IN ONE hall, all the South African netball team are impossibly tall and impossibly blonde.
The tallest and blondest loiters with sultry intent under the net, dropping balls like you imagine she might drop boys. In another hall it’s boxing, there’s an English fighter called Scott Fitzgerald, and the Duchess Of Cambridge is wincing because the big screens are showing some frantic between-rounds patching-up with a cotton-bud being jammed into an eye gouge. Meanwhile, away from the beautiful and the damned, at the weightlifting, a Bermudan competitor, just a boy, is clean and jerking something astonishing. “Cannae believe he’s 15,” reads a tweet from the crowd which is relayed to the rest of us. “At that age I couldnae lift two Farmfoods bags.”
This is one day at Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games. Not even one day – a portion of an afternoon. Running from hall to hall, feeling very privileged with my pass confirming “Access-all-areas (by the way ma man)”, I only pause for a moment to wonder, since I’m in the Scottish Exhibition & Conference Centre, what kind of exhibitions and conferences normally happen here outwith all the sports magic. I mean, I know rock groups occasionally perform, but is the day-to-day business of the place not quite prosaic, possibly involving the odd sewage seminar?
Anyway, the thought is quickly flushed away because now I’m in yet another hall, this one called the Hydro, which in the Scottish vocabulary used to mean perjink hotels in Peebles and Dunblane, but can now refer to the closest we have to an enormodome. There on a flight from the weightlifting with the announcer’s orders ringing in my ears (“Loaders, one hundred and ten kilos – be prepared!”), I’m watching gymnast Daniel Keatings contrive an incredible splay-armed handstand so that his body mirrors the Saltire on his cozzie.
Keatings doesn’t have a Scottish accent (no matter). Sometimes it rains (so what?). Big names have called off and the competition-level is not of the toppermost (and your point is… ?). The trains are a nightmare (yes, but they’re friendly despite the crush). The BBC has blub-lust and wants to make every athlete’s dad burst into tears (okay, that is annoying). Really, though, I don’t know where to look, there is so much to enjoy and be thrilled by and to encourage the summing-up, “Big-mad-mental Glasgow, you did it”, and I don’t want the Games to end.
Mind you, there was a time when I didn’t want them to start.
About half-past nine a week past Wednesday, to be precise. That was the moment, watching the opening ceremony, when I thought: “No, this campery isn’t ironic or subversive. John Barrowman, bless him and those first eight years of his life spent in Glasgow’s Mount Vernon, is being deadly serious. He wants all entertainment to look like this.” Meanwhile, lots of other people were thinking: “Why didn’t they just blow up the flats?”
After the first half of the ceremony – and I got the gay kiss and the message it sent to the Commonwealth countries where homosexuality is banned – my vote come 18 September was going to be “No”. After the second, with the gorgeous Nicola Benedetti and Freedom Come All Ye, it was “Yes”. A game of two halves, indeed. But, still swooning over Benedetti’s Loch Lomond, how were the Games going to match it for beauty?
Strathclyde Country Park. Maybe “beautiful” is stretching it, but the fellow well on his way to becoming the greatest endurance athlete of all time thought the man-made loch just outside Motherwell a perfect venue for the triathlon. Alistair Brownlee is a bluff Yorkshireman competing in – his words – a sport of some weirdness so for some he lacks glamour. But he’s a stupendous athlete and it was a pleasure to watch him destroy the field and stroll over the finish line. He’s a whole lot funnier than Tom Daly and Victoria Pendleton, both being heavily promoted by TV, and with his kid brother Jonny – equally funny on the subject of settling for bottom bunks and silver medals – could become the Ant & Dec of sports-themed family viewing. For now, though, the Brownlees swim, bike and run. More power to them.
There’s melodrama in the younger Brownlee’s tale, but Scotland produced some of it own when Michael Jamieson’s long-promised – though not by him – glide to glory didn’t work out that way and he must have wanted to cry a whole pool of tears. Just before his final, the comedian Kevin Bridges joined the chorus of acclaim, saying Jamieson was “getting us back to real Scottish swimming with wee JD Sports string-bags and slush puppies”. Then, enter the new hero: Ross Murdoch.
The Games were stuffed with surprises.
At the triathlon the big screens showed a pre-recorded “housekeeping” message from Sir Chris Hoy advising the punters: “No streaking please, it’s a bit nippy out there.” Cue scorching sunshine.
At Celtic Park you could hear God Save the Queen. At Ibrox – venue for the rugby sevens watched by a gobsmacking 180,000 – you saw Saltires flying.
The most unsurprising thing, at least to those of us who know the city, was the warmth of the people, both on the streets among the Clydesiders and in the stands at the events where – bolstered by the rest of Scotland who managed to squeeze onto the trains – the crowds cheered the home athletes and also the wee guys from tiny lands who got lapped and even, yes, Team England. Remember that scare story in the Daily Telegraph about English anxieties that their athletes might be booed?
Maybe these Games weren’t of the stature of the Olympics two years ago but Glasgow is, and will always be, a much friendlier, wittier, kinder city than London.
Glasgow also stepped up to the business of hosting Big Sport.
It had form here, having hosted football’s Champions League final in 2002.
Walking around, then and these past two weeks, you could feel the place pulse with excitement, but at the same time taking everything in its stride. By contrast my own city, Edinburgh, was paralysed by toon-cooncil small thinking when it staged the 1986 Commonwealth Games. It can think big now, right enough, but only for vanity projects like the tram network.
There was only one slight mis-step, when Usain Bolt turned up and was immediately handed a kilt he hadn’t requested. Truth be told, it was offered up timorously, the journalist involved clearly being as awestruck as the other fearless seekers of truth who asked for selfies. Bolt would have got a much more insightful introduction to Glasgow from one of its taxi drivers, the same cabbies who it was ludicrously suggested should enrol in a pre-Games charm school.
As I say, just a mis-step. Glasgow was never in any danger of losing its swagger. These Games in microcosm were a bit like one of their heroes, Alex “Tattie” Marshall, and I mean in the delivery of his winning bools. At first a slight stumble, even a feeling of “Bloody hell, man, what are you doing?” Then walk on, nae bother, and something approaching serenity.
I witnessed five Scottish gold medal triumphs and will never see their likes again. I reported on sports I barely understood, hoped I didn’t get too much wrong, and would love to be invited back. Meanwhile, when I return to the football, the first overpaid, whinging perisher gets it.