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Chris Froome will be questioned over his failed test during the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year show on Sunday. Photograph: Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images
For more than 60 years the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year has served up a mildly diverting few hours of saccharine and froth. The formula is long established: laud Britain’s sporting heroes, relive their glories through stirring montages, and throw a threw softball questions for them to answer.
Usually it makes for an easily digestible, if unchallenging, three hours of viewing. On Sunday night, however, the BBC is expected to break with tradition by firmly questioning Chris Froome about his failed test at the Vuelta a España when he appears via video link from his training camp in Spain.
Since an investigation by the Guardian and Le Monde revealed that Froome was found to have double the permitted levels of the asthma medication salbutamol in his system in a test taken on 7 September, he has gone from third favourite to a 50-1 outsider. Froome insists he has not broken any rules, only took the amount of the medication that was allowed, and that he will be able to provide an explanation for the adverse finding.
However, the brand and PR consultant Mark Borkowski believes the BBC programme needs to also reflect the wider reality of British sport in 2017. “It has been an ugly year,” he says. “What we seem to be increasingly seeing is a whole bunch of unlikeable heroes.” He points to another member of the 12-person shortlist under scrutiny – the Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton, who last month was revealed to have avoided £16.5m in tax on his private jet by using an offshore structure.
Some might think this does not matter, and that the focus should be solely on Hamilton’s audacious driving skills. But the Sports Personality of the Year award has always been a curious fusion of sporting prowess and likeability. “People, and particularly kids, want to identify with heroes,” says Borkowski. “But how can they do it when many of these athletes seem more remote to them than ever?”
Meanwhile, another of Britain’s greatest sporting stars, Mo Farah, also faced some hostile questions after winning a record 12th Olympic and world championship medal in August. Much of it was about his then coach, Alberto Salazar, who remains under investigation by the US Anti-Doping Agency. Farah, who is the third favourite for Spoty, has never failed a drugs test and insists that he plays by the rules. But will this backstory discourage some voters?
With these contenders all facing scrutiny for one reason or another, the heavyweight boxer Anthony Joshua is an overwhelming favourite – unsurprising, perhaps, given that his victory over the former champion Wladimir Klitschko for the WBA, IBF and IBO world heavyweight titles was watched by more than 80,000 people at Wembley.
And while it may be unwise to trust opinion polls or bookies’ forecasts given the result of the Brexit vote and this year’s general election, as things stand anyone who put £100 on Joshua to win would get only £13 in winnings back, along with their stake.
The William Hill spokesman Joe Crilly says: “Joshua is such a short-priced favourite but we have seen upsets before. It would appear, however, that Lewis Hamilton is the only one who can stop him from getting his hands on the coveted trophy given the controversy surrounding former third favourite Chris Froome.”
Some experts believe the programme would do well to acknowledge the broader questions facing British sport as well – especially given that over the past 18 months the words “climate of fear” have been heard many times in connection with Olympic and Paralympic sports.