Commonwealth Games: Hosts without a venue

Andrew Longmore finds fears growing in Manchester over the Commonwealth Games
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE horrors of staging an under-financed Commonwealth Games are beginning to dawn on Manchester, just over four years from the cutting of the ceremonial tape. The last Games held in Britain, at Edinburgh in 1986, were devastated by a boycott of the African nations and had to be underwritten by Robert Maxwell because the Government refused to pick up the bill. Sheffield are still paying for the 1991 World Student Games. The fear is that the 2002 Games will suffer from the same half-hearted commitment.

Depending on your perspective, Manchester's twin assault on the summit of Mount Olympus was either a plucky campaign by crack troops or a misguided stroll by a bunch of boy scouts in flat caps. Either way, ranged against the big bucks of Atlanta and the sunny delights of Sydney, Manchester did not have a prayer. Given its chequered history, staging the Commonwealth Games might seem less a reward for gallantry than a booby prize.

The belief in Manchester is that a bid by London would have suffered the same fate; Britain not Manchester lost the Olympics. The uncomfortable truth is that, as a venue for multi-sport international events, Britain's track record is far from impressive. Despite his support for Manchester, John Major never quite cast off the impression that his sporting interest was confined to The Oval. Nor has New Labour entirely changed the notion that politics and sport mix only at the convenience of the former. A big- hitting committee, staffed by Margaret Beckett, John Prescott, Robin Cook and Chris Smith, promise full government attention for the 2002 Games, but not until that commendable interest has been turned into hard currency will Manchester's organising committee begin to sleep more peacefully.

The immediate concern is the development of a permanent stadium - venue for the opening and closing ceremonies and for the athletics, the showcase of the Games. Two new 50-metre pools are already under construction at a cost of pounds 20m, the velodrome stands ready, planning for other facilities is well advanced. But the failure of the city's bid for the national stadium has left the central axis in limbo.

A 120-acre brownfield site in east Manchester has been bought and cleared; the Sports Council has already allocated pounds 115m to finance the Games. An additional pounds 30m is now needed to build a 40,000-seater stadium spruce enough to receive the Queen and the newly re-elected Tony Blair in the summer of Golden Jubilee year. Once built, the council claim they can cover the running costs by leasing the stadium to Manchester City, for example, or one of the local rugby clubs. The alternative would be a temporary stadium, half the size, two thirds of the cost, which, in the view of the organisers, would be a poor advertisement for Britain's attitude to sport and a shabby contrast to the lavish facilities being prepared with heavy government backing in Kuala Lumpur for the Games later this summer.

"The Games in Malaysia will be a hard act to follow," Howard Bernstein, deputy chief executive of Manchester City Council, said. "They need more buses so they've closed the local schools. They need more drivers, so they've drafted in the Malaysian army. After Kuala Lumpur, the whole event will go up 40 notches. We have to decide whether we're in or we're not.

"The Government need to think about how we can use the Games to showcase Britain. Name me one city in recent years who could afford to finance the Games? It's not Kuala Lumpur city council who are putting up the money nor was it Barcelona county council or Sydney county council. What we are saying is that we can deliver a good Games, but we need a little more help."

Graham Stringer, Labour MP for Manchester Blackley, and the 2002 organising committee will make their case for a permanent stadium to the government soon. It is likely to receive a favourable hearing. The visit by Joao Havelange, outgoing president of Fifa, football's world governing body, to Downing Street was an indication of sport's increasing influence in high places. The creation of jobs - up to 2,500, say the council - in an undeveloped area would confirm Labour's commitment to inner-city renewal and to the refashioning of Britain's image in the world. The Games, after all, will be the biggest international event ever staged in this country.

"They have their own niche in sport," Bernstein added. "They have more of a friendly and a community side and have managed to avoid excessive commercialism." The danger is that far from putting Britain back on the sporting map, the Games will provide further evidence of the country's overwhelming apathy.