This week I made the short train journey from Milton Keynes to Birmingham to attend a ground-breaking ceremony for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games Athletes’ Village.
Few would consider the city, located around 125 miles north-west of London, a global hotbed of sport. In fact, most would rightly view the aforementioned capital as the premier UK destination for top-level international sporting action.
There is always high-quality sport to watch in the host city of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. In the past two weeks, the London Marathon made headlines worldwide on and off the course, Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre hosted a couple of International Hockey Federation (FIH) Pro League matches and the women’s FA Cup final took place at Wembley Stadium.
The rest of May is as jam-packed, with events ranging from the International Swimming Federation Diving World Series to the World Rugby Sevens Series at Twickenham Stadium.
It is clear then that London has a strong sporting identity. But what of Birmingham? Events do take place in the city, but it is not internationally known for high-profile sport. This is a shame, as with a population of around 1.1 million, there is undoubtedly an audience for it.
The Commonwealth Games is set to change all this. Around 5,000 athletes from 73 nations will descend upon Birmingham in the summer of 2022 and if all goes well, the city will deservedly be put on the sporting map.
Speaking to Birmingham City Council Leader Ian Ward at the ground-breaking ceremony, it is clear he viewed it as an important outcome of hosting the Games. For him, the Commonwealth Games can not only give Birmingham a sporting identity but also define the city within the UK.
“We want to get people in Birmingham to shout a little louder about our city, to be a bit prouder of what we do here,” Ward said.
“I think the past we have always suffered by the fact that people in Liverpool and Manchester are not shy of coming forward and talking up their city.
“Here in Birmingham, we’re a little more reticent, we’re a little more reserved about things.
“We very much hope the Games will be a platform that will allow us to change the profile of the city of Birmingham and its people both nationally and internationally.”
It is interesting that Ward mentions Manchester, as in my opinion, it is a city that Birmingham should aspire to emulate in terms of developing a sporting identity, especially in the light of Manchester hosting the Commonwealth Games in 2002.
Helped by the presence of two world-class football teams, Manchester is a UK city that has forged a strong sporting identity for itself away from the dominance of London. The Commonwealth Games was also a significant contributing factor in this.
The facilities built for the event transformed Manchester into a hub for sports such as cycling and swimming. Take the Manchester Velodrome, for instance, built for the 2002 Commonwealth Games. It is now part of the National Cycling Centre, home to British Cycling and Team Sky. Another example is the National Squash Centre, currently hosting the inaugural Manchester Open.
To create the identity that Birmingham is wishing for then, the city must take note from Manchester. If it can capitalise on hosting the Commonwealth Games in the same way Manchester did, it can become another sporting hub in the UK to rival London.
Coincidentally, as I write this, I am on a train to Manchester for the World Taekwondo Championships.
Olympians and defending world champions alike are streaming into the city, with a visit from International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach to look forward to later this week. It is a sign of what is to come for Birmingham.