Sydney's triumph sets the standard

Manchester defies criticism of stadium facilities and revels in early rush for tickets

By Ian Herbert
Tuesday 25 February 2014 03:09
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Manchester was enjoying a rare meteorological phenomenon – five consecutive hours of warm, dry weather – on the evening vast, expectant crowds thronged to central Castlefields to hear the International Olympic Committee's verdict on the city's bid to stage the 2000 Games, nine years ago.

It was all in vain. The hopelessly unrealistic bid failed and 5,000 Mancunians resorted to the kind of stoicism which Britain has refined to Olympian standards over the years – Union flags and united choruses of "Always Look On The Bright Side of Life". The city was compensated with the 2002 Commonwealth Games two years later, but it has been living in Sydney's shadow to this day.

Just 111 days to go to Manchester's Games and memories of the way that Sydney redefined the standards of multi-discipline sporting competitions last summer are still weighing heavy on organisers who had already been saddled with the high expectations of local taxpayers, who watched earlier expensive bids to stage the 1996 and 2000 Olympics soak up money long before the Commonwealth Games resulted in an endless drain on money.

Manchester had already received £138m from the Government and Sport England to build the Games facilities before it emerged last year – amid fall-out from the Wembley Stadium fiasco and pressure that Manchester should live up to Sydney's model – that the event remained as much as £120m adrift, including £26m for venue cost overruns, £15m for staff and a £21m contingency fund.

Tony Blair, warning that the event must succeed in portraying Britain as a world leader in staging prestige international gatherings, stepped in with an additional £110m, taking the total to near £250m. Taxpayers still remain technically liable for any losses.

Considering all this, there is some comfort in the fact that M2002 hired the former Millennium Dome's project director as its own chief operating officer last year.

At least if things cut rough Bernard Ainsworth, who spent three years on the Greenwich peninsula, will not be in virgin territory. "This is easier and different to the Dome because we have an end product already," he says. "We just need to create the best platform."

Even making that has been easier said than done, since the Aussies have been doing their darnedest to stick spokes in Manchester's wheels of late. Athletics Australia and the Australian Commonwealth Games Association (ACGA) have both been withering about the quality of conditions at the competitors' village – converted university accommodation at central Fallowfields – which they claim is rudimentary and 20 beds short of their needs. ACGA has even suggested that its squad might need to bring along its own washing machines.

A combination of gamesmanship and old-fashioned Pom-bashing is evidently at play here. Sydney's Daily Telegraph has led the line, delighting in a recent claim that Manchester is "struggling to live up to the Australian-set standards."

And the washing machines? Evidently a neat promotional opportunity for one of their Commonwealth's squad sponsors – a washing machine manufacturer. The claim has been rubbished by the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF).

But by any standards, Fallowfields is not pretty and does suffer from comparison with the villages in Sydney and Kuala Lumpur (Commonwealth hosts in 1998) which were both new private property developments, built in time to make the athletes their first inhabitants.

In a positive final evaluation of Manchester's facilities last month, the CGF indicated that work on the village's appearance, as well as transport, must continue if expectations are to be met. The expected standards of cuisine also demonstrate the sort of pressure Manchester is under. For the competitors' restaurant, which will shift 2,000 meals per hour, Ainsworth is juggling the issues of "menu fatigue" (too much of the same offering), calorific intake and waiting times.

He litters his talk with references to "KPI". It stands for key performance indicator and, if an athlete has queued for more than two minutes at the salad counter, Manchester will have just missed one.

It is the peculiarly social dimension of the Commonwealths – the so-called "Friendly Games" and home to many who would never make the Olympics – which makes these details count so heavily.

"The Olympics are more political, the interpersonal bonds lesser," says Ainsworth. "More than Sydney, we'll be judged on the intuitive sense of a good welcome, the sense of homeliness."

Commercially, M2002 does have some grounds for comfort at long last. The first six weeks of ticket sales bettered Sydney's and two-thirds of events and all major finals are currently sold out. Even a morning athletics session went the same way last week.

The toughest bit for organisers is the minimal control they have over how history will come to judge their big event. An arbitrary, unforeseen hitch at the £12m opening and closing ceremonies – also bigger than any in Commonwealth Games history – or an unexpected British gold to match the Salt Lake curlers could swing it either way.

Greater certainties lie with the lawn bowlers of Heaton Park in central Manchester and others like them. whose lives will be changed forever by the Games.

Since it was founded 75 years ago, Heaton Park's biggest dramas have been the decision (1930) to let the ladies in and lifting a load of national silverware (1980) so there's nothing to match the decision to locate the Commonwealth lawn bowls venue at the club, which has brought a custom-built new clubhouse and four new flat greens, part of a £41m investment at the park.

Heaton Park deserves its stroke of fortune – it competes in an area dominated by crown green bowls but remains fiercely strong – and such is the pride in the new place, soon likely to begin competing with Sussex as host for the national and international events, that a new Manchester Commonwealth flat club has been formed.

Heaton Park's 75th anniversary newsletter captured the sentiment. "Not many of us will be around when the centenary arrives but I'm sure this great club will now continue to be at the forefront of flat green bowling in Lancashire," wrote one stalwart, Jack Moore.

The cyclist Jason Queally said much the same when he put his Sydney gold down to facilities at the Manchester velodrome, originally built to support the Olympic bid. A £32m pool, £3m hockey facility and £15m tennis centre at Bolton are other additions.

The biggest of all is the 38,000-seat City of Manchester Stadium which, subject to some modifications, will house Manchester City FC once the last race of the Games is run. Not everyone approves of what is seen as public subsidy of a wealthy football team but the arrangement is seen as a way of preserving the stadium's use. Sydney's Olympic stadium was deserted – and went bust – after its Games.

This kind of legacy, allied to harmony at the salad counter, buses that run on time, washing machines that work and a happy local police force (the Greater Manchester constabulary currently claims to be £3m short of cash to police the event) will almost allow Bernard Ainsworth to sleep at night.

Almost. "I don't know much about last summer in Sydney besides the fact it was stunning, with great vistas and people and incredible weather," he says. "Above all, just give me three days of sun in late July and we might be home."

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