Sports Personality Awards Preview

As Belfast prepares to host Britain's finest athletes, it's the hard work of our own heroes that shines through the noise around this year's BBC gala

The festive season in Northern Ireland is looking as familiar as ever. The international market at Belfast City Hall is doing a roaring trade. The annual Black Santa Appeal is accepting charity donations via debit and credit card. And as the city prepares to host that other Christmas tradition – the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards – for the first time, politics and sport have once again been drawn together in a controversy that does not appear to be going away.

The broadcaster’s director general Tony Hall has been appearing before the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sports Committee to defend the inclusion of boxer Tyson Fury among the twelve names shortlisted for the main award. The recently crowned heavyweight champion of the world, who should perhaps let his gloves do the talking for him, caused a huge stir following remarks he made about women and gay people.

Lord Hall insists that Fury’s inclusion by an independent panel was based on 'his sporting prowess'. The boxer, known for uttering ridiculous things, says he tries to 'play the panto villain' for effect. The 130,000 people who have already petitioned the broadcaster to remove Fury from the short list would beg to differ.

With the plethora of pantomime being staged at venues like the Waterfront and the Grand Opera House, Belfast nor BBC Northern Ireland has any need for more clowns in the city this weekend. Particularly given the hard work that has gone in to staging the award's 51st annual edition.

Fury’s points defeat of defending champion Wladimir Klitschko in Dusseldorf is all the 27 year old, unbeaten in 25 contests, needed to impress doubters. Why spoil it?

2015 has been quite an odyssey, too, for the other contenders who will walk the red carpet on Sunday evening at Titanic Belfast and then to the recently rebranded SSE Arena for the main awards programme. Sadly there was no consideration for Belfast’s Michael Conlon – the first men’s amateur world champion from Ireland or the new world Superbike champion Jonathan Rea from Ballyclare.

Jessica Ennis Hill has given notice of her intentions for the Rio Olympics by winning her second world heptathlon in China, 13 months after the birth of her first child. Cyclist Lizzie Armitstead was named world road race champion in Richmond, Virginia, while Great Britain colleague Chris Froome responded to hostile abuse in the best way possible – by retaining the Tour de France winner’s jersey. 

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, who claimed a third Formula 1 crown, could be the viewers choice to hang on to the SPOTY award he received for the first time in Glasgow last December. Andy Murray’s part in Great Britain’s Davis Cup success, Mo Farrah’s continued dominance in 5,000 and 10,000 metres running, Greg Rutherford’s supremacy in the long jump, the emergence of new swimming star Adam Peaty, England footballer Lucy Bronze’s medal from the World Cup, gymnast Max Whitlock’s victory at the World Championships, and Kevin Sinfield’s contribution to rugby league shows how tough a choice it is going to be.

The staging of SPOTY in Belfast is part of the BBC’s decade-long commitment to bringing one of its national treasures to the people. More than 5000 members of the public have paid for the privilege to be among the great and the good on Sunday.

Televising such a spectacle requires much invention too. For the first time, BBC cameras will provide live coverage from both Titanic Belfast and then as the main programme gets underway at the Odyssey. The days when the BBC could automatically delve into its own archive for footage from the main events are long gone too.

Horse racing, cricket, golf and boxing are among the sports that have moved to other broadcasters. Delicate and expensive negotiations are required to gain temporary access to the jewels that sit on other crowns.

Northern Ireland has provided three main award winners in the past. Olympic pentathlon gold medalist Mary Peters claimed it in 1972. Thirteen years later Clones’ new world featherweight boxing champion Barry McGuigan was chosen by the viewers.

In 2010 jockey Tony McCoy was the people’s choice. AP ended his career this year after an unbeaten 20 year run as champion jump jockey and is being recognised on Sunday with the Lifetime Achievement award. Present world number three golfer, Rory McIlroy was on course to win the main prize last year before Lewis Hamilton pipped him on the line.

Away from the main award, the local audience may have something to cheer about on Sunday evening if the Get Inspired Unsung Hero Award goes to Belfast community worker Damien Lindsay, who is involved with the St James Swifts football club.

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The St James district, based off the Falls Road, has had more than its fair share of social problems and Lindsay’s work in trying to improve life for young people in the area deserves the credit he has been given.

Apart from helping to run two teams at his football club, Lindsay has also started an urban farm. Young people have had the experience of caring for animals as well as growing produce in a vegetable allotment that is shared out with those in need.

In one of his earlier summer initiatives, he organised for a group to honour the history of Belfast Celtic - the area’s most famous football team – in a series of mural paintings.

'I was shocked that I should be nominated for this,' says Lindsay. 'Of course it is an honour. I’m both delighted and embarrassed. However I would regard it as recognition for all those who help out with St James.'

And as to the prospect of rubbing shoulders with the likes of Gabby Logan, Clare Balding, Gary Lineker and the other contenders, he reveals one Christmas wish. 'To be honest I’d love to meet some of the Arsenal team, if they’re there,' admits the lifelong Gunners supporter.

BBC's 2015 Sports Personality of the Year coverage starts with the Red Carpet Show at 5pm this Sunday, December 20 on the BBC 2 red button before the main broadcast from 6.50pm on BBC 1.