On your marks for SPOTY's most controversial vote yet
It will be the biggest gathering of sporting legends under one roof in Northern Ireland’s history. But tomorrow night’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year spectacular at Belfast’s SSE Arena is once again mired in controversy — and just for once not because the unfancied nominee wins. Ivan Little reports
It’s a racing certainty that it’s going to be the biggest sporting spectacular that Northern Ireland has ever seen. Or is ever likely to witness again.
The BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards are our Olympics and World Cup all rolled into one, with more famous faces smiling for the cameras than you could shake a selfie stick at.
Tomorrow, the SSE Arena in Belfast will play host to the most star-studded Who’s Who — and Who Was Who — of British sport ever to gather under one roof here.
And the combined wealth of the big-time big-hitters will run into multi-millions, as the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Andy Murray and Mo Farah jockey for the most prestigious award in the country.
Footballing megastars and golfing greats like Rory McIlroy are also expected to turn heads in the huge SSE auditorium, which is normally home to the Belfast Giants, the most significant game-changers in the recent history of sport in Northern Ireland which has traditionally been divided along sectarian faultlines.
However, only the most fanatical of sports anoraks will be able to identify all the guests as they stroll across the red carpet in Titanic Belfast in tomorrow afternoon’s warm-up — or icebreaker — for the actual SPOTY awards in the evening.
Millions of TV viewers will tune in for the ceremony on BBC One to see who wins a series of awards for sporting excellence, but as usual most eyes will be focused on who takes the chequered flag in the public vote.
But this year, more than ever, most of the attention will be on one man. Not because of what he has done for his sport during the year, but because of what he has said in the aftermath of his greatest-ever triumph. Boxer Tyson Fury’s recent heavyweight rants against gays and women have punched the SPOTY awards on to the front pages of British newspapers rather than just the back.
Protests by gay and feminist activists outside the old Odyssey Arena will probably capture more headlines than the winners of the coveted gongs — unless, of course, Fury confounds the bookies and gets more votes than anyone else.
Reports also say more news journalists than usual will cover the awards this year. Which is hardly surprising — given the offence which Fury has caused in the wake of his shock world-title winning conquest of Ukrainian Wladimir Klitschko last month.
More than 140,000 people have signed a petition demanding that the BBC remove Fury from the extended shortlist of 12 nominees for the SPOTY award, but the Corporation has refused to throw in the towel.
Director General Tony Hall told a House of Commons committee that an independent panel had made Fury a late addition to the shortlist, but he denied the Belfast Telegraph's exclusive revelation that the boxer's name had been included at the behest of the BBC.
Fury, however, will have no qualms if he has to run the gauntlet of protesters in Belfast. He has a strong fan-base in the city of his mother's birth and he also has cousins in Co Antrim.
He initially fought out of the Holy Family Boxing Club in Belfast and during his professional career he fought twice in the city, once against local hero Martin Rogan.
He even talked about moving to live here in 2011, when he was photographed in an Antrim GAA jersey.
Fury has refused to apologise for his controversial comments about homosexuals and women and the BBC isn't saying how it will treat Fury when it comes to announcing his nomination tomorrow evening.
One presenter apparently refused to interview the 6ft 9in fighter for a preview programme and it's not clear if the live transmission tomorrow night will steer away from the contentious issues surrounding him.
One BBC source told me: "This has all the makings of a complete nightmare. It's not the sort of issue which normally comes up on what is supposed to be a happy clappy sports programme.
"Whatever happens, someone will be offended. We'll be damned if we talk to Fury about what he said and we'll be damned if we don't. And, of course, it must be remembered that one of the presenters - Claire Balding - is gay.
"Then we also have among the nominees Jessica Ennis Hill, who was the subject of a sexist remark by Fury, and Greg Rutherford, who had to be talked into going back into the show after he initially withdrew."
The SPOTY awards have been dogged by controversy before, but usually because of disagreements about the winners and about who appears on the shortlist and who doesn't.
This year, fans of superbike world champion Jonathan Rea, made a last-ditch call for the motorcyclist from Larne to be added to the SPOTY nominees' roll-call, but to no avail.
Twelve years ago, Tyrone GAA fans launched a huge, but ultimately unsuccessful, email campaign in the wake of their All-Ireland victory to get Peter Canavan, named onto the SPOTY shortlist to challenge England rugby star Jonny Wilkinson, who had just kicked his country to World Cup glory.
The Tyrone fans' tactics had been borrowed from supporters of Bob Nudd, who was a big name in the fishing world in 1991. Fellow anglers cast their votes, not their nets, in Nudd's direction and he came out top of the poll.
However, the BBC threw the vote back in the water after they said the Angling Times' campaign for Nudd was against the rules and they discarded all the ballots which had been written on forms printed in the magazine.
In the end, athlete Liz McColgan, who was married at the time to Strabane man Peter McColgan, was awarded the SPOTY trophy.
Yet, in 2011, no women were among the nominees and even sportsmen like athlete Dai Greene joined 11-time Paralympic champion Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson in outbursts over the imbalance. The year before, golfer Ian Poulter was spitting feathers over darts after Phil 'The Power' Taylor finished as runner-up to Toomebridge jockey AP McCoy. Graeme McDowell, who was a Major winner that year, was fifth in the SPOTY voting, but Poulter, who doesn't believe darts is a sport, described the result as a farce, adding "Get a grip".
Tomorrow, McCoy is to receive a second SPOTY honour - a Lifetime Achievement Award to mark his retirement in April after a record-breaking career in horse-racing.
He said he was thrilled with the recognition, but sad that the award would be the last SPOTY trophy he would ever lift.
However, McCoy's accolade will be one of the highlights for local sports fans at the SSE, where scores of BBC technicians from across the water will also beam the event into homes all over the UK. Insiders say it's one of the biggest outside broadcasts ever staged in Belfast, where BBC Northern Ireland will provide the staff for that special programme which is being transmitted live from Titanic Belfast during the build-up to the main event.
Planning meetings have been going on for months and rehearsals will reach a crescendo at the SSE today and tomorrow.
There's been criticism of the fact that Tourism Ireland and Belfast City Council have provided financial backing for the BBC awards, with no guarantee that the province would be mentioned during the ceremony.
However, the preview programme which went out on Wednesday evening highlighted Northern Ireland's extraordinary achievements in the sporting world, singling out greats like George Best, Barry McGuigan, Mary Peters, Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell, Alex Higgins, AP McCoy and Dennis Taylor.
The massive influx of English-based BBC crews and sports stars has also brought a massive bonanza for the economy here, with hundreds of hotel beds booked for several nights.
Janice Gault, of the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation, said: "There has been a definite uplift in the number of bookings for Sunday, which is usually a quiet night for hotels, so it's quite good from that point of view."
A total of 4,000 rooms are usually available in Belfast on any Sunday night. But even though it's Christmas, there is still room at the inn.
The indications from visits to a number of accommodation sites on the internet are that many of the city's major hotels still have vacancies.
Officials at Belfast International Airport said that no additional airline flights - or private jets - have been booked to bring people attending the SPOTY awards in or out of the city tomorrow.
And a curfew for planes leaving the George Best Belfast City Airport comes into effect after the end of the ceremony.