THE decision to bid for the 1970 Commonwealth Games was a leap in the dark for Scotland. The country had not hosted anything on a similar scale before, and no-one was quite sure how it would all turn out.
They need not have worried. To this day, the Edinburgh event is remembered as a resounding success on every level: the standard of competition was high, spectators loved it, the new venues and technical innovations all worked almost without a hitch – and above all, the atmosphere epitomised the tag of the Friendly Games.
Many facilities were very basic compared to what spectators and competitors would expect now. At the newly-built Meadowbank Stadium, for example, the majority of the crowd were seated on wooden benches with no protection from the inevitable summer rain.
But everyone mucked in, happy to welcome people from around the world to their doorsteps. And the fact that the Scotland team did so well simply increased the feeling that these were the most joyful of Games.
As a new history of Scottish athletics makes clear, this was not at all just some happy accident. Nothing was left to chance. The meticulous planning began even before Edinburgh beat Christchurch for the right to host the Games at a vote at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, and the man responsible for so much of it was Edinburgh citizen Willie Carmichael. “More than any other single person, Carmichael brought the Games to Edinburgh,” Colin Shields and Arnold Black write in The Past Is A Foreign Country. “He was Scotland’s wrestling team manager at the inaugural Games at Hamilton in 1930 and had always had the guiding dream of bringing the Games to his native city.
“Carmichael not only brought the Games to Edinburgh but organised them as well, acting as full-time director of operations. On a budget of £670,000, he produced the most thrilling and successful sporting extravaganza that Scotland had ever seen. His undoubted talent for organisation and stylish presentation resulted in the Games being judged an overwhelming success both in organisational and sporting terms.
“It was by far the largest Games ever held, with 1,383 competitors and 361 officials from the record 42 countries taking part. Meadowbank Stadium, the host for the athletics events, had been constructed especially for the Games at a cost of £2.4 million, including a government grant of £750,000.”
The installation of a “Tartan” all-weather track was one of the new features at Meadowbank, and for the first time metric measurements rather than imperial were used in track-and-field events. Programmes for each day – priced at 2/- rather than 10p, with decimalisation in the UK still a year away – provided a handy conversion table for spectators more accustomed to jumps being recorded in feet and inches rather than metres and centimetres.
The athletes’ villages was at Edinburgh University’s Pollok Halls, close to the Royal Commonwealth Pool and about a mile and a half from Meadowbank. The competitors were “the best-fed athletes of all time”, according to Shields and Black, and a list of the dishes on offer shows why long-jump champion Lynn Davies of Wales warned of the dangers of becoming “fat and bloated and unfit for competition” if they did not take care.
“The main course [at breakfast] consisted of a choice from grilled prime Angus sirloin steaks, grilled pork and beef sausages, grilled bacon, eggs, Arbroath smokies, grilled herrings, poached golden cutlets, grilled kippers, mushrooms, tomatoes and black puddings. Lunch consisted of good Scots food such as grilled trout, steak garni, lobster or scampi, escalope of pork, duckling, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and haggis and neeps.
“On a meagre budget of £2, two shillings and twopence (ie £2.11), the restaurant staff of 200 served three meals a day for each person – a truly magnificent achievement with the meals worthy of a five-star restaurant. Indeed, the food was too plentiful and too good, confirmed by the appearance of team managers standing at the end of the feeding line in the restaurant, removing food from their athletes’ overfull plates.”
The Past Is A Foreign Country stretches back all the way to 1883, but over the course of the century and a quarter which it covers, there is little to compare to the 1970 Games. Having researched the period for some time, Black is convinced that the title of the Friendly Games was thoroughly deserved.
“The abiding memory at the time, and what came through most when we were researching it for the book, was simply the overall occasion: the joyous celebrations at the end and just the whole atmosphere,” he told The Scotsman this week. “It was called the Friendly Games and looking back you can still understand why it got that name.
“There were a lot of innovations – the tartan track and the speed at which they got results through, for example. Famous athletes such as Kip Keino and Ron Clarke were there, and the Scottish successes certainly boosted the feeling about the Games among the public.
“There was also the impact of fresh arenas. Meadowbank was built and opened for the Games, and so was the Royal Commonwealth Pool.”
Among Scotland’s six gold medallists were boxer Tom Imrie and fencer Sandy Leckie, with the other four coming in the athletics. Asked which memory of 1970 he treasured most, Black opted for the 5,000m final, in which Ian Stewart and Ian McCafferty had the capacity crowd at fever pitch as they came first and second.
“The one race which is still my favourite to this day is Stewart-McCafferty in the 5,000 metres,” he said. “I always have that feel that McCafferty just lacked that wee bit of self-belief for the final push to win the race. Two Scottish athletes in the first three – I was just willing them home.”
Sixteen years later the Games would return to Edinburgh in more troubled circumstances. But on those July days in 1970 it seemed that no-one had a care for what the future might bring, being content to revel in the pleasures of their present.
lThe Past Is A Foreign Country by Colin Shields and Arnold Black is published by the Scottish Association of Track Statisticians, priced £12 plus postage. Copies can be ordered from firstname.lastname@example.org