Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Brace yourselves, readers, because I can feel a rant coming on. A long, painful, nauseating rant. A rant as long and painful and nauseating as the two hours I spent in front of my television set last night, cursing the fact that what should have been a memorable celebration of sport and cycling was by some distance less gripping than what I'd watched the previous night. That's right, readers: I had more fun watching the X-Factor final than the BBC's Sports Review of the Year.
It's funny I should mention X-Factor. Well, it's actually not, because I'm plagiarizing from the e-mail my brother-in-law dispatched to the BBC complaints department this morning, and which he's just forwarded for my perusal. The thrust of his argument was neatly summed up in the letter's second paragraph: "The jewel in the [BBC] crown used to be Sports Review of the Year. I now fear that we have completely lost what made SRotY so special. Why did I have to tune into what appeared to be a version of X-Factor, but without Cheryl Cole... who at least has a loose connection to football? From memory, Danii Minogue used to shack up with Jacques Villeneuve, too."
This may sound flippant, but, to the fortunate few, you weren't there. He's making a serious point: in a two-hour glitz-fest that made the Cirque du Soleil look like a low budget nativity play, all that was missing was Simon Cowell and Louis Walsh bickering over the relative merits of Chris Hoy and Lewis Hamilton. Or a Strictly Come Dancing-style, made-for-TV, judging fiasco. Trust me, if the BBC producers could have, they would have.
I'm always reluctant to take a pop at SRotY, simply because, in recent years, it's become such an easy and heavily bombarded target. It also pains me to wade in the morning after a rare evening when the British nation became intoxicated on the vapours of cycling success. In case you didn't know already, last night's show concluded with a tearful Hoy collecting what some still consider one of the ultimate accolades for a British athlete: that of Sports Personality of the Year. This followed British Cycling Performance Director Dave Brailsford's richly deserved Coach of the Year award (even though, strictly speaking, he's not a coach), and the entire GB cycling squad's equally merititious Team of the Year gongs. Everywhere the cameramen turned, there were cyclists in their poshest frocks. Well, okay, mostly there was Tim Henman…but if you looked hard Vicky Pendleton was around somewhere.
It ought to have been a triumph, a chance to relive some of those extraordinary performances in Beijing, albeit in highlight form. Perhaps an insight into what makes Brailsford the ultimate kingmaker. Instead, what did we get? Er, just about everything except any of that: a contrived set-piece featuring Hoy and some of his track sprinting chums leisure-riding in the Pennines of all places, some of it filmed from a helicopter, nothing spared except the viewer's intelligence; the briefest of chats with Brailsford; the entire GB team having to get changed out of those posh frocks and into their riding gear so they could roll prettily down a ramp while everyone clapped; a few more brief interviews; a montage or 57; a nice side-profile of Nicole Cooke's boyfriend (big hair, glasses, in case you missed him); a few more montages.
Those bloody montages. On this topic, I'm afraid I'll have to defer to my brother-in-law again, who said it better than me when he enquired of the BBC: "How many times can we try and turn EVERY summary into the lost scenes from Gladiator?" I don't suspect he'll get an answer, but if he did, if the BBC really considered their motives, they'd probably tell him "as many as it takes to convince everyone who doesn't really like sport - because, let's face it, it's a bit boring – that they really were watching Gladiator". Or maybe "enough to bludgeon them into a semi-conscious state which will hopefully last until 2012, when London will hold the Montage Olympics…oh, and now you mention it, wasn't it good to see Heather 'Search For The Hero' Small looking so fit last night, because she's going to be doing a lot of singing."
I mean, blimey, I know what people were on about now when they said that it was the cleanest Olympics for a decade or more; I didn't realise it at the time, but, as far as the BBC were concerned, every event in Beijing took place in slow motion. Maybe that's why they couldn't stretch to doing something really radical like just showing us the 100 metre final AS-IT-ACTUALLY-HAPPENED. Now I think of it, it's a good thing they didn't, because that would have meant less time for Usain Bolt to be interviewed over the top of a Bob Marley track. After that piece of peerless stereotyping, when they called Hoy up to accept his award, hands up who wasn't expecting a kilted Gary Lineker to start belting out a few verses of Flower of Scotland, or Sue Barker to pay homage by tucking into a plate of haggis?
Rebecca Adlington paddling about in gold lamé, Ben Ainslie being made to fall backwards into the Channel fully clothed, Ian Poulter's golfing geezer schtick…it was all just dross – glittery, over-produced dross which, what's worse, obscured the excellence of the two items which were largely, mercifully devoid of montages and other gimmickry: those devoted to Sir Bobby Charlton and Alastair Hignell, the former international rugby player turned commentator who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999. Touching, inspirational, simple, these two features looked as though they'd been put together by a different production team altogether – one that actually cared about sport.
That's the thing about Sports Review of the Year: increasingly, it's the genuine sports lovers who find it a turn-off in its current, sexed-up incarnation, while the people I speak to who aren't really bothered for the other 364 days a year seem to think it's pretty good. Real sports fans say marvellous feats of speed, skill and endurance don't need dramatizing or glamorizing – just let the film roll and the emotions will flow. Television talent shows exist because it's other walks of life that need hype and celebrity stardust and, God forbid, montages.
The final thing I'll say – the great irony – is that a night which was supposed to celebrate a wonderful year in British sport actually ended up highlighting a lot of what could unhinge the London Olympics. I live in London and I enjoy a party as much as anyone, but I also get nervous when I read about the money being lavished upon the Games, the emphasis on gold medals, and the lack of discussion about how we foster a genuine culture of healthy participation and healthy competition among young people.
Basically it boils down to this: I watched last night and wondered what the BBC was more interested in promoting - sport or celebrity.