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Friday, May 28, 2004

SPORTS SCOPE

World Sports Awards a great but flawed concept


Don't you hate it when you are presented with something that is sold as being all-encompassing, only to find out is it not?

Jack Gallagher

Whether it is a universal remote for your electronic devices, that is not quite universal, or a contest claiming to select the top performers in sports, that really doesn't, nobody likes to be misled.

Earlier this month, Formula One superstar Michael Schumacher was named the World Sportsman of the Year at the Laureus World Sports Awards in Portugal.

The annual event, billed as the "Sporting Oscars," is promoted as a legitimate attempt to reward deserving athletes, who are nominated by media members from around the globe and then voted upon by the 41 living members of the World Sports Academy (all prominent former sportsmen and sportswomen), for their achievements.

While in theory this is a good idea, in practice it hasn't turned out that way.

Why?

The answer is simple.

The method by which the athletes are nominated is seriously flawed.

So much so, that not a single athlete from one of the four major North American professional sports leagues (NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL) has ever even been on the final ballot for the World Sportsman of the Year award in the five years the honor has been bestowed.

News photo
Despite hitting a single-season record 73 home runs in 2001, Barry Bonds was not selected as a finalist for the Laureus World Sportsman of the Year award.

This has been eating at me for a couple of years, but I wanted to give it some more time to see if my hunch was correct. Time has proven that it was.

This competition is supposed to consider the accomplishments of all athletes worldwide, but is has a decidedly Eurocentric tilt to it.

How else to explain Barry Bonds not being nominated in 2002, after hitting an MLB-record 73 home runs in 2001?

Or how about Tim Duncan, coming off his second straight MVP award while leading the San Antonio Spurs to the NBA title in 2003, not being nominated this year?

I hate to say it, but it's a joke. When stars like Bonds and Duncan can't even make the list of finalists, there is a real problem.

In 2002, the finalists were: Lance Armstrong, Maurice Greene, Schumacher, Ian Thorpe and Tiger Woods.

In 2003, the finalists were: Armstrong, Nordic skiing star Ole Bjoerndalen, Ronaldo, Schumacher and Woods.

The only North Americans ever to be finalists or win in the individual categories, came from the sports of tennis, golf, cycling and athletics. All sports with a European history.

Armstrong (2003) and Woods (2000, 2001) have both won the top honor, but the impression given is that "North American pro sports don't count."

Well, pardon me, but I would have to say that is the height of hypocrisy. We see this too often with so-called "international" organizations like the IOC and FIFA.

They seem to think the world revolves around everything European and nothing else counts.

In a strange way, it reminds me of how it is in the U.S. The impression is that anything outside of Washington or New York is unimportant.

Both of those theories are bogus.

The World Sports Awards was the brainchild of former Austrian Olympic ski jumper Hubert Neuper, who hatched the idea as a way to celebrate the top sportsmen of the 20th century back in 1999.

In fact, the original name was the World Sports Awards of the Century.

With the backing of the Austrian government, Neuper first held a nominating conference in June of 1999, where approximately 20 members of the media -- including me -- were flown in from around the globe to Vienna to draw up the list of nominees for a gala event that November.

The only qualification for the sportsmen we selected, was that they had to still be living.

I took great pride in the fact that it was me -- an American -- who nominated Roger Bannister for his historic achievement in running the first mile under 4 minutes.

The ceremony in Vienna turned out to be so successful that Neuper felt it would be a good idea to make it an annual occurrence.

The following year, the nominating conference and awards ceremony were both held in London. Shortly thereafter, Laureus took over the project and it took on a decidedly corporate tone.

Sponsors like Mercedes Benz and Cartier came on board and it became "big time."

Laureus heavily promotes the ideal of fairness and does indeed run a charitable organization -- Laureus Sport For Good Foundation -- that promotes sports-related community development projects around the world.

However, in spite of this, it is clear that they have a major problem with the bias in the annual nominating done by more than 400 journalists in 73 countries.

For the past couple of weeks I have repeatedly tried to obtain the breakdown by country -- or continent -- of the media that participate in the nomination process.

Following a series of telephone calls and e-mails, the public relations people in London who handle media relations for Laureus, provided me with only a list of the countries where the media are from.

I was informed by publicist Shelly Samuel that she was, "unfortunately not able to provide me with percentage details as requested, as this is confidential information which is kept by our auditors."

The funny thing is, that throughout the year I am inundated with e-mails from Laureus asking me how they can help me if I want to write something about their event.

Then, when I actually do, I get stonewalled.

After receiving the above statement, I followed up with an e-mail asking for a comment about whether the organizers "are concerned that not a single athlete from a North American pro sports league has ever been nominated for the World Sportsman of the Year award?"

Not surprisingly, I never received a reply.

Not a very sporting response from an organization that claims to stand for all that is right about sports.



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