The build up to the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY) Award has caused more than a few raised eyebrows. The selection process, for those who are not aware, is relatively simple. The BBC selects a panel of ‘leading sports experts’ from various national and regional newspapers and magazines, who are asked to choose their top ten sportsmen or women “whose actions have most captured the public’s imagination in 2011”. From these nominations the shortlist is compiled. This list of publications and their nominations is at the following link. The BBC’s judging terms and conditions are here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport2/hi/tv_and_radio/sports_personality_of_the_year/9084058.stm

I have been vocal in my reaction to the shortlist and, with week’s worth of water having passed under the bridge, I wanted to pen a blog as my personal contribution to the wider debate that so clearly needs to be had.

The issue for me is threefold. First, and predictably, the exclusion of women in the shortlist, and the lack of female nominations overall (and of the 58 past winners of the main award, just 13 were female); second, the lack of representation of so called ‘minority sports’, and third the scant attention paid to para-athletes.

Let me be clear. The river runs much deeper than SPOTY, and discussions about who has, or hasn’t, been included in the list. Awards are, by their very nature, subjective and you will never be able to include or recognize everybody (although, this does not negate the need to ensure that the mechanism for selecting recipients of an award must be as fair and balanced as possible). More significant is that the SPOTY process and shortlist has shone a spotlight on some important issues pertaining to the media coverage of, and overall support for, women, para-athletes and minority sports.

Before I go on, I want to make clear my deepest admiration and respect for every athlete who made the shortlist. As a professional athlete I can appreciate the drive, dedication, commitment and skill needed to excel at a chosen sport, and I would never want to disparage them or their achievements. However, the list clearly reflects a view (at least by the publications consulted) that the performances by the 10 male nominees were superior to those by any single female athlete.

Is this really true? Have women simply achieved less across the board, or has their success been in, so-called, minority sports that have not been extensively covered by the mainstream media? I would contend that there have been many outstanding performances by female athletes that would have merited their inclusion in the list. Space will not permit me to detail each and every one, but they include Keri-Anne Payne (10km swimming world champion), Sarah Stevenson (Taekwondo world champion), Hayley Turner (historic success in horse racing’s Group One’s July cup), Helen Jenkins (Triathlon world champion), Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins (rowing world gold medalists), Dee Caffari (round the world sailing world record). Lizzy Hawker (world record for 24hour endurance run – winning overall, and beating all the men) and Rebecca Addlington (800m freestyle swimming world champion) and many more. Aside from Rebecca these women hardly featured in the nominations: but if you take their performances into account it seems somewhat erroneous for one BBC presenter to justify – and effectively endorse –  the all-male list with the claim that “it hasn’t been a great year for women in sport“.

It is not all doom and gloom. I feel fortunate to participate in a sport where women and men compete on a level playing field, racing on the same course at the same time, and for the same prize money. The triathlon media covers men and women’s participation and race results in equal measure. The number of female participants is growing exponentially, and sponsors and federations do not seem to demonstrate gender bias when it comes to support. In addition, I would like to give credit to the mainstream media – including the BBC – whose coverage of triathlon, and ironman, has increased over the past few years, providing myself and other athletes with an opportunity to further raise the profile of our sport. But there is still a long way to go, and I appreciate that for other sports the media coverage lags far behind that of triathlon, and light years behind football, rugby, cricket, tennis and golf.  This is exemplified by some Tweeters who have claimed never to have heard of any of the above female athletes and hence are unable to understand what all the fuss is about. And therein lies the issue. SPOTY honours ‘the sportsman or woman whose actions have most captured the public’s imagination’. For sportswomen to actually get into the public’s imagination would be a good starting point.

Don’t get me wrong. Tokenistic mentions are not what’s needed. Women should feature solely on merit: because they have reached the global pinnacle of the sport that they have devoted their lives to.

Second, as I said above, this is not only a gender issue. The SPOTY shortlist also highlights the lack of visibility of para-athletes and also of minority sports per se. In short, success in the water or in martial arts is deemed inferior to triumph on the football pitch, athletics track or tennis court. There have been performances by men and of para-athletes that have failed to even cause a ripple in the British media, let alone afford them contention for a mainstream public award. These include Nick Matthew, who became the first player in 15 years to defend successfully the World Open squash title, Liam Tancock, who also took gold, for the second successive time, in the 50m backstroke at the World Aquatics Championships and Alistair Brownlee, who won the Triathlon World Championships.  Para-athlete successes include those by David Weir, Katrina Hart, Sam Ingram, Ben Quilter, Libby Clegg, Jon Allan Butterworth, Jody Cundy to name just a few. But their performances have passed practically unnoticed.

I welcome the BBC’s announcement that a review will be undertaken of the SPOTY nomination process, in consultation with a range of stakeholders. The Award has historically used a variety of methodologies, and of course, the outcome is always based on the subjective views of the selection panel – whether that is a private or public vote.  While the current process has been in place since 2006, and this is the first year that a female has not featured in the shortlist, I disagree with the BBC’s assertion that this system is “fair, independent and robust”. Although I do not have an issue, per se, of the inclusion of Nuts and Zoo, I believe that (assuming their readership is predominantly male) that equivalent publications with a predominately female audience, for example Sportssister, are also included.  I would suggest that the shortlist be developed by a panel of sports industry professionals, from a range of different bodies: radio, tv and print media; UK Sport staff; ex professional sports men and women; previous SPOTY winners, including coaches and unsung heroes. I would also suggest that the nature of the Award itself be clearly defined (eg is it for performance, personality or a mixture of both?) We don’t necessarily need a separate award for men and women – nor do we need a pre-specified minimum number of women included in a joint list. The BBC should institute a process which is fair and balanced and can truly reflect the very best that Britain has to offer, some of those world beating performances will undoubtedly be by females, those in minority sports an para-athletes.

