The Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY) is one of the biggest accolades any sports star can receive in the UK. But it wouldn’t be unrealistic to say that men have dominated the awards. So, just how successful have women been in the awards?
To put things into perspective, the last time a female sports star won the Sports Personality Of The Year (SPOTY) before 2021 was Zara (Phillips) Tindall in 2006. Fair play to Zara, matching her mums’ achievement. Zara’s mother, Princess Anne, took the award when she was 21 years old, way back in 1971.
Just Fifteen Female Winners
Amazingly, after nearly seventy years that the BBC Sports Personality has been going, just fifteen women have taken the top prize. Women seem to have to perform an almost inhuman sporting accomplishment to be the winner.
However, the last few years have signified a turning point in the narrative. The consecutive crowning of women as SPOTY winners demonstrates a shift towards greater recognition of female athletes’ prowess and achievements.
The year 2021 saw tennis sensation Emma Raducanu take the spotlight. Her incredible performance at the Wimbledon Championship took the world by storm, and the SPOTY award was a well-deserved acknowledgement of her talents and resilience.
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Not to be outdone, in 2022, Beth Mead, the lead striker for England, claimed the award following an awe-inspiring Euro tournament. Her critical role in leading the Lionesses to victory at Wembley showcased not just her individual excellence but also the strength and competitiveness of women’s football.
These consecutive victories by Raducanu and Mead reflect a promising trend in the SPOTY awards – a growing acknowledgement and appreciation of the remarkable feats achieved by women in sports. It’s a positive change, a hopeful sign that the days of ‘inhuman accomplishments’ being the prerequisite for women to be recognized are fading.
History of Women in the SPOTY Awards
The Sports Personality of the Year, or SPOTY as it is affectionately known, is a British sporting institution. The first award was back in 1954 when runner Chris Chataway beat Roger Bannister into second place.
A woman, yes, you read correctly, show-jumper Pat Smythe, cantered in at third place. Mind you, that was about it for women in the fifties. Many people even consider Pat’s inclusion to be BBC tokenism for that very first award.
Things looked up a bit in the sixties, with twelve women placed within the top three, including three winners. 1962 was a swinging year for women’s sporting achievement, with all three places going to the ladies. Swimmer Anita Lonsbrough was first; athlete Dorothy Hyman was second, and another swimmer Linda Ludgrove was third.
The seventies saw a royal female win the top award in Olympic gold medallist, Princess Anne in 1971. She was followed by another woman, Mary Peters, in 1972. It looked like the women were on a roll, but over the next 28 years, only seven women made it into the top three.
SPOTY Since The 80s
There could be no arguing about the female success for the awards in the 80s. Yes, one of those may have been a male/female skating partnership, but wow, did they take the world by storm. Torvill and Dean totally dominated their sport in their prime. So, inevitably they were runners-up in SPOTY in 1983. However, they took the top prize the following year.
Just two years later, the incredible Fatima Whitbread did the same. Taking the runner up spot in 1986 and winning outright in 1987.
For the following decade, there was just one female winner of the sports personality of the Year. The Scottish athlete Liz McColgan took the top prize after winning the 10,000m Gold Medal at the World Championships. But, the rest of the nineties saw no further women taking pole position.
That’s not to say that there was no female sporting talent around. The nineties saw many women dominate their sports, but sadly just Sally Gunnell and Denise Lewis made it to the top three.
Things did change for the better from the years 2000 to 2010. During this period, there were twelve top three places. On top of this, Paula Radcliffe thoroughly deserved to take the title in 2002. Then Kelly Holmes in 2004. And Princess Anne’s daughter, Zara Phillips, holds the last female winner’s title in 2006.
Is Sports Personality of the Year Unfair?
A public vote judges the winner of the BBC Sportsperson of the Year. Mind you, it doesn’t always work out that way. When the Angling Times campaigned for Bob Nudd in 1991, the fisherman received the most nominations. Unfortunately, the BBC denied him his win, claiming that nominations on forms printed in the Angling Times amounted to ‘fixing’ and that the campaign was unfair.
The unofficial speculation has always been that Nudd wasn’t quite “sexy” enough for the increasingly ‘Oscar-like’ ceremony. Since then, the Beeb seems to have relented on the issue, and campaigning is increasing – with the BBC declaring that they can’t stop lobbying any longer. So perhaps who gets ‘pushed’ hardest is a factor in who gets short-listed.
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There are other theories to consider, which include the comparatively small female sporting TV audience as well as high-profile players attracting votes regardless of achievement. Even the increase in the size of sportsmen’s pay packets can be seen as a factor.
Plus, even now, most women’s sporting events aren’t considered ‘mainstream’. Dr Joyce Kay, of Stirling University’s School of Sport says: “Women just aren’t on the minds… you’re fighting against the system all the time where it’s the big sports that get the recognition.”
What an uproar the no-woman SPOTY of 2011 caused. The BBC received so many complaints about the lack of female representation that it published this statement:
“We recognise that the all-male line-up has created much debate amongst viewers of the programme, sports-lovers in general and those that champion the cause of Women’s sport in this country.
“We have had many different points made in the reaction we receive which informs our editorial discussions and we do value it.”
That’s nice then, but it wasn’t enough for Harriet Harman, the Shadow Culture, Media and Sport Secretary at the time. She demanded even before it was made public that the BBC should put some women on the list. Later an angry lynch mob of female Labour and Lib-Dem MPs wrote to BBC boss Mark Thompson demanding an end to this “disgraceful bias against women”.
Across the sporting world, women have united in their anger and, in an attempt to give the girls a sporting chance, Denise Lewis even went as far as to suggest a separate BBC prize for women sports stars.
The former Olympic champion, who secured gold in the heptathlon at the Sydney Games in 2000, called for ‘female’ and ‘male’ categories in the Sports Personality of the Year Competition to ensure that women’s achievements are not overlooked, insisting that the current system is unfair.
Historically, the SPOTY awards have seen an underrepresentation of women, reflecting the wider issue of gender inequality in sports. However, the narrative started to shift in 2021 when a promising surge of female contenders stepped onto the SPOTY spotlight.
This increase in female representation represents more than numbers; it’s a testament to progress and a stride towards parity. It signifies the beginning of an era where the extraordinary achievements of female athletes are acknowledged on par with their male counterparts.
Odds for SPOTY 2023
So, with signs that SPOTY is finally recognizing the achievements of women in sports, will a woman make it three in a row in 2023?