How Glasgow struck gold with Commonwealth Games

13 year old Erraid Davies winning bronze for Scotland. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
13 year old Erraid Davies winning bronze for Scotland. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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EVERYBODY has their own favourite memory of Glasgow 2014, which is exactly what made it so special. This year’s Commonwealth Games was not some distant spectacle filtered into our living rooms through the lens of a foreign feed. It was here, on our doorstep, big enough to be the highlight of a momentous year for Scotland, but small enough also for its every nuance to be appreciated in full.

Euan Burton likes to recall that dreamy summer’s night when it all began in the east end of Glasgow. He and his Scotland team-mates walked from the athletes’ village, across London Road and through the entrance of Celtic Park, where he was presented with the flag that it would be his duty to bear in the opening ceremony. Just as he was about to lead them out, the 35-year-old judoka was struck by a sense of history.

“Before we walked out, I thought, ‘I should really say something here’. So I turned to the team and shouted, ‘are you ready Team Scotland?’ And the roar I got back from the 300 behind me was something that will live with me till my dying day. Those moments just before walking out, and the wall of noise we were met with when we did – they will stay with me for a long, long time.”

As will the medal he won three days later, one of 19 golds in a Scottish total of 53 that eclipsed by 20 the country’s previous best tally. Each had its own special character. There was fun in Alex “Tattie” Marshall, with his “get it up ye” gesture on the bowling green. There was innocence in 13-year-old Erraid Davies, whose toothy smile melted all who saw her swim. And no one, but no one, had more guts than Lynsey Sharp, who ran the race of her life, despite being on a drip the night before.

So, too, did visiting athletes dig deep, from Nijel Amos and Blessing Okagbare to Claudia Fragapane and, yes, Usain Bolt, who briefly got himself in hot water by reportedly describing the Games as “a bit shit”, only to redeem himself on a rain-soaked Hampden track with a song, a dance and that spectacular final leg in the sprint relay, celebrated in a tartan bunnet.

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As the end of 2014 approaches, those 11 days that bridged July and August seem ever more surreal. For a brief moment in history, Glasgow was the same, but different. A carnival spilled through its sun-kissed streets. The network news was broadcast from the banks of the Clyde. Many suspended their daily routine to enjoy a kind of national holiday in which cheerfulness prevailed, especially among the Clydesiders, the Games’ army of enthusiastic volunteers.

“The people of Glasgow were fantastic,” says Burton. “They never had the smile off their faces. Sporting events are about the results and what you do on the field of play, but they’re also about a feeling of positivity and bringing some light relief to peoples’ lives. For a couple of weeks in the summer, that’s exactly what Glasgow did.”

It also challenged a few lingering stereotypes. Here was the former heart-attack capital of Europe staging the biggest multi-sports event ever to be held in Scotland. A city dominated, some would say suffocated, by football and its historic religious divide was now opening its doors to the full range of minority sports and paying them more than lip service. Neither did Scotland show any of the parochialism it was supposed to be harbouring ahead of the independence referendum. “There was a genuine worry before the Games that English athletes wouldn’t be welcomed with open arms,” says Burton. “My wife is English and competed for England so I have first-hand experience. But, after the Scots, the English athletes were the next best supported. And that was a real positive for me. You want to be seen as a nation that welcomes others.”

Perhaps the biggest success was the infrastructure. New arenas were built on time and within budget, while existing ones were imaginatively adapted. Kelvingrove Art Gallery and the nearby tenements provided a stunning natural amphitheatre for the bowls. Hampden Park on stilts proved to be far better at hosting athletics than it is football. The Hydro, Tollcross and the Emirates are still packing them in, with no sign yet of the dreaded white elephant.

It was an affordable, eminently sensible strategy, more modest than London 2012, and all the better for it. The Commonwealth Games is not the Olympic Games and never will be. Hannah Miley, the swimmer who won a gold medal in the 400m individual medley, says the two events are like greetings cards: one mass-produced, the other handmade. “The Commonwealth Games is not so expensive, but the thought, the effort and the personal twist kind of makes you value it more.”

