British Humour, Under Achievement, and the Sports Personality of the Year

I love how all twitter commentary treats global sporting success as merely a means to the Sports Personality of the Year end. Uniquely British irony?

David Beckham, Bradley Wiggins and the Dutchess of Cambridge
David Beckham, Bradley Wiggins and the Dutchess of Cambridge at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, ExCel, 16th December 2012

I want to draw attention to something particular regarding the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award 2012. It’s best encapsulated in this tweet from Sunder Katwala, who is director of the British Future thinktank:

I love the suggestion that sports people might ‘bid’ for the Sports Personality of the Year trophy, as if it is an Oscar nomination or Presidential campaign that must be plotted and strategised years in advance. The humour lies in the idea that winning a world championship or a gold medal is simply a false peak, a means to an end, with the ultimate pinnacle actually being that little trophy of an old-style TV camera, on a polished wooden stand.

It’s not just Sunder using this ironic language. Throughout this summer of sporting success, one wag after another has quipped that the Sports Personality of the Year Award would be hard-fought. (I think I may even have caught Gary Lineker saying the same, one night during the Olympic Games).

The BBC’s annual review of the sporting year is the perfect thing to make witticisms about, because it is ever so slightly pathetic. In most years the winner is a shoo-in: just pick the British person to have been relatively successful at sport this year. There is usually only one. Looking back over the list of winners, I guess 1997 was an ur-year: Wimbledon quarter-finalists Greg Rusedski and Tim Henman came first and second, while Olympic rower Steve Redgrave managed third… even though it was an Olympic off-year.

So in making the comment, we’re doing two things: noting how very good the sport has been this year; but also making the self-deprecating point that these Mesospheric achievements are not what we’re used to. A most sincere celebration, and a piss-take, in one sentence.

And in that juxtaposition lies the British sensibility. Its the sort of comment that you are equally likely to hear on The Thick of It or Miranda. A smile-raiser (‘joke’ is a rather strong word) that I think almost all British people instinctively ‘get’, to the exclusion of other nationalities. Can you imagine the Americans making such a comment?

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