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Sport: A Champion's Shame

Pursuits | By Jim White

Lewis Hamilton’s hopes of capping his triumphant, history-making season with the honour of being voted Britain’s most popular sportsperson came to a grinding, shuddering halt in November. It wasn’t a Sebastian Vettel overtaking manoeuvre or a slip-up by his pit crew that put paid to his chances of popping the BBC Sports Personality of the Year trophy on to his sideboard. It was a bit of bookkeeping that stymied his ambition.

Once it became clear from the information made public in the Paradise Papers that Hamilton had executed a cunning little swerve to avoid paying £3.3 million in VAT on his new private jet by parking it for an afternoon on the Isle of Man, he was done for. There was not a hope he would receive the recognition his skills unquestionably deserve. No way is the four-times world champion now going to be honoured in his homeland.

It is an odd thing, Hamilton’s public shaming. In the past we have – albeit sometimes unwittingly – voted drunks, philanderers, dope cheats and wife-beaters as our annual sporting champion. The roster of those who have won the title includes several whose approach to personal morality is unlikely to trouble the Pope’s beatification committee. We don’t mind what the Sports Personality of the Year gets up to in his or her private life. As long as they are not greedy. Or grasping. Or avoiding tax. That is the one thing the British public cannot tolerate in its heroes: not paying their dues.

Generally, when it comes to the BBC award, we like a racing driver. Stirling Moss, Jackie Stewart, Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill have all picked up the hallowed, camera-shaped trophy. Hamilton himself did so in 2014, after he won his second world title. Now he has won his fourth, becoming in the process the most decorated British driver of all time, this should be his moment, his arrival in the pantheon. He is, without any dispute, the finest Formula One talent ever to emerge from these islands.

That is surely worth some acknowledgement. But instead of receiving triumphal recognition of his achievement, he is destined to come a distant second in sport’s biggest annual popularity contest. If he is lucky.

It needs to be reiterated at this point that Hamilton did nothing illegal on that Douglas airstrip. Just a little cheap. He hired a tax accountant who advised him that, when he bought his plane, in order to reduce his liability to VAT, he should register it on the Isle of Man. All he had to do was fly to London via the island for the afternoon. But he could save himself a bundle in the process.

And this was the point. He was buying a plane for goodness’ sake, a purchase that suggests he has sufficient cash not to worry about where the next meal is coming from. Sidestepping the tax due on that sort of purchase is, we can safely agree, a little rich. The moment his manoeuvre became public, overnight Hamilton went from hero to pariah. He might have saved £3.3 million. But in the process he shredded his reputation.

So it is that, barring a last-minute flurry of votes from the fishing lobby installing Bob Nudd as Sports Personality of the Year, Anthony Joshua will win. While not yet at the pinnacle that would come were he ever to unify the myriad titles, Joshua deserves it. He is a supreme athlete, a towering figure, responsible for the year’s most dramatic sporting moment when he came off the canvas to knock out Wladimir Klitschko. He is also a fine man, polite, self-effacing, a boxer who has managed to get to the top without for a moment engaging in the wearisome trash-talking that so tarnishes his sport. He is a national hero. And will remain so as long as he doesn’t try to get too clever with his tax returns.

This story was from January 2018 issue. Subscribe Now