Mike Rowbottom: Can-do spirit bodes well for Commonwealth Games in wake of Durban debacle

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There has been no confirmation yet that Nauru is ready to host the 2022 Commonwealth Games - but it can surely only be a matter of time.

Monday’s (March 13) announcement that the next Games but one were being taken away from sole bidders Durban because of continuing uncertainty over financing was hugely depressing.

But, paradoxically, the way in which other Commonwealth nations and cities have stepped up and offered to fill the gap has been hugely encouraging.

India and Malaysia have both emerged as potential hosts. In Britain, Liverpool - which had been preparing a bid for 2026 - has confirmed it would be willing to host the Games four years earlier than that.

Birmingham, which has also been preparing to bid for the 2026 Games, has also expressed interest in hosting the event in five years time.

Manchester, host of the 2002 Games, has come in from left field and announced that it too has designs on the 2022 Games.

And now London, via the Mayor's office, has confirmed its readiness to consider accommodating this multi-event championship a decade after it hosted the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

There has also been interest expressed by Melbourne, hosts of the 2006 Games, in taking on an event that will be held next year on the Gold Coast.

Even the Canadian city of Edmonton, which left Durban as the only bidder for 2022 when it pulled out of the original contest because of falling oil prices, has indicated it might be ready to change its mind about hosting an event it last held in 1978.

No wonder David Grevemberg, the Commonwealth Games Federation's chief executive, has said he is "very confident" a host for the 2022 Games will be found.

The contrast with the Olympic Games bidding process could hardly be more stark. After a long sequence of cities either baulking at the idea of bidding for Summer and Winter Games, or dropping out of the process, how much would the International Olympic Committee's President Thomas Bach like to hear the kind of supportive noises Grevemberg has been receiving this week?

The problem is, it is different with the Olympics. The bidding is too huge, too expensive, too cumbersome. An Olympic bid is like a supertanker.

So what are the credentials for these 2022 Games seekers?

Malaysia held a broadly successful Games in Kuala Lumpur in 1998, despite an unsettling and volatile political situation in the background that manifested itself in street riots by followers of the recently arrested former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.

Highlights from those Games included some monumental performances in the athletics - where Trinidad and Tobago’s Ato Boldon and England’s Iwan Thomas set respective Games Records in the 100 and 400 metres of 10.88sec and 44.52sec. The newly introduced rugby sevens, in which a New Zealand side including the late, great Jonah Lomu defeated Fiji in a coruscating final, was another plus point, alongside, a touch bizarrely, the ten pin bowling, where the hosts won the men’s singles and doubles.

Four years later Manchester ticked all the boxes with a well organised, well staged and hugely gratifying Games that at times resembled a sporting version of the Last Night of the Proms. There were stand-out performances in the pool, where Australia's Ian Thorpe set a world record in the 400m freestyle, on the track, where home athlete Paula Radcliffe won her first major gold in the 5,000m, finishing more than 20 seconds clear amid a blizzard of Union flags, and on the cycling track, where Australia set a world record in the 4,000m team pursuit.

The atmosphere in the purpose-built City of Manchester Stadium - now the Etihad Stadium, home to Manchester City FC - was memorable. But the Games in Australia four years later had a uniquely historical feel given that the athletics and Opening and Closing Ceremonies took place in the venerable Melbourne Cricket Ground.

Thousands of contented spectators made their way to this venue along the banks of the Yarra River and the overall feel of the Games was relaxed, warm and friendly. Home triathlete Emma Snowsill took gold, Jamaica’s then 100m world record holder Asafa Powell won his only big international individual gold, and Australia’s women dominated the pool, with the 4x100m medley team setting a world record.

The 2010 Delhi Games were undermined by corruption scandals, building delays and calamitous technical failures. But there was a clear - if frustrating - feeling as the Games moved towards their close that they were finally in full running order. If only that state of affairs could have been reached a couple of weeks earlier…

India’s athletes rose to the challenge, achieving their best ever finish at the Games, second overall. The bulk of their 38 golds came from shooting - where they claimed 14, including four individual titles for Gagan Narang. Ten more arrived in wrestling.

While Edmonton last hosted the Commonwealths in 1978 - where England’s Dave Moorcroft earned a superb 1,500m gold in front of Tanzania’s former world record holder Filbert Bayi, the guiding event held there was the 2001 International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships.

On the track there were some compelling performances, with highlights including Championship records from Jonathan Edwards in the triple jump, Jan Zelezny in the javelin, Tomas Dvorak in the decathlon and Stacy Dragila in the women's pole vault.

History records that many of the performances were bogus, with the now familiar shifting along of medallists occurring in several events including the women's 200m, where the discredited Marion Jones lost her gold to Debbie Ferguson of The Bahamas, and the men's 4x100m relay, where the US quartet, following Tim Montgomery’s 2005 drug bust, lost gold to South Africa.

The downside for the hosts was their image, memorably if cruelly encapsulated in a comment believed to have been made by British sprinter Marlon Devonish, who described the city as "Deadmonton". The line was taken up by the media, notably by the Daily Telegraph’s Robert Philip, who briefly attained celebrity status as the Mayor took him on a helicopter flight in order to point out the abiding virtues of his city. Top of the list appeared to be a shopping mall that had once been, but was no longer, the largest in the world….

Looking at the other English contenders for 2022, Birmingham has high-class sporting venues such as Villa Park, Edgbaston Cricket Ground and the Alexander Stadium.

Others include the National Exhibition Centre, the International Convention Centre and the Genting and Barclaycard Arenas.

And it has experience of holding major international athletics events such as the 2003 IAAF World Indoor Championships and the 2007 European Athletics Indoor Championships.

Liverpool has a rich sporting heritage of its own, thanks in big part to Liverpool and Everton FC, but also encompassing key Commonwealth sports such as gymnastics. And it has shown its commitment to the idea of hosting a Games by putting itself forward as the first definite English bidder for the 2026 Games before the Durban drop-out.

London, of course, has all the facilities and track record it would need to host a Commonwealth Games, although there are already some cautionary noises coming from the Mayor on the subject of potential funding and costs.

Let us see how it all plays out.

One suggestion that has surfaced this week offers the CGF what could be a gift of an opportunity to put into operation the kind of hosting and venue flexibility being sought by the IOC through its Agenda 2020 reforms.

Sharing the 2020 Games between Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool and perhaps even London could work well, minimising costs all round and making best use of the facilities already in place.

A stop-gap solution could offer a long-term template that would ensure the future of an event that is increasingly making a virtue of the fact that it is smaller but more flexible than its towering Olympic brother.

Whether any of the individual cities involved would buy that new idea of hosting would also be instructive for future developments.

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