Driven to distraction by Commonwealth Games mix-up

Sean McPartlin, a proud volunteer at Edinburgh’s troubled event in 1986, recalls how he almost became ‘the man who ruined the Commonwealth Games’

Liz McColgan, then known by her maiden name Liz Lynch, does a lap of honour at Meadowbank Stadium. Picture: TSPL

When Edinburgh was awarded the Commonwealth Games of 1986, there was great excitement and optimism in the Capital.

The huge success of the “Friendly Games” in 1970 was still fresh in the memory, and with the legacy of expertise and first-class facilitie – such as the well-used Meadowbank Stadium and Commonwealth Pool – already in place, there was every reason to believe that the 13th Games would be an even bigger success.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Perhaps we should have taken closer notice of that number 13.

Liz McColgan, then known by her maiden name Liz Lynch, does a lap of honour at Meadowbank Stadium. Picture: TSPL

In the lead-up to the Games, massive funding problems were uncovered, exacerbated by the threat of major political boycotts of the event.

At one point, it looked like the Games might actually be cancelled until media mogul, Robert Maxwell, with typical bravado, announced he would underwrite the Games and ‘save them’.

As it happened, and as was his wont, he contributed far more in bluster than cash, but, at the time, there was general relief that the Games would go ahead. Living in England at the time of the 1970 Games, I had watched my home city with pride as the first Games unfolded and been delighted to return to Edinburgh later that summer for university, and be housed in the Pollock Halls of Residence which had been partly built as the Games Village.

I was keen, therefore, to volunteer for the 1986 Games and, as a teacher with qualifications and experience in driving school minibuses, was accepted as a driver for the event.

Though I was allocated as “Team Driver” for the Hong Kong team, all drivers were told to report for duty on the day of the opening ceremony and be available for any tasks required.

I was told to go to the Caledonian Hotel and ensure the officials and guests of the Australian delegation arrived at Meadowbank for the ceremony.

As I recall, there had been some torrential rain and, by the time I left the hotel with my guests in the bus, Edinburgh’s traffic was experiencing its worst-ever gridlock – and the Aussies were panicking that they might miss the opening.

Luckily, a mix of local knowledge, and judicious use of “rat runs”, enabled me to drop them off in London Road, in front of the stadium, in good time.

They were hugely relieved and apparently impressed by my driving, to the extent that the leader of the group asked if I would pick them up from that spot 30 minutes after the ceremony had ended.

I said I did not know if it would be me driving, but I would pass their message to the transport pool, and wished them good luck.

When I returned to the pool, I passed on their request: “The Australians want me to pick them up in London Road after the ceremony…”

“It’s all taken care of, don’t worry, we’ll arrange it. You can go home,” I was told.

So off I went to watch the opening ceremony on television and thought no more about it.

You can imagine my horror, then, when I picked up the newspaper the next morning to see headlines along the lines of: “Games shambles – Australians left in the rain for nearly two hours after opening” and “Official complaint about organisation – Maxwell vows to take action”. The Games transport was being organised by high-ranking officials from groups like Lothian Region Transport and Eastern Scottish, and I had no reason to believe that my request, passed on from the Australians, would not be met, albeit by a different driver.

What I did not know was that exact plans had been put in place for pick-ups after the opening ceremony, and that delegates had been warned that they could not be picked up from anywhere other than their designated spot.

Waiting on London Road, the Aussies missed their allocated lift. They had hoped to pull a fast one and get away from the stadium ahead of all the others by making an individual deal with me as their driver.

At the time, however, gazing at these headlines, I felt it was only a matter of time before there was a knock at the door and I would be taken away as “the man who ruined the Commonwealth Games”.

I was almost afraid to report for duty that day, but clearly nobody had any idea of my innocent part in the furore, though I made sure to avoid eye contact with anyone in green and yellow for a few days.

Maxwell did storm into the transport office that day and I was relieved that he and his entourage swept past me without a second look. There was a lot of shouting, and it is one of the few times in my life that I have seen grown men shaking, but we heard no more of it in the massive effort to ensure the Games continued smoothly.

I got on really well with the Hong Kong team and enjoyed driving them and pointing out landmarks and local curiosities. As I took them to Kippen for the shooting events and to practice facilities at Danderhall, I was also able to show them a fair bit of the countryside.

At the end of the Games they thanked me warmly for my support and gave me a team tie which I still have.

On the final day I had no further duties, and it dawned on me that, despite my involvement, I had not actually seen anything of the Games “live”.

Wearing my Games uniform, I chanced that I would be able to get into Meadowbank to catch a flavour of the events – and in those days of low-key security, managed to gain admission.

“What’s the next event?” I asked a bystander. “Women’s 10k,” came the answer.

And so, by sheer coincidence, I managed to witness one of the greatest moments in Scottish athletics when our own Liz McColgan roared home to win our only athletics gold.

The emotion of that moment entirely blew away the foreboding caused by my opening day incident, and, though those Games are most commonly referred to these days as “troubled”, I was happy to have helped to welcome so many to Edinburgh and remain proud to have been part of it all.

I hope the volunteers of Glasgow 2014 will gain as much enjoyment and satisfaction out of “doing their bit” over the next few weeks, and wish them luck.