A nation turns its desperate eyes north

After Wembley and other farces Britain has much to prove. Alan Hubbard suggests now is the time
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The Independent Online

Culturally and climatically Manchester has a hard act to follow after exotic locations such as Kuala Lumpur, Vancouver Island and Auckland have played host to the last three Commonwealth Games, and Sydney staged that many-splendoured Olympics. But it promises to do so with its own brand of verve and style when the curtain goes up on Britain's biggest-ever sports event on Thursday. For 10 days the home of hotpot becomes sport's hot spot. Welcome to what the world perceives as the cradle of flat caps, chip butties and Coronation Street. Not to mention the No 1 football soap opera, called Manchester United.

Culturally and climatically Manchester has a hard act to follow after exotic locations such as Kuala Lumpur, Vancouver Island and Auckland have played host to the last three Commonwealth Games, and Sydney staged that many-splendoured Olympics. But it promises to do so with its own brand of verve and style when the curtain goes up on Britain's biggest-ever sports event on Thursday. For 10 days the home of hotpot becomes sport's hot spot. Welcome to what the world perceives as the cradle of flat caps, chip butties and Coronation Street. Not to mention the No 1 football soap opera, called Manchester United.

Doubtless Posh and Becks will have VIP seats, alongside the lads from Oasis, but after those years of jokes and jibes, Manchester finally becomes its own oasis of sports: 17 of them embracing 72 nations (although to be honest many of them are little more than microdot dependencies on the Commonwealth map and simply here to swell the numbers).

With a record 5,650 competitors and officials, 10 per cent more than in Malaysia four years ago, it is not only the largest, but strategically the most important sports event ever staged in the UK, a fact which leaves the British Government anxiously biting their fingernails.

For not just Manchester but the entire nation is on trial. Already a global laughing stock over the failure to find a suitable home for the world athletics championships and the ongoing farce over Wembley, Britain looks to Man-chester to restore a battered international image. Manchester must prove to the sceptical world, and the onlooking Olympic president, Jacques Rogge, that Britain is capable of hosting a major sports event without dropping the baton. And if it succeeds, you can be certain that a new sport will be soon added to the list by the politicians: bandwagon jumping.

Manchester pledges things will be different. They already are, because it has SportCity, the compact site where most of the events will take place in paid-for facilities that have a touch of world class.

Not least the superb 38,000-seater City of Manchester Stadium, which is practical, comfortable and futuristic. Assembled in two years for £110 million, only a fraction of the proposed outlay on Wembley (if and when that crippled citadel ever gets off the ground), it is to be handed over, at no cost, to Manchester City FC. It is among the fastest tracks in the world, yet nowhere in England is there now an athletics stadium worthy of the name. Such is the crazy way of sport here.

Manchester may be the city where Coronation Street is king, but there is usually plenty of water to accompany the soap. With Manchester's rain record, and the forecast is "mixed", it could turn out to be more Wet Wet Wet than Oasis.

But fingers are crossed that it won't rain too heavily on the £300m parade. Cathy Freeman will run in the relay after all and Ian Thorpe will torpedo everyone out of his way in the pool. Alas, some significant names are absent from the track events – already moved to the first week to accommodate the European Championships – either through injury or because the Commonwealth Games remain the one major event on the sporting calendar where there is no big money to be made.

No Jonah Lomu, either, in the rugby sevens. A pity, because he was good news in Kuala Lumpur, sobbing for joy when the All Blacks won the inaugural event. The Commonwealth Games may be mainly for minnows but there has to be something special about them when even Jonah has a wail.

Apart from these odd setbacks, Man-chester is looking good, despite having had to take a back seat to the World Cup, Wimbledon and now The Open. More than 80 per cent of the 750,000 available tickets are gone, a Games record, like the £35m sponsorship. Not that we should be deluded into believing that the Games are big potatoes in global terms, for even in the more significant sports like athletics, swimming and boxing it has always been a case of never mind the quality, feel the medals, a three-horse canter between Australia, Canada and England.

But a bit of brio and bonhomie will not come amiss as what is left of the true spirit of sport tries desperately to avoid being sucked into the vortex of greed and cynicism. For these are the Games for little people with big ideas. Whether you come from Manchester, the Maldives or Monserrat, the novelty is being able to lose without being laughed at, to reach for the stars and mingle with them.

"I believe those who come here will be knocked out by what this city now has to offer," says Manchester's Games chief, Frances Done. "The place is cool, it's buzzing. I want people to go away and say: 'Now that's how a sports event should be run'." Well, here's hoping.

The Friendly Games they may have been since their inception as the British Empire Games in 1930, but the cosy image no longer fits the 21st century philosophy. Top performers these days are disinclined to run for fun. They trade in a much harder currency than the Games provide and that, as well as being something of an anachronism, perhaps like the Commonwealth itself, is the danger to their future. How much longer they can stay as sweet is a worrying question. Man-chester may be witnessing the beginning of the end, so enjoy it while you can.

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