Almost two years to the day, here we go again. Britain is preparing to host an international sporting extravaganza, on the athletics track, in the pool, the velodrome, the boxing arena and out on the streets. But Glasgow 2014 is not London 2012, and the Commonwealth Games is not the Olympics. In some respects it’s better than that, because the Commonwealth Games is where things happen first.
Usain Bolt and Mo Farah will be running more than six feet off the ground at Hampden Park, the home of Scottish football, which has been transformed – with the help of 6,000 steel stilts – into a world-class athletics venue. This ground-breaking technology, never before used for an entire track and in field, is known among Games organisers as “the Glasgow solution”.
There are other “firsts” in Glasgow. There will be more women’s medal events than ever before, and the male-female split among competitors will be closer to 50-50 than in any previous global multi-sports event. London 2012 was hoping to be the first Games with an even split but fell short, with 56 per cent men and 44 per cent women.
Then there are the 22 para-sport events, the most to be included on the main programme. And a new event, the mixed relay in triathlon, is described as “fresh, exhilarating and innovative” by the president of the sport’s governing body.
It’s not the first time the Commonwealth Games have led the way. Few people are aware that the medal ceremony, with athletes standing on a podium, was not an Olympic invention. It was first used at the first Commonwealth Games, then called the British Empire Games, in Canada in 1930. A couple of International Olympic Committee presidents were there in Hamilton, Ontario, to see it and liked it so much they pinched the idea for their own Games. Another innovation in Hamilton was the athletes’ village, which has been a fixture every since. At a stretch one might even say the Games are responsible for the birth of Nike sportswear.
Who says? Brendan Foster, the BBC’s athletics commentator. Foster used to work for Phil Knight, the American who co-founded Nike. In the 1954 Games in Vancouver, the mile race between Roger Bannister of England and John Landy of Australia, the only two men ever to have broken the four-minute barrier at that point in history, was a huge event, followed by a record audience worldwide. “Phil Knight was at that race,” says Foster. “His father took him up to Vancouver from Oregon and he was hooked. It was Bannister v Landy that started his interest in running, and that interest eventually led to Nike being created.”
The race, which Bannister won and described as “the race of my life”, was followed minutes later by a grotesque finale to the marathon. England’s Jim Peters, the world-record holder, entered the stadium 17 minutes clear of the field. He collapsed repeatedly on the final lap and was in such a sorry state that a Canadian reporter was physically sick. Nobody helped him for fear of break ing the rules, and instead of crossing the finish line he ended up in hospital, while a Scot, Joe McGhee, had the unlikeliest victory. Peters never ran again.
It was also in Vancouver that a black African won a gold medal for the first time, in any sport, in any international Games. High jumper Emmanuel Ifeajuna, who wore only one running shoe, was a national hero on his return to Nigeria, where his picture adorned the cover of school exercise books. A dozen years later Ifeajuna co-led the first military coup in Nigeria, in which he apparently shot dead the country’s first prime minister. The coup failed, and Ifeajuna fled. He returned to fight in the Biafran war in 1967 and was shot by firing squad for alleged treason, but many still consider him more hero than villain.
Marcus Stephen, who won gold in the weight-lifting in 1990, went one better than Ifeajuna, becoming president of his country. Stephen, from the Pacific Island of Nauru, met the Obamas when he gave a speech to the United Nations about climate change, but it was the Queen who quizzed him at length about his weightlifting exploits. She is also a big fan of England’s 4ft 10in super-hero Precious McKenzie, who won four successive gold medals in weightlifting from 1966 to 1978 and made several trips to Buckingham Palace.
One of McKenzie’s golds was in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1974, where Filbert Bayi from Tanzania ran what Bannister called “the greatest race ever” to break the world record in the 1500m. Those Games were widely regarded as the friendliest “Friendly Games” – the term was first used in Edinburgh in 1970 – perhaps because all single male athletes were provided with a female escort by the organising committee. The Games are friendlier than others because everyone speaks English and, from the outset, the athletes have always set out to enjoy themselves.
But then for some, such as Nick Akers from the Cayman Islands, it was only the taking part that counts. When Akers, aka Nick Vladivar, finished last in the marathon in Brisbane in 1982, he was so far behind the stands were being dismantled when he finished. Akers changed his surname to Vladivar in a bizarre deal that saw the Vladivar vodka brand pay a fee to the Cayman Islands team, who gave him a place in 1978 and 1982 despite his never having held a Cayman passport. Akers was paid nothing.
How come such an event holds its place on the increasingly serious and ever more commercialized sporting calendar? Half a century ago the Commonwealth Games were hugely significant and the standard of sport was outstanding. That was in an era of amateurism, long before the advent of world championships in athletics and swimming, and the lucrative big-city marathon circuit. Nowadays, priorities have changed – and yet the Games soldier on.
Patrick Nally, one of the most senior figures in global sports sponsorship, said recently that there had been no debate about the Commonwealth Games for 20 years. True enough, but there had been none in the 20 years before that, either. They have carried on regardless of all the changes in sport and politics, and are arguably the most visible living embodiment of the old British Empire, and the much newer Commonwealth, that anyone understands.
They defy logic and description, even among academics and politicians. But they are great fun. Long may they continue.
See the Commonwealth Games: Opening Ceremony tonight from 8:00pm on BBC1