There is no particular reason for thinking ill of Sir Christopher Chataway.
Granted, you might not like his politics (he was a Conservative MP in the 1960s and 1970s) or the fact he had a lengthy career in banking, but in most regards he seems to be a decent sort, as his extensive efforts for numerous charities down the years would tend to suggest.
All well and good. All very worthy. But it is hard not to think of Chataway, now 81, without experiencing a pang of curiosity, and even disquiet, about another aspect of his life. For beyond the worlds of Westminster and high finance, Chataway was also an athlete of note. His greatest year was 1954, when he won gold in the three-mile event at the Commonwealth Games in Vancouver and was subsequently voted Sports Personality of the Year. It was the first year of the award. The runner-up was Sir Roger Bannister.
Hang on a minute. As every sports historian knows, 1954 was the year that Bannister became the first man to break the four-minute mile, motoring round Oxford's Iffley Road track in exactly 3 min 59.4 sec. As not so many know, Chataway was one of the supporting cast that day, carrying out pace-setting duties in the early laps to help Bannister on his way.
There was something quietly heroic about Chataway's contribution to the most momentous day in athletics history – but surely not so heroic as to merit the BBC award. If Kenneth Branagh had just delivered a masterful Hamlet, it would be a bit like giving the best actor Oscar to the bloke who played Guildenstern. But still, the public had spoken. And that's all that matters when SPOTY comes around.
Well, kind of. In 1991, angler Bob Nudd received most votes, but the BBC promptly discarded the lot of them, decreeing that he had been the beneficiary of an orchestrated campaign on his behalf. In 2007, there were suspicions that a late surge of support for boxer Joe Calzaghe had its origins in something similar, but this time the votes were counted and the Welshman was handed the prize.
In short, it is all too easy to skew the result. And easy, too, to install a winner whose natural place is among the spear carriers of sport. But in this, the programme's 58th anniversary year, it can be safely predicted that the winner will be a 24 carat contender, well worthy of a place in the history books. After the year of sport we have just experienced, it could hardly be otherwise.
Frankly, each and every one of the 12 nominees selected by the BBC's expert panel has earned the right to plonk the little silver trophy on their mantlepiece. All but one of them are Olympians or Paralympians – the exception is Rory McIlroy – but all made an impact, either through force of character or in other competitive fields, beyond those few marvellous summer weeks in London.
What of Mo Farah, for instance, and the heartstopping drama of his 10,000m victory on an astonishing evening of British success in Olympic Stadium? For that alone, never mind his victory in the 5000m as well, Farah could normally expect to win the BBC award by a (suitably) long distance, but it says almost everything you need to know about sport in 2012 that he is still bobbing about in the chasing group behind favourite Bradley Wiggins.
Which is probably where he should be. As should Jessica Ennis, Ellie Simmonds, Andy Murray and all the rest of them. This year may have thrown up the strongest field in SPOTY history, but Wiggins still stands head and shoulders above the rest. His achievements really have been in a league of their own.
We have become accustomed to cycling success in these parts. And accustomed to recognising it, with Sir Chris Hoy and Mark Cavendish both being crowned Sports Personality in the past few years. But Wiggins did something even more extraordinary than those two.
In the 98 previous Tours de France, no Briton had won the event. Wiggins did so with a commanding performance, blending astonishing levels of stamina and raw pace with a brilliant tactical understanding. And then there was his sportsmanship, most evident when he slowed the peloton to a crawl when some riders suffered punctures after tacks had been thrown on the road. The French loved him for that – and so should we.
But there was more. A few weeks after his triumphant ride up the Champs- Elysees, Wiggins delivered another dominant display to win the Olympic time trial event. Staggeringly, it was his fourth Olympic gold medal, an achievement that would have been enough to catapult him into superstar territory even without his Tour de France victory.
Wiggins is one of the greats. In British sporting history, his achievements are on a par with Bannister's. This time, let's just hope justice is done.
Sports Personality of the Year, BBC 1, 7.30pm, online and on BBC Radio 5 Live, 7pm.