The Guardian view on Birmingham’s Commonwealth Games: a bullish experience

They were nothing if not eclectic. The 2022 Commonwealth Games opened with a message from the human rights activist Malala Yousafzai, who completed her school years in Edgbaston, and an appearance by a giant animatronic bull. The closing ceremony finished with fireworks, bursts of flame and Ozzy Osbourne sporting a gothic black cape, shouting: “Birmingham for ever!” In between, a city that has much to be proud of pulled off a show that will further boost its growing self-confidence.

An estimated 1.5 million tickets were sold over 11 days of events, making these Commonwealth Games among the best-attended in history. Given that Birmingham had stepped into the breach when Durban, the planned host city, ran into financial difficulties, this was a fine achievement. On track and field, athletes from the 72 Commonwealth nations did not disappoint. An epic 10,000m contest between Scotland’s Eilish McColgan and Kenya’s Irene Cheptai will live long in the memory of the capacity crowd that witnessed it (as will the sight of the victorious McColgan embracing her mother, Liz, who won the same race in 1986 and 1990).

There was much else to admire. Birmingham hosted the largest-ever integrated programme of para-sport, as para-athletes competed on the same stages and over the same days. Over 13,000 volunteers signed up to help out. The Sandwell Aquatics Centre, built for the occasion, will be a welcome community asset for the future. For Brummies, the opening and closing ceremonies offered a satisfying roll call of reasons for local pride, from the car industry to the singer Laura Mvula and UB40. Most importantly of all, the city where Enoch Powell made his notorious “rivers of blood” speech in 1968 seized the opportunity to celebrate its diverse and multicultural identity before the world. The challenge will now be to build on success and ensure that a meaningful legacy results from the Games, particularly in relation to affordable housing and inclusive regeneration. The post-Olympics experience in east London is a cautionary tale on that score.

For the Games’ organisers, the predominant emotion this week may be one of relief after the uncertainties of the Covid period. But although the 22nd edition of the Games should undoubtedly be considered a success, future challenges loom on the horizon. As Durban’s experience illustrated, the costs of hosting are becoming prohibitive; ambitions may need to be scaled back for future editions. The sporting relevance of the event was diminished by the absence of some of the best athletes in the world, who prioritised other engagements.

Most fundamentally, perhaps, an event which is a legacy of empire will need to find a way to respond to concerns that this history renders it an anachronism in the age of Black Lives Matter. The next Games, in 2026 in the state of Victoria, will be the sixth hosted in Australia. Only two have been held in Asia and none in Africa – the two continents where the overwhelming majority of the Commonwealth’s population live. Birmingham has done a great job at short notice. But to modernise and thrive, the Games will need to address that kind of anomaly as they seek to better acknowledge their past and secure a future.

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