Mike Rowbottom: Cavendish odds on for SPOTY but Clarke could yet beat him on the final straight

Monday, 19 December 2011
Mike Rowbottom_17-11-11Five years ago, Mark Cavendish described his main strength as a cyclist. "I'm an old school sprinter," he said. "I can't climb a mountain, but if I am in front with 200 metres to go then there's nobody who can beat me."

If this year's BBC Sports Personality of the Year were a cycling race, the 26-year-old Manx Missile – whose odds as favourite have been cut recently from 4/9 to 4/11 - would be a dead cert to win.

With two days left to go he is so far in front it looks like there is nobody who can beat him from among the other nine shortlisted sportsmen – that's right, no women - who will hear the public vote on Thursday night (December 22).

Following their breakthrough Major wins this year, golfers Darren Clarke (5-1) and Rory McIlroy (10-1) are the closest rivals to the man who took his total of Tour de France stage wins to 20 this year and finished with the sprinter champion's green jersey before becoming only the second British rider to win the Road Race world title.

Latest odds on the rest are: Mo Farah 11-1, Luke Donald 16-1, Alastair Cooke 50-1, Andrew Strauss, Dai Greene 125-1, Andy Murray, Amir Khan 200-1.

The cyclist's position in the betting is so far ahead in the betting that a spokesperson for Ladbrokes told Bettingpro.com this week: "Cavendish would have to fall off his bike in order to lose from this position."

The wheels have certainly been put in motion for Cavendish in the last few weeks by British Cycling, which has launched a campaign on social media sites in support of its star performer.

Mark Cavendish_wins_London_2012_test_event_August_14_2011The tag #CAV4SPOTY yields pathways to the downloading of a standard Cavendish (pictured) face mask, and all those then posting images of it make themselves eligible to win a GB shirt signed by the man himself, with 10 Team Sky bottles.

British Cycling has also launched a Twibbon site, which promotes causes on Facebook and Twitter by overlaying a small icon onto supporters' profile images. When last I looked, this approach had garnered another 655 supporters, with associated comments along the lines of "Go Cav" and "Vote for Cav."

Cavendish's team-mate Geraint Thomas, who helped lead him out to his road race victory in Copenhagen, tweets:  "Not long now people".

The BBC has its rules about unfair conduct in relation to the SPOTY, but as far as lobbying goes, all's fair. The official line is that it's too difficult a territory to patrol.

The British Cycling campaign page contains a mnemonic message, part of which quotes the assessment of Cavendish offered by Chris Boardman, the 1992 Olympic pursuit champion who subsequently rode several Tour de France races:

"I think it's fair to say that right now his is the most successful cyclist Britain has ever had, on pretty much any sort of scale you want to measure it on."

Now that is what you call a serious endorsement, and it underlines the respect, bordering on awe, with which Cavendish is now viewed in cycling circles as he seeks to become only the third within his sport to take this award after Tommy Simpson in 1965 and Chris Hoy in 2008. Success would also make him, at 26, the second youngest Sports Personality of the Year after the 24-year-old rugby player Jonny Wilkinson, whose World Cup-winning drop kick was honoured in 2003.

However, as the Bettingpro site points out, favourites don't always win this award – as Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button and Rebecca Adlington could all attest.

The factors weighing against Cavendish could be the relative sparseness of his home base, with a population of 84,655, the Isle of Man has less chance statistically of generating the kind of concentrated support which Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland generated in helping the last four winners – Joe Calzaghe, Chris Hoy, Ryan Giggs and Tony McCoy – to the big old TV camera trophy.

Darren Clarke_celebrates_winning_British_OpenThere is also a feeling that the hugely popular Clarke (pictured), who has finally landed his first Major, the Open, at the age of 43, could yet mount a strong late run, with memories of his stoicism of 2006, when he managed to contribute to Europe's Ryder Cup win despite the recent death of his wife, Heather, through cancer, still fresh. Clarke, who was second in 2006 behind world eventing champion Zara Phillips, has a huge and committed fanbase.

In the end, no matter the downloaded masks or the tweets of support, it will all come down to old-fashioned telephone calls on the night. This household played its part back in 1998 in ensuring that Michael Owen, whose World Cup goal against Argentina as an 18-year-old remains one of English football's most inspiring moments, earned the SPOTY award, registering, as I recall, 14 votes in the course of an industrious evening on the dog-and-bone.

Will there be more willing to do this for Cavendish – who would seem to have many years of achievement ahead of him – than the rumpled golfer approaching middle age? There's the question.

One result that is already clear is that the Laureus World Sports Awards, which name their winners in February next year, has a less controversial categorisation than the BBC. At last week's announcement of nominated sporting figures, one of the Laureus people was reflecting gratefully upon the fact that, right from the start in 2000, there was a separate category for Sportswoman of the Year. A similar category would have saved the Beeb a lot of grief this year. But then there are those advocating women's sport who would argue that it is better to be fighting it out directly with the men. 

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, and has covered the past five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames. Rowbottom's Twitter feed can be accessed here
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