Geraint Thomas was named the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year at a gala ceremony in Birmingham. The Tour de France champion became the fifth cyclist and the first Welshman since 2009 to take the prize. Lewis Hamilton came in second place while Harry Kane finished third.
On a night which drew out a theme of female sporting achievement, capped by the presentation of a lifetime achievement award to Billie Jean King for her achievements both on and off the tennis court, there were also two awards for Tracey Neville’s netball side.
“It’s just insane that I’m stood here‚” Thomas said. “I take great pride in representing Britain and Wales whenever i’m racing and it’s been a great year for British sport. Long may it continue.”
The winner of the category formerly known as Overseas Personality of the Year was also decided by the public. Now rebranded as World Sport Star and open to voters from around the world, golfer Francesco Molinari took the prize after a banner year. In the summer he became the first Italian to win a Major when he held off Tiger Woods, Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy in the final round of the Open at Carnoustie. Molinari also won all five points from his Ryder Cup fixtures in a victorious European campaign this autumn.
The Lifetime Achievement award was given to tennis icon Billie Jean King. She was honoured not only for the 39 grand slam titles she won over a 15-year professional career but for her role in advancing gender equality in the sport, and outside it. She was presented with her award by BBC presenter Sue Barker, her opponent in the third round of Wimbledon in 1978.
“It means so much to have Sue present this to me,” King said on collecting her award, before reflecting on how her experience in the sport effected her view of the world. “If you see it you can be it and we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. To all the athletes who truly have a platform let’s continue to use the power of our voices and our actions to inspire others.”
Another moving moment came in the with the presentation of the Helen Rollason award for “outstanding achievement in the face of diversity” to racing driver Billy Monger. Monger, 17, suffered a terrible crash during a Formula 4 race at Donington Park last year which resulted in the teenager having both his legs amputated. This year he returned to competition, in Formula 3, and claimed pole in his first race back at Donington.
Walking to the stage on prosthetic limbs and with no aid from a stick, Monger earned a standing ovation from the crowd. He went on to give a generous speech surrounded by the medical staff who had saved his life.
Inside Birmingham’s Resort World Arena, a 10,000-strong crowd of sporting VIPs and members of the paying public were treated to a show doing its best to be a spectacle. The BBC had announced several changes to the format of the awards this year, partly with the aim of pepping up the live broadcast. The biggest change was a reduction in the number of nominees for the main prize, with only six contenders chosen –meaning no place for Tyson Fury – and with nominees only informed of their selection when they were summoned up on stage by presenters Gary Lineker, Claire Balding and Gabby Logan.
After the announcement of the nominees opened the show the rest was a succession of action-packed sporting montages, some of them narrated by the nominees, brief interviews and live music. Paloma Faith opened the show, singing Aretha Franklin’s Respect (Billie Jean King’s first choice of song on Desert Island Discs), while the much-trailed reunion between Baddiel and Skinner and the Lightning Seeds produced a paunchy middle-aged version of Three Lions, complete with battered leather sofa and a series of choirs in the audience.
Baddiel and Skinner presented Gareth Southgate with his award for Coach of the Year and thanked him personally “for all the royalties”.
Southgate, in turn, said on receiving the award: “I’m incredibly proud. If you win as a coach it means your players have done something right. Ultimately we didn’t quite win the World Cup, I’m conscious of that, and till we all win together we won’t be satisfied. But sport is about inspiring people and bringing enjoyment and we enjoyed this journey with all of you.”
Alongside the men’s footballers it was also a big night for the women who claimed netball gold at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. A last-minute victory over Australia in the final prompted crazy scenes on the court and plainly endeared the team to an audience back home. The Moment of the Year, voted for by the public, went to Helen Housby’s buzzer-beating penalty, while the judging panel also named Tracey Neville’s side as Team of the Year.
“Many thanks to the panel who voted for us. It’s been a very long journey”, said captain Ama Agbeze. “It’s taken us years and years and this is the first time netball has managed to get a gold medal. We hope that in years come the netball world cup will on show like the football one tonight.”
After Monger’s speech was accidentally curtailed by Claire Balding he was brought back on stage later to finish his address. “I feel like I’ve said stuff to you already, but just in case you haven’t had enough of me already I just wanted to thank my mum and dad‚” he said.