How 1986 Games were on brink of being cancelled

Malcolm Rifkind (George Younger's successor as Scottish Secretary) and publisher Robert Maxwell chat to the team from Botswana in July 1986. Picture: Alan Macdonald
Malcolm Rifkind (George Younger's successor as Scottish Secretary) and publisher Robert Maxwell chat to the team from Botswana in July 1986. Picture: Alan Macdonald
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SECRET papers have revealed that senior officials in the Thatcher government were relaxed about an all-white Commonwealth Games in Scotland due to a boycott by African and Caribbean nations.

Ministerial correspondence, which has been placed in the National Archives, has shown that the 1986 Edinburgh Games were on the brink of being cancelled amid strife among the organisers, a financial black hole and a festering race row that threatened to turn the event into a “whites only” Games.

The Thatcher government described the preparations for the event as “lunacy” and remained surprisingly relaxed about black nations snubbing the Games in protest against the UK’s refusal to cut ties with apartheid-era South Africa.

One civil servant even asserted that Africans were not interested in the sporting nature of the event and merely saw it as a “good jaunt”.

A briefing note, which was marked “restricted”, revealed the startling discussions which took place between a senior civil servant and David Dixon, the honorary secretary of the Commonwealth Games Federation, in May 1985.

It states: “The organising committee has fallen out with the Scottish Commonwealth Games Association.”

The paper noted that three Edinburgh-based officials were challenging for the top role and each had demanded to be paid, stating: “This lunacy – what better way to damn the organisation of the Games?”

It also laid bare the Games’ disastrous financial shortfall, stating: “Dixon believed that very little money had yet been raised. He had heard as little as £1 million [out of a target of £12m] had been raised.”

In a letter sent the same month, Sir Russell Fairgrieve, chairman of the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games Consortium, wrote to the then Scottish Secretary George Younger begging him to use his political clout to help prevent a financially disastrous boycott.

He wrote: “Continuing controversy, whether or not it is followed by an African boycott, will deter sponsors from involvement – and as there is no government funding guarantee will probably necessitate cancellation.”

Despite Fairgrieve’s efforts, the Games’ fate was sealed when the UK refused to apply economic sanctions to South Africa, prompting 32 of the 59 eligible countries to stay away in protest.

That meant fewer broadcasting rights and a drop in sponsorship. It also meant there were far fewer athletes and their supporters in the city, a huge hit to the local economy.

The Thatcher government refused to bail out the debt-ridden event. The later disgraced newspaper baron Robert Maxwell stepped in and promised to invest £2m.

However, it later emerged that his contribution was just £250,000, leaving the city with a debt of £4.5m, which was not paid off until 1989.