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Sunday, September 25, 2022

Commonwealth Games: Birmingham breathes life into Games

The Commonwealth Games ended on Monday with a familiar look.

Australia topped the medals table, with England second – just as they did four years ago.

Once again the Games’ twin superpowers hoovered up close to half the golds on offer. Together, they won 124 of the 280 on offer.

England can take heart from winning more medals overall than at any previous Games.

Further down the table, Scotland also left with a bumper haul. Apart from their home showing at Glasgow 2014, they won more golds and more medals than at any other Games.

Wales dropped from seventh to eighth in the medal table compared to Gold Coast, while Northern Ireland rose to 11th from 20th after hitting a rich seam of boxing success.

On the surface, it seemed business as usual. A slight shuffling in the old world order at most. The Commonwealth may be going through political upheaval, but the Games remain in a state of sporting stasis. That was the impression.

Take a closer look though. Dig into the detail and things are changing.

This was the first major multi-sport event to hand out more medals to women than men. In among them were the most compelling moments of Birmingham 2022.

On the Alexander Stadium track, Scotland’s Eilish McColgan rode a wall of sound to a tearful 10,000m win.

At the Thames Valley VeloPark, England’s Laura Kenny invoked the magic of London 2012 to banish her own doubts and win scratch race gold.

In the Sandwell Aquatics pool, Alice Tai triumphed, six months after taking the decision to have her right leg amputated below the knee.

While a snorting steampunk bull stole the show at the opening ceremony, Malala Yousafzai’s words echoed through the action.

Yousafzai was 15 when she was shot by the Taliban in Pakistan, a revenge attack for demanding her right to education.

A decade later and now a resident of Birmingham, a graduate of Oxford University and a Nobel Prize winner, she told the crowd about the power of sport.

“When we watch the incredible athletes, we remember that every child deserves the chance to reach her full potential and pursue her wildest dreams,” she said.

The alchemy that turns precious hopes into precious metal was at work everywhere in Birmingham.

The largest Para-sport programme in Commonwealth Games history was integrated effortlessly.

Take the 3×3 basketball. Disabled and non-disabled took to the court in turn in Smithfield. The atmosphere and action continued at the same fevered pitch regardless.

Last Monday, Australian wheelchair basketballer Lachlin Dalton landed a decisive shot from outside the arc to dramatically shatter England’s gold-medal hopes.

Twenty-four hours later, England’s Myles Hesson did the exact same to the Aussies in the non-disabled final.

There was no let-up in the drama.

Wales’ two track-and-field golds came via Olivia Breen’s shock 100m win over English rival Sophie Hahn and Aled Sion Davies’ return to the discus – a pair of para victories that came spiced with backstories and spadesful of raw emotion.

Birmingham gorged on it all. New sports such as Twenty20 cricket flew. It was the best-attended of any Commonwealth Games with more than 1.3 million tickets sold.

Preconceptions elsewhere were remoulded as the city put its heart and soul on show.

It won’t be the last time the sporting spotlight lights up Birmingham and the Black Country either.

The Games are intended as a launchpad for a ‘golden decade’ of major events. external-link

The Trampoline Gymnastics World Championships will arrive next year. A bid is in for the European Athletics Championships in 2026. Another is being considered for the World Athletics Championships in 2031. There is even tentative talk of a future Olympic bid.external-link

Bull from opening ceremony
A successful campaign was launched to preserve the bull – the star of the opening ceremony – permanently in Birmingham

Sport Minister Nigel Huddleston praised Birmingham’s industry and initiative in delivering “a Games of amazing achievements”, while talking up that future.external-link

The Games didn’t have everything.

British billboard stars Dina Asher-Smith, Max Whitlock, Katie Archibald and Tom Daley were missing as they rested body and mind.

The lure of a large audience and national pride wasn’t enough to convince Jamaica’s sprint stars Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Shericka Jackson to compete.

Instead, as the athletics reached its climax, they were racing 1,000 miles east at a more lucrative Diamond League event in Poland.

Staging the Commonwealths has not been an easy sell in recent years either.

Durban was supposed to stage this Games, but pulled out in 2017 as costs soared.

Victoria will put on the next – the sixth of the last seven editions to be shuttled between either Australia or the United Kingdom – with events spread thin across the state.

But when Birmingham handed over the baton to four indigenous elders in Monday’s closing ceremony, it was burnished with the memories of the past 12 days.

Birmingham’s frenetic energy, human touch and swelling sense of pride have reinvigorated a concept which badly needed such enthusiastic hosts.

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