Sports awards: Five decades of celebrating excellence

It is at once the most prestigious and the most polarising night in New Zealand sport. The Halberg Awards are tonight held for a 50th time (well, not really). Sports editor Hayden Meikle looks back over the history of the awards and makes his predictions.

In the beginning
Journalists aren't all muck-rakers and gutter-dwellers, you know. One of them gets the credit for establishing our national sports awards. They were the brainchild of Jack Fairburn, the editor of the New Zealand Sportsman, a monthly magazine that appeared from 1947 to 1960. He commissioned a design for the silver statue that was first presented in 1949. The inaugural winner was cricketing immortal Bert Sutcliffe.

Fifty years?
This is what I mean by ''not really''. It's neither 50 years since the award was first presented, nor 50 years since ''Halberg Award'' was coined. It is 50 years since Olympic gold medallist Murray Halberg (now Sir Murray) helped revive the awards after a two-year hiatus upon the closure of Fairburn's magazine.

Name change
Halberg's magnificent work in helping children with disabilities into sport - the awards raise funds for the Halberg Disability Sports Foundation - was recognised in 1992. The awards were officially christened the Halberg Awards. A rather pointed speech from ''sportsMAN of the year'' winner Philippa Baker the previous year also played a part in the name change.

Back to back
Otago athletics great Yvette Williams was the first to win the award twice, in 1950 and 1952. The first back-to-back winner was the New Zealand rowing eight, in 1971 and 1972, and the second was runner John Walker (1975 and 1976). Rowing champion Rob Waddell (1998, 1999 and 2000) and shot putter Valerie Adams (2007, 2008 and 2009) have since managed threepeats.

By the numbers (I)
An individual male athlete has won the top award 36 times out of 61. An individual female athlete has won it 13 times, and a team (I have included the Evers-Swindell twins and the Baker-Lawson rowing combination in this category) has won it 12 times.

By the numbers (II)
There is no rule about the Halbergs having to be shared around the sports evenly. The most frequently honoured sport has been athletics, with no fewer than 16 gongs. Rowing is next with 10, cricket and rugby have five each, and golf has four. Swimming, motorsport and yachting have had three champions and cycling two. Boxing (Barry Brown, 1953), tennis (Chris Lewis, 1983), canoeing (Ian Ferguson, 1984), squash (Susan Devoy, 1985), equestrian (Mark Todd, 1988), triathlon (Erin Baker, 1989), skiing (Annelise Coberger, 1992), basketball (Tall Blacks, 2002), netball (Silver Ferns, 2003) and football (All Whites, 2010) have won one award each.

Rugby ripped off
Well, that's how some feel. Our No 1 sport - still, by a long way - has claimed just five top awards out of 61, a winning mark of a measly 8%. Ron Jarden (1951), Don Clarke (1959) and Wilson Whineray (1965) won the ultimate honour as individuals, and both the 1987 and 2011 All Black teams won it after claiming World Cups.

Decade by decade
At the end of the 20th century, special ''champions of each decade'' awards were presented. They went to the Original All Blacks (1900s), tennis star Anthony Wilding (1910s), rugby great George Nepia (1920s), running god Jack Lovelock (1930s), cricketer Bert Sutcliffe (1940s), athlete Yvette Williams (1950s), triple Olympic gold medallist Peter Snell (1960s), runner John Walker (1970s), cricketer Richard Hadlee (1980s) and swimmer Danyon Loader (1990s). Four of the 10 were from, or had strong links with, Otago. Snell was named champion of the century.

Spitting tacks
There never used to be much fuss or bother about the Halberg Awards. But times have changed. Now you can just about guarantee some sort of controversy every year. That's probably understandable, given they have the impossible task of trying to please everybody by elevating one sporting champion above another (or another three or four). The most prominent brouhaha in recent memory was when the All Whites won the top prize after recording three draws at the World Cup in South Africa. Dick Tayler was so miffed he quit the judging panel, and the sniping went on for weeks.

Judging panel
In the old days, it was a bunch of media types who would gather around a table and debate the pros and cons of each candidate and come up with a winner. Worked well. Then, driven by some prominent sportspeople, there was a move to reduce the influence of the media, and to put a bunch of athletes on the panel. The theory is that someone who has spent years devoted to netball, or to hockey, or to sailing, better understands the significance of achievement in other sports. Hmmm. The judging panel, which does not meet but sends in votes, is now 30-strong, and includes such recent sporting figures as Adine Wilson, Danyon Loader and Sarah Ulmer. Just one judge - New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame boss Ron Palenski - is based south of the Waitaki. The Otago Daily Times no longer has a place on the panel.

This year
It looks cut and dried to me, but I have been wrong (many times) before. Olympic rowing gold medallist Mahe Drysdale is certain to win sportsman of the year. Valerie Adams should take the sportswoman award - Lydia Ko's time will come. Rowing's greatest crew, Hamish Bond and Eric Murray, must get the team award. Dick Tonks coach of the year. And Bond and Murray to claim the overall Halberg Award.