Miley’s favourite memory was celebrating victory with her family, but there is another vignette she likes to recall. Much to her disappointment, Patrick Miley, her coach and father, was not part of the swimming team, and therefore not allowed in the athletes’ village. So, the day before she competed, they went to a petrol station across the road, where they sat in the sun, going through their usual pre-swim routine. “Looking back, it was probably quite funny. Anyone driving past must have thought, ‘what on earth are these people doing, sitting on a brick wall with laptops and stopwatches?’”

That, for her, said a lot about Glasgow 2012, and how it felt for the athletes, especially the Scottish ones. It pleased her that, in a break with tradition, they were given a meaningful role to play in the closing ceremony. “We actually got to feel that we were part of the show rather than being paraded around like prize cattle,” she says.

Miley had been to two previous Commonwealth Games – Delhi four years earlier and Melbourne in 2006 – but this was different. She would go so far as to say that, after all that happened in India, Glasgow saved the movement. “I think it did. It rejuvenated interest in the Games. I can safely say that Glasgow was miles better than Delhi. It was a huge relief to wake up in the morning and not find that some part of your room was falling apart. Or that something was going to jump out and surprise you, like a cobra or a rat.”

Aileen McGlynn’s favourite memory was getting engaged. The paracyclist had just won her second silver medal, when her boyfriend, Graeme, bent to one knee and proposed in the foyer of the velodrome. “At that moment, I wasn’t aware of anybody else being around me but, when I said ‘yes’, everybody started clapping. It was really special.”

It was an emotional summer for McGlynn, whose part in the Queen’s Baton Relay took place on Paisley Road West, where she grew up. Glasgow 2014 was also the first major multi-sports gathering to integrate paralympic events with the others. “We were able to wander round with the able-bodied athletes and not feel out of place,” says McGlynn. “I don’t know if it would work at the Olympics where there are so many people, but for other championships, I see no reason why paralympic events should not be integrated.”

Which is not to say that Glasgow 2014 was all good news. The heatwave didn’t last, Michael Jamieson failed to fulfil his dream and some of the bigger names, including Mo Farah, never turned up. There was scandal when Chika Amalaha, a 16-year-old Nigerian weightlifter, tested positive for two banned substances. And frustration that some of the better seats were not more affordable. “My only gripe would be the ticket prices,” said McGlynn. “I did wonder if that’s why they came in under budget.”

McGlynn’s post-Games story is also a cautionary tale. If, as seems likely, para-cycling is excluded from the programme for the Gold Coast in 2018, sportscotland will not back the 41-year-old who performed so well in Glasgow. “It was great and everything, but going forward, I’m not getting any funding,” she says. “It’s not improved my situation any. It’s disappointing because you would think that an athlete who won two silver medals would be given the resources to carry on. But this could be the end of my career.”

Like it or not, the Games is over, and it is time for Glasgow, Scotland, its athletes and people to move on. It will be many years before its urban regeneration, grassroots development and other “legacies” can be measured. In the meantime, it is incumbent on the host nation to stop patting itself on the back and set about building on the experience.

Burton, now a coach with Scottish Judo, is demanding that from his pupils. The flag-bearer would also like to think that, in a wider sense, his country will not rest on its laurels. Scotland’s belief in itself, its minority sports and the way it welcomed the Commonwealth has altered the sporting landscape, but for how long? “The fact that you’re even talking to me means it’s changed,” says Burton. “The people being called upon to give their opinion on Scottish sport at the minute aren’t necessarily footballers or rugby players. They are people from judo, from swimming, from athletics. We’ve got a whole new field of sporting heroes now, and they’re being called upon to inspire the nation.

“I hope that continues. It would be tragic if we looked back on the summer of 2014 and it was the pinnacle of Scottish sporting achievement. It was a fantastic time, a historic landmark for Scottish sport, but if, in 50 years’ time, we have not bettered it, that would be more than disappointing. If we don’t go on to bigger and better things, it’s all really for nothing. That’s what we have to focus on now.”

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