Much has been made of my decision not to attend the SPOTY ceremony. Contrary to reports I have not called for a widespread boycott. I simply feel that I personally need to ‘walk the talk’. I do not feel able to support an event which endorses and perpetuates the message that a) not one single women has done anything of sporting note, relative to their male counterparts this year, and that b) the achievements of those participating in minority sports are somehow inferior to those in more high profile (better funded) sports. The BBC has instituted this Award and needs to take responsibility for the flawed methodology that led to the outcome of the shortlist. To have been so openly critical of the process and its outcome and then sit there in a posh frock implicitly lending my support would be hypocritical of me. I do however feel very strongly that every athlete has a right to make his/her own decision, and would never want to urge/encourage others to follow my lead unless they personally felt that it was the right thing to do.

But what, many of you may still be asking, is all the fuss about? Why does the SPOTY shortlist matter?

Let me be clear. I didn’t take up triathlon for public accolades or to become a millionaire. I loved my former job working as an advisor on international development policy to the UK Government, but I craved the challenge of pushing my body and mind to the limit, relishing the chance to see just how good I could be. Being shortlisted for SPOTY couldn’t have been further from my mind.  Not long after I became as a professional in February 2007, I remember saying to my coach “All I do is swim, bike and run – it’s so selfish. I don’t feel I am doing anything to help others.” And he replied, “Chrissie, just you wait. Before long you will be able to affect change in a way you never thought possible.” His prophesy has come true – with my four World Championship victories I have the platform I dreamed of to combine sport and development work and bring about positive change. Of course I am a fierce competitor, and I love to work hard, smash myself and fight for every victory – but each win brings more opportunity. As I said, I don’t race for accolades, but winning allows me to speak about things I am passionate about, to inspire and encourage others, to lead by example, to be a role model for change, to raise the bar and to raise awareness about important issues.

I believe professional sports people serve as representatives and ambassadors but, currently, the attractive wife of a male sports star is more likely to attract column inches than a female sportsperson. Is it no wonder then that young girls no longer aspire to be a successful swimmer or taekwondo player? Without strong, healthy, active, successful female (and male) sporting role models, female participation in competitive sports will continue to decline, and we will see an exacerbation of the current (worrying) situation where 80% of women and girls are not active enough to benefit their health.

Participation in sport is an extremely powerful tool for tackling deep-rooted social issues: obesity and other health problems, bullying, truancy, crime, unemployment and so forth. But without the support of the media/sponsors/federations athletes do not have the visibility necessary to enable us to inspire, encourage and enthuse, and hence drive participation in, and generating demand for media coverage of, all sports. This increase in participation can also help to drive the development of infrastructure, improved facilities – further catalysing the development of healthy, active individuals and the next generation of sporting stars. The growth in public participation in cycling galvanised by the gold medal winning performances of Mark Cavendish, Victoria Pendleton and Chris Hoy, among others, is a case in point. Or alternatively we can look to Dame Kelly Holmes, who – with her public profile on the back of sporting success – has been able to gain considerably more traction for the wonderful work she is undertaking through her charitable Foundation. Likewise for the late Jane Tomlinson who was awarded the SPOTY Helen Rollason award for “outstanding achievement in the face of adversity” in 2002. The award bought Jane’s situation and amazing courage into the spotlight, and gave increased visibility to her cause. Of course, SPOTY is not the be all and end all, but awards like that do attract a large audience and hence provide a platform for visibility and for positive change, should the nominated athlete chose to use it.

And media coverage, including public awards, matter because media exposure and support/funding for professional and amateur sport are bedfellows. Again, the growth and success in British Cycling exemplifies this funding/success/media/funding connection. Without a media profile, funding and sponsorship is hard to attain. Without the high prize purses and sponsorship coffers the media do not bat an eye, and hence the sport suffers from a further shortfall in financial support. This is a self-fulfilling, circular process that needs to be broken. And this debate is an important step in doing so.

So, to me, SPOTY presents a missed opportunity. But paradoxically, it could be a valuable window of opportunity too. For the issue has prompted debate and dialogue. Not everyone will agree with what I, and others, say. But that’s fine. The fact that the issue is up for discussion is a step forward, and will hopefully serve to catalyse change on issues I think we can all agree on. That is, that sport has a tremendous power – and we need to encourage a growth in participation amongst women and men, in whatever sport they choose to partake in. And that the media increases its coverage of a range of sports, celebrating the best that Great Britain truly does have to offer.

 Champions come and go, but to me the real judge of my personal success  – and legacy – will be whether I actually do something positive with the opportunities I have been given. I really hope that as four time World Ironman Champion, I can be a role model and ambassador for the sport that everyone can be proud of.  That, not the number of Awards in my cabinet, is what motivates me  – and when I train and when I race it is at the fore of my mind.