Athletics: Boycott shadow over Manchester

Alan Hubbard finds the 2002 Games are facing walk-outs, deficits and crises
Click to follow
The Independent Online
BOYCOTT HAS NOT been part of sport's industrial language since the racial barriers were hurdled in southern Africa and political walls crumbled in eastern Europe. But the buzzword of the Seventies and Eighties is back as the countdown quickens towards the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester.

Things are not progressing too smoothly for what is designated as British sport's first post-Millennium showpiece. The Australian chief executive recruited to mastermind the project quit after only a few months, there is talk of looming financial disaster despite a massive infusion of Lottery cash and there was a crisis meeting last week to head off a possible walk-out by nearly half the sports on the programme.

Compared to the present Olympic maelstrom, Manchester's problems are a mere drop in the Ship Canal, but there is growing disquiet that taxpayers could be left with a deficit of between pounds 35m and 50m and that in an attempt to avert this some of those sports traditionally associated with the "Friendly Games" could be axed in favour of more commercially appealing team games.

Tug-of-war is not on the Manchester menu, but it is an event the Games people are playing. On the one side are the traditionalists, determined to preserve the presence of the "minority" sports, and on the other are the marketeers who want to cash in on the popularity of team sports which attract big-name sponsors. The heels have been dug in firmly over the past few weeks and in an unprecedented display of sporting solidarity, at least half a dozen sports under threat have indicated that they will all come out in sympathy if one is dropped.

The sports targeted are gymnastics, judo, squash, table-tennis, triathlon, weightlifting and wrestling. But their message seems to have been received and understood. At Wednesday's emergency meeting in London, a deal may have been brokered with tentative agreement that none of the 15 sports already in the programme will be excluded, although the number of participants may be capped to allow in more team sports alongside netball, which is already confirmed.

This has to be ratified at a further meeting between the Games organising committee, the Manchester City Council, the UK and English Sports Councils and the Commonwealth Games Council of England later this month, when representatives of all sports involved will be invited to put their case. One of the seven sports facing the squeeze is squash, which made its debut at the Kuala Lumpur Games last year.

This week, the British Championships are being held in Manchester and Stuart Courtney, the chief executive of the Squash Racquets Association, sees it as an opportunity to demonstrate his game's popularity. He also confirmed that there now was a mood of mutual defiance among the individual sports. "When we last met with the Commonwealth Games Foundation I got a distinct feeling of solidarity. Although nothing was said specifically about it being a case of one out, all out, the message was pretty clear. We are taking a very firm stance."

Courtney pointed out that squash was one of England's most successful sports in Kuala Lumpur with two gold, one silver and four bronze medals. "We are always being told about the importance to the nation of winning medals and I feel we should be in the Games because we happen to be bloody good at it."

Sir Rodney Walker, the UKSC chairman, who has been drafted in to keep a check on the Games expenditure, said he was "extremely encouraged" by the willingness of all parties to find a solution, and he may have backtracked from his view that some sports may have to go.

And Howard Bernstein, chief executive of the Manchester City Council, now insists there was "no question" of excluding any sports. "While we need to review the programme, we never intended fundamental changes. However, we are committed to hosting the biggest Commonwealth Games ever and there has to be some constraint on numbers. Leaving aside shooting - which is likely to take place at Bisley - we have 4,800 beds for competitors, and we hope that by putting a reasonable limit on numbers we can accommodate 17 or 18 sports, including two or three team sports."

In an age when sport is living for kickbacks, Manchester never needed to resort to brown envelopes to secure the Games. No one else wanted them, and it is perhaps easy to understand why. Manchester has been given some pounds 130m from the Lottery towards its own "Sport-City" which will include a 45,000-seater stadium to be handed over to Manchester City FC. Bernstein acknowledges that this may not be enough and the probability is that that they will ask for more. "What we must remember is that this is a major event to be celebrated by the whole country. It is the image of a nation, not just a city, that is going to be projected around the world."

Whether a plea for more funding will find governmental favour is open to doubt, even though the memory of the "Maxwellian Games" of 1986 in Edinburgh are an uncomfortable reminder of how images can be soured.

It may be that Manchester will also need to seek a Games God- father. By 2002 Rupert Murdoch will probably be the owner of the city's most famous sporting institution, having written out a cheque around six times the projected cost of the Games to buy Manchester United. Should the Games need a benefactor, they have only to look Skywards.