Stephen McGinty: Now I’m game for Games

A small army of volunteers has made the Commonwealth Games visible across the city of Glasgow. Picture: SNS
A small army of volunteers has made the Commonwealth Games visible across the city of Glasgow. Picture: SNS
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Glasgow’s excitement at playing host to the cream of the Commonwealth’s athletes has stirred Stephen McGinty from his apathy – and even kindled a new regard for tracksuits

IN LORD of the Rings: The Two Towers there is a scene that accurately conveys my attitude towards the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. In the scene, Gollum, once a hobbit called Smeagol, but now an emaciated and hollowed-out wretch, driven mad by his lust for the one true ring, begins to have a schizophrenic conversation with his softer, gentler half. Digging under the foundations of Smeagol’s new-found happiness and camaraderie, Gollum taunts and berates him. Smeagol’s response is to clamp his hands over his ears and declare: “Not listening, not listening.”

For the past four years my hands have been metaphorically clamped over my ears, but with only five days to go before the opening ceremony the din is too great and it’s time to pay attention.

The reason for my lack of civic engagement was partly down to a life-long lack of interest in sporting events combined with a life-long enthusiasm for procrastination.

Unfortunately this created a “perfect storm” of apathy which was as potent as the Commonwealth Games marketeers’ mania.

For when my lack of interest momentarily let down its shield and allowed a spark of enthusiasm to kindle thoughts of visiting the new stadiums, my procrastination suggested that this was indeed a good idea but one that we should all embark on tomorrow, when, sadly my uninterest had awakened from its nap.

Even the promise of burnt meat failed to stir me when, a couple of years ago, a press tour to be followed by a summer barbecue came and went without my fingers, sticky with sauce, departing with the latest press release.

And now it is upon me. The city is decked out in the multi-colours of the Commonwealth Games logo. There is not a lamp post within a radius of ten miles of the city centre that doesn’t bear a dynamic slogan such as: “Go for it” (I do wonder how many unhappy spouses have now got up and gone?)

In the city centre there are round discs on the pavement that inform pedestrians that it is only a “45 minute” walk from here to the BBC headquarters or “55 minutes” to Ibrox. The one on the corner of George Square declares “George Square: 2 minutes”.

Then there is the sudden appearance of multiple 5ft statues of Clyde, the Games mascot which is an anthropomorphic thistle which everyone claims to hate but I like on the grounds that it symbolises Glasgow and Scotland more than the wonky camel logo that everyone loved at the London Olympics. Then again the support of one apathetic Glaswegian isn’t exactly a vote of confidence, especially as I also didn’t think the official kilt costume was really that bad, especially when you consider that even the best kilt is a diabolical garment that, like the time capsule it is, should not be worn but buried in the back garden.

In the past week a quiet revolution has taken place in my attitude to tracksuits as day wear. Previously one could assume that anyone sauntering down Buchanan Street in hooded tracksuit and trainers at noon on a Tuesday was a man or woman of leisure, of which the city has more than its share.

Now they are more than likely one of the small army of volunteers or Games staff recognisable by the large laminated passes that hang round their necks like proud medals of involvement.

On Wednesday I set off to secure my own in the form of an official press pass. The media centre is based at the Glasgow SECC, which is now ringed by a steel perimeter, and it was while walking across the bridge from the Science Centre and BBC headquarters, to where Radio 2’s Ken Bruce, that bold son of Glasgow will be returning next week with his daily show, that the first mild stirrings of excitement began to take hold.

After using my passport to prove that I am who I claim to be (sadly there are few who wish to impersonate me) I was handed my badge – there was no podium and I had to put it on myself – which added a smidgeon of methylated spirit to my glowing excitement. (We press were given actual spirit in the form of a miniature bottle of whisky.)

A more appropriate freebie might have been Brian Oliver’s fine new book The Commonwealth Games: Extraordinary Stories behind the Medals published by Bloomsbury and I’m sure the author would have appreciated a bulk sale of 2,000 because he didn’t even get one from me.

I picked it up from my local library which also offered me a selection of the finest novels from across the Commonwealth, such is Glasgow’s all encompassing enthusiasm for what will take place over the next two weeks.

I spent Thursday afternoon in the company of the heroes and heroines of the last 19 Commonwealth Games. Men like Precious McKenzie, the 4ft 10in South African, whose mother was an alcoholic, whose father was eaten by a crocodile and who pulled himself up through the pain of apartheid to win four gold medals at weightlifting and become arguably the Queen’s favourite athlete – when she noted his absence from a party guest list in New Zealand she sent the police to collect him.

Then there was our own Ian Black, whose story illustrates how far attitudes have changed. A champion swimmer at 16, he won gold at the Cardiff games in 1958, and became the first Scot to win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, but his celebrity, far from delighting his headmaster at Robert Gordon College in Aberdeen, annoyed him greatly.

At a dinner for alumni, the headmaster, a Mr Collier, declared: “I cannot help deploring the fuss which has been made of him, while the solid achievements of pupils in the academic field and in services to the community receive relatively little recognition. It is a little trying to think of Gordon’s College, with its more than 200 years of not undistinguished history being known as Ian Black’s school.”

When the school’s pool was closed for repairs, Black was denied priority use by the local council who expected him to train while weaving in and out of recreational swimmers.

He tried the outdoor pool at Stonehaven but found himself freezing and so, poorly prepared, came in fourth at the Olympics and abandoned swimming at 19. The book also reminded me of how times had changed.

When Emmanuel Ifeajuna became the first African to win a gold medal at an international sporting event at the Vancouver Games in 1954 for the high jump, there was no such thing as the Nigerian flag or anthem and instead he stepped up to the podium while Land of Hope and Glory blared from the loudspeakers.

Today he makes no appearance on the website of the Athletic Federation of Nigeria, having been executed by firing squad in 1966 for leading a military coup.

The story I found the most moving was that of Jim Peters, the English marathon runner who, at the Vancouver Games in 1954, set off at such a blistering pace that by the time he reached the stadium for the final lap he was 17 minutes ahead of his nearest rival.

He was also in such a state of heat exhaustion that he collapsed almost as soon as he set foot on the track.

For two minutes he lay there while officials and medical staff debated what to do, as to assist him in any way would mean his immediate disqualification. Peters finally clambered back on to his feet, took a few steps then collapsed again. He got up and fell, got up and fell.

The anxiety in the capacity audience was such that women fainted and men were sick. In the press box Peter Wilson of the Daily Mirror typed: “Two steps forward, three to the side. So help me, he is running backwards now… oh, he’s down again... The nauseous spectacle of a semi-conscious man being allowed to destroy himself while no-one has the power or gumption to intervene.”

On 12 occasions during the final lap Peters fell. When he finally passed what he thought was the finishing line, the English masseur swept him up and carried him from the track. Unfortunately, Peters still had 220 yards to go and was disqualified. In the triumph of the human spirit, he won gold that day.

Over the ten days of the Glasgow Games there will be sporting achievements and personal disappointments and after four years of covering my ears I’ll now be listening for the cheers.