Is a horse a female athlete?

It probably wasn't the intention, but the top two picks for The Associated Press female athlete of the year for 2009 are certainly ripe for debate, even beyond the fodder such lists normally provide.

AP's painfully inadequate female athlete list

It probably wasn't the intention, but the top two picks for The Associated Press female athlete of the year for 2009 are certainly ripe for debate, even beyond the fodder such lists normally provide.

Serena Williams won the award, and she'll obviously never win in the most popular category. While she rubs many the wrong way, she produced the goods on the court. Equality in sports means the fun stuff, like overconfidence and occasional arrogance, too. If they were disqualifying factors, then John McEnroe, Michael Jordan and Lance Armstrong never should have won.

Also, consider that when Billie Jean King won the AP award in 1974, one of the first things she said when informed of the honour was, "I should have won it in 1971." 

The real head-scratcher, and a possibly offensive result, is that a horse finished second.

The filly Zenyatta capped a 14-0 career by becoming the first female horse to win the Breeders' Cup Classic.

That's terrific, but is it really deserving of second place in a year where there were definitely some strong female, human candidates?

Before the Zenyatta camp takes down the CBC server in response, let's consider a couple of the greatest male thoroughbreds of all time.

Secretariat. Greatest horse of all time, right?

In 1973, O.J. Simpson was the landslide choice for AP male athlete of the year after being the first to rush for over 2,000 yards in a season. Hank Aaron and Bill Walton rounded out the top three.

Newspaper accounts at the time expressed a tone of surprise that Secretariat even figured in the voting at all, coming in a distant sixth for male athlete of the year.

The last Triple Crown winner was Affirmed in 1978. Didn't even merit a mention as "male athlete of the year" in the voting. Young Stevie Cauthen — the horse's jockey — was the choice instead, followed by hitting machine Rod Carew and running back Walter Payton.

Obviously the voters are different people 30-plus years on, but in this age of multi-tasking, Wii and all manner of sports described as ultimate or extreme, it hardly seems a horse racing renaissance is going on.

To use the example of another sport that has had trouble connecting to younger generations, boxer Laila Ali during her years of fighting was never even close to being second in the AP voting.

What the AP choice speaks to in large part is a narrowcasting of sports, especially from members of the so-called traditional forms of media. Certain people need not apply, it seems, especially with women's sports. WNBA player Candace Parker is the only female winner of the past decade who is not a golfer or tennis player.

The fact that Kim Clijsters was third, despite playing for just a few months, probably has less to do with her impressive U.S. Open comeback win than the fact that there a number of other sports that aren't even on the radar of many of those who have a vote.

Voters may be irrelevant

But it's not entirely about sports that are less mainstream. If so, Armstrong wouldn't have won every year between 2002 and 2005?

The votes are cast by editors at U.S. newspapers that are members of the AP. In a 2010 world, are they even a relevant group, demographically or professionally, to be picking female athlete of the year?

I don't know the answer to that, but the voting in recent years seems to suggest otherwise. To contrast, the ESPY Award for female athlete of the year has encompassed seven different sports in the past decade, compared to AP's three.

With all praise to Zenyatta and Mike Smith (hey, how come the jockey gets overlooked when it's a filly, as if female horses have some kind of mystic power?), there were several female athletes worthy of mention.

I could go in detail on the strong years for Jamaican sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser and Russian pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, but let's face it, the AP award tends to be a bit … nationalistic. The last non-American to win the male honour was Ben Johnson in 1987.

Wayne Gretzky won in 1982, and the last person not from North America to win was Swedish boxer Ingemar Johansson in 1959.

Roger Federer and Usain Bolt, two of the top five most dominant athletes of the last decade — or top three, depending on where you rate Armstrong and Tiger Woods — have never won. This year, NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson beat them out.

But there were two female athletes right under the noses of American sportswriters and editors who didn't even crack the top three, one of whom has had a pretty strong case for being the best overall two years running.

Sanya Richards won every meaningful 400-metre race she ran in 2009. After years of fizzling on the biggest stages, she was never threatened at the IAAF world championships in Berlin. Of the 10 fastest times at the distance, she was responsible for seven.

It's possible that Richards has suffered because of the stigma of doping in track and field. The last comparable female athlete to win the AP nod was the humiliated Marion Jones, nine years ago, and no baseball players have been picked since Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds were tainted by steroid allegations, either.

A star on the slopes

There's no such rationalization for discounting skier Lindsey Vonn, however, who was not in the top three this year and not even in the top five in 2008.

Vonn was the overall and downhill World Cup champion for the second straight year, and she was the first American ever to win the super-G points race.

Whenever Vonn races in the Lake Louise, Alta., downhill, they may as well just hand her the trophy beforehand. She's owned the race over the last six years.

As a result, most Canadian sports fans and media folks know who she is. Maybe some in Florida, California and points in between need to be introduced.