners who were unfamiliar to me (from 1965 and earlier) and studying the list of winners, trying to find patterns and improve my memory of who won in each year. The results of that research are in the 1100 words that follow.
The question that prompted all of this was in a Celebrity edition of “Eggheads” and came down to a simple choice: have there been more SPOTY winners from the world of athletics, or from Formula 1?
Knowing what I know now it’s easy enough, but back in the summer I wasn’t so sure. The answer is athletics. Even with Lewis Hamilton’s win this year, athletes outnumber F1 drivers by more than 2-to-1, having won the award 18 times. F1 drivers have won 8 times. Hamilton (2014 and 2020) is the third driver to win SPOTY twice, after Nigel Mansell (1986 and 1992) and Damon Hill (1994 and 1996). The other two F1 winners were Stirling Moss (1961) and Jackie Stewart (1973).
The sport that comes third in the list of winners is tennis, with six SPOTY awards. Half of those wins were for Andy Murray (2013, 2015, 2016), the only person to win in successive years, and the only person to win SPOTY three times. The other tennis players to win were Ann Jones and Virginia Wade in the years when they won their Wimbledon titles (1969 and 1977 respectively) and Greg Rusedski (1997, the year he made it to the final of the US Open).
You might want to take a look at a straightforward list of winners and runners-up. If so, try this page on Wikipedia. I am not going to copy its contents here but will continue to note patterns and anomalies in the history of the awards. These have helped me to become much more familiar with the range of SPOTY winners than simply trying to memorize a sequential list.
Considering how many athletes have won the award, the most notable pattern (and something of an anomaly) is how rarely they have won in Olympic years. Mary Peters won in 1972, when she was the only UK athlete to win gold at the Munich Olympics. Since then only one track-and-field athlete has won SPOTY in an Olympic year: Kelly Holmes (2004, when she won the 800m and 1500m in Athens). Plenty of gold medal winners have won SPOTY in Olympic years, but all from other sports.
In the Olympic years 1976, 1980 and 1984 the award went to figure skaters: John Curry, Robin Cousins and Torvill & Dean (the only non-individual winners). Back then the summer and winter Olympics were held in the same year. Since 1994 the winter and summer events have been two years apart, but there have been no further SPOTY winners from winter sports.
In 1980 Steve Ovett and Sebastian both won gold at the Moscow Olympics, but they had already won SPOTY (in 1978 and 1979 respectively). Daley Thompson won gold in the decathlon at the 1980 games, and again in Los Angeles in 1984, but his SPOTY award came in 1982, the year he won at the European Championships in Athens.
In 1988, not a great year for British athletes at the Olympics, the award went to Steve Davis, the only time a snooker player has won SPOTY. In the Olympic years of 1992 (when Linford Christie won the 100m) and 1996 the award went to F1 drivers (Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill, as noted above). Christie had to wait until 1993 for his award (the year he won gold at the World Championships in Stuttgart). Mo Farah was the only man to win Olympic gold in long-distance track events in the 2010s (the 5,000m and 10,000m double at London 2012 and Rio 2016) but his SPOTY award came in 2017.
Since 2000, in every year that the summer Olympics took place as scheduled, SPOTY has been awarded to someone who won at least one gold medal: Steve Redgrave (2000, the only rower to win), Kelly Holmes (2004, as noted above), Chris Hoy (2008, the second cyclist to win, after Tom Simpson in 1965), Bradley Wiggins (2012, cycling again) and Andy Murray (2016).
Chris Hoy’s win in 2008 started a run of 4 cycling wins in 11 years. He was followed by Mark Cavendish (2011), Bradley Wiggins (2012) and Geraint Thomas (2018).
Along with cycling, three other sports have been represented five times with SPOTY wins: football, boxing and cricket.
As you might expect, the first football wins came in FIFA World Cup years: Bobby Moore (1966), Paul Gascoigne (1990) and Michael Owen (1998). The other two footballers to win are David Beckham (2001, when his free-kick against Greece guaranteed qualification for the 2002 FIFA World Cup) and Ryan Giggs (2009, after a well-run campaign to reward nearly two decades of service to the game).
The boxers who have won are: Henry Cooper (1967 and 1970, the first person to receive the award twice), Barry McGuigan (1985), Lennox Lewis (1999) and Joe Calzaghe (2007).
The five cricketers to win SPOTY have all done so after their performances in summer Ashes series. Jim Laker was the first (1956). His bowling figures that year at Old Trafford (19 for 90) are still the best in the history of Test or first-class cricket. The other four winners were David Steele (1975), Ian Botham (1981), Andrew Flintoff (2005) and Ben Stokes (2019).
A handful of sports have only been represented once with SPOTY wins: snooker and rowing (as mentioned above), rugby union (Jonny Wilkinson in 2003, when England won the Rugby World Cup), horse racing (Tony McCoy in 2010), show jumping (David Broome in 1960) and motorcycle racing (John Surtees in 1959).
Those last two events were before my time, as were the two swimming wins: Ian Black (1958) and Anita Lonsborough (1962), the first woman to win SPOTY.
Anita Lonsborough was followed by two more female winners, Dorothy Hyman (1963) and Mary Rand (1964), both for athletics, but overall male winners far outnumber female winners. No woman has won the award since Zara Phillips in 2006. Just like her mother, Princess Anne, she won for eventing. They are the only mother and daughter pair to win the award.
There is one other sport represented in the list of SPOTY winners that I have not mentioned yet: golf. Dai Rees won in 1957 and Nick Faldo in 1989.
There are 8 years since 1954 that have not appeared in this piece so far. In all those years the award was won by athletes, as follows: Gordon Pirie (1955), David Hemery (1968), Brendan Foster (1974), Steve Cram (1983), Fatima Whitbread (1987), Liz McColgan (1991), Jonathan Edwards (1995) and Paula Radcliffe (2002).
One way or another, every SPOTY winner has been listed in this piece, along with their sports and the year(s) they won. It may seem a little unwieldy, but it serves my purpose and I will return to it whenever I need a reminder of patterns, themes and anomalies. This time next year, perhaps.