RONNIE O’Sullivan may or may not have deserved to make the shortlist for this particular year’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year Show, but the annual programme celebrating the sporting year this Sunday will be another reminder that he has never even been nominated and put forward to the public vote.
This year O’Sullivan has won the Masters, the Welsh Open making a 12th and all-time record 147 maximum break to win it, the Champion of Champions and the UK Championship in one of the best finals of recent years, chucking in another 147 in the event. And all done with the usual panache and style that has even fellow pros purring, drawing in TV viewers in the millions.
Let’s be generous to this year’s much-changed BBC panel and note some of those achievements occurred after the shortlist was announced, and also that he fell short in the big one, the World Championship final at the Crucible, losing 18-14 to Mark Selby in a match which he unusually let slip. If you believe that a world title should be some kind of pre-requisite to be nominated then there is at least a reason this year, although that is a decent campaign by most normal standards.
However the BBC have now given themselves a serious problem over O’Sullivan and wider sporting recognition for him on SPOTY - and it stems purely and simply from bewildering past oversights, and from not nominating him when they should have.
If not earlier, they should have had him on the shortlist in 2012, when his career was all but saved by sports psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters, and O’Sullivan went from being 4-0 down in the first round in January at the German Masters to beating Andrew Higginson, winning his first ranking title for two and a half years in Berlin, and then winning a fourth world title and a first for four years.
And even more unforgivably, he should have been on the shortlist last year, incredibly waltzing to a fifth world title after finally doing what he had threatened for years and taking almost an entire season away from the game to recharge the batteries.
Having not taken these opportunities to give O’Sullivan the chance of at least a public vote for the recognition, either a) he never will be; b) the pressure reaches such a level he might get nominated in a year he shouldn’t be to make up for it; or hopefully c) he does win another world title, by no means guaranteed, and the chance is finally and belatedly taken to push his claims.
In recent casual conversations with sports editors they have expressed amazement that O’Sullivan has never been on the shortlist, since he transcends his own sport in the way great sportsmen do. And yet it is some of their colleagues who have in the past been in part responsible, making up the numbers on the panel who decides – alongside BBC senior management, and a selection of the great and the good of British sport.
There just seems to be a snobbery that persists about snooker, and a bias, agenda, call it what you like towards other sports. There is simply no other rational explanation as to why O’Sullivan has never been on the shortlist. This can’t be levelled at the public – they aren’t even getting the chance to vote – so it is the panel. A public vote would in my view in the years mentioned above have resulted in something akin to darts legend Phil Taylor’s second place in 2010.
Steve Davis, working for the BBC at the recent UK Championship, stated as diplomatically as he was able that O’Sullivan there was “more emphasis on sports where you sweat”, in fairness probably as far as he could go before in all likelihood earning some kind of rebuke from his employers. Davis, of course, finished in the top three five times in the 1980s in the days of a free vote.
His BBC co-presenter and commentator Stephen Hendry was stronger after last year’s baffling omission, raising the snobbery concern. O’Sullivan himself is pretty philosophical when asked about it, just accepting that he and his sport are not the cups of tea of those doing the judging.
In fairness there was a time in his career when O’Sullivan probably didn’t help himself, with the regular talk of retirement and hating his own sport – but the work with Peters has seen almost all of that disappear since 2011. And there is a valid reason he is called a genius to the point of monotony. That he is a genius.
The bottom line is that O’Sullivan would be far more recognised – and for good reason – than many of those shortlisted this or last year. He would be more recognised than most footballers. Probably six of this year’s crop could happily go down the street without being spotted. Fame isn’t everything, but O’Sullivan is widely known for his supreme talent and honours on the table and a certain notoriety, fascination and intrigue off it.
Personality, let’s call it. Let’s see if anything changes if he can equal Davis’s world title tally in Sheffield.
Photograph by Monique Limbos