Philip Barker

In any normal year, Edinburgh would be preparing for its world famous festival but 50 summers ago, the "Athens of the North" had a further attraction to offer.

Dubbed the "Friendly Games" by Prince Philip, among others, the 1970 Commonwealth Games demonstrated the spirit Birmingham 2022 organisers hope they will be able to harness.

The Games were the first to be televised in colour, with more competitors and more events than ever before. A record 234,949 spectators came to watch.

Birmingham 2022 anticipates that the first women’s cricket tournament will be a major drawing card. In an ironic twist, cricket very nearly brought about the downfall of Edinburgh 1970.

It was the Apartheid era and the South African cricketers were scheduled to tour England that summer. There were threats of a Commonwealth Games boycott from India and many African nations.

A Springbok rugby tour a few months earlier had been targeted by widespread protests led by student campaigner Peter Hain.

Sam Ramsamy, now an honorary member of the International Olympic Committee, had just completed his own studies.

"I believe that Peter Hain and his wonderful group of protesters must be complimented and given accolades for what they have done," Ramsamy told insidethegames.

"It was the precursor for what was going to happen when the South African cricket team came in 1970, but the precursor was so successful that the British Government advised the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) to cancel the tour."

Home secretary James Callaghan contacted cricket’s authorities.

MCC President Maurice Allom replied that the council "was of the opinion that it had no alternative but to accede to the request".

"I am delighted, it is a very wise decision," said Sir Herbert Brechin, chairman of the Birmingham 1970 Organising Committee. He had been Edinburgh’s Lord Provost during the preceding three years.

The 1970 Commonwealth Games were the first to be televised in colour ©Getty Images
The 1970 Commonwealth Games were the first to be televised in colour ©Getty Images

The Games were known as the British Commonwealth Games in 1970. It was the first time that the word "Empire" had been dropped from the title.

In those days, Prince Philip was President of what is now known as the Commonwealth Games Federation.

"For a time before the Games started, things looked a bit uncertain," he wrote in his introduction to the official history of the 1970 Games.

This was not just because of Apartheid.

Initially, Edinburgh Corporation baulked at the £2.2 million price tag for the Meadowbank sports complex which was to be the centrepiece of the Games. The council members argued for a cheaper option costing £650,000.

"It is very questionable if we can go on with the Games," Dunky Wright, marathon champion at the first Empire Games in 1930, warned.

Eventually the Corporation relented.

"It is no good acting as hosts to the world and the Commonwealth unless you do the job properly," said the British Government’s Sports Minister Denis Howell.

The Queen’s Baton Relay was by now an established tradition, but there was nothing like the year long relay to the Gold Coast in 2018.

The Queen's Baton Relay for Gold Coast 2018 took place over a year ©Getty Images
The Queen's Baton Relay for Gold Coast 2018 took place over a year ©Getty Images

The Baton usually begins its journey from Buckingham Palace in London, but in 1970 the relay began in Canada. 

In a short ceremony at Petitot Park in Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territory, The Queen handed the baton to Abby Hoffman, 880 yards gold medallist from 1966. She was escorted by fellow Canadian, Don Domansky, a relay silver medallist in 1966 and Jamaica’s double gold medal-winning 440 yard runner George Kerr. It remains the only time the Relay has started from outside England.

The baton was also carried by First nation representatives including two eskimos from Inuvik.

It briefly visited Edmonton. Legendary Canadian runner Harry Jerome carried the baton on its journey to the airport. It was then flown to Scotland where, in the first of 587 stages, it was carried by runners from Ayr Seaforth Harriers.

"The baton should be carried around as large a part of Scotland as was practicable," organisers said. "Thus many distant places from Edinburgh would feel they were playing some part in Scotland’s Games."

The Opening Ceremony at Meadowbank Stadium featured country dancing and mass pipe bands. The new electronic scoreboard displayed the message: "Scotland is proud to extend the hand of friendship to all peoples of the Commonwealth."

First to enter were 1966 hosts Jamaica in gold jackets. They included 17-year-old sprinter Marilyn Neufville, who had competed for Great Britain at the 1969 European Championships before switching allegiance back to the country of her birth.

There were several setbacks in Edinburgh's preparations for the 1970 Commonwealth Games, but the event went ahead ©Getty Images
There were several setbacks in Edinburgh's preparations for the 1970 Commonwealth Games, but the event went ahead ©Getty Images

Some teams wore national dress. The long flowing electric blue robes of the Nigerian men were an immediate hit.

The England women’s uniform of green and white skirts caused controversy.

Official Marea Hartmann insisted the skirts "are already three inches above the knee and they are shortened any further they will spoil the cut of the uniform".

"The swimmers have threatened that they will go ahead and turn theirs up but if they do this, they may not be allowed to take part in the ceremony," she added.

One young team member complained: "We will be a laughing stock."

The men’s uniform also had drawbacks. The white slacks turned out to be almost transparent, revealing dark blue underpants, which matched the team blazer.

After the arrival of Scotland as host nation, 1966 marathon champion Jim Alder ran with the Queen’s Baton. Prince Philip read the message.

"I hope that all who have come together in Edinburgh from all parts of the world, will first and foremost enjoy themselves," Prince Philip said. "I hope too that both the competitions and the social events will encourage new friendships and better understanding of the Commonwealth as a free association of peoples of goodwill."

The Queen’s message signed off with the words: "I much look forward to being with you in Edinburgh next week."

In 1958 she had sent a similar message but was unable to attend because of illness.

This time it was Prince Philip who had health problems. He appeared with his arm in a sling after a polo injury.

The 1986 Commonwealth Games, in which Steve Cram won two gold medals, were beset by financial problems ©Getty Images
The 1986 Commonwealth Games, in which Steve Cram won two gold medals, were beset by financial problems ©Getty Images

There was a flypast by Royal Air Force ‘Phantom’ jets and the elegant royal blue Commonwealth Games flag with the crown at its centre was raised by a military colour party.

During the week other Royal Family members joined the Queen in what was her first visit to a Commonwealth Games. She even presented medals.

Amongst the recipients was Kenya’s 1,500 metres champion Kip Keino. It later emerged that Keino had received death threats before he took to the track.

The women’s 1,500m was contested for the first time and New Zealand’s Sylvia Potts, "a stride or two from victory", fell face down on the track. Potts ended up with nothing as Rita Ridley of England and two others passed her on the line.

"I did not trip, my legs could not carry me any farther. I was just run out.” said Potts.

Lachie Stewart delighted the Scottish crowd with gold in the 1,0000m, bursting past Australia’s Ron Clarke in the home straight.

In the 5,000m, Scotland’s challenge was led by Ian McCafferty and reigning European champion Ian Stewart, who wore the dark blue vest although he was born in Birmingham.

Years later, McCafferty told the BBC : "If the first two or three laps had been at the rate they should have been, we’d have broken the world record, I am sure we would have."

The two were clear in the closing lap and Stewart crossed the line first.

David Hemery won 110m hurdles on his 26th birthday, so the band struck up the England victory anthem Land of Hope and Glory, followed by Happy Birthday.

The 400m hurdles champion was John Sherwood. He’d been bronze medallist behind Hemery at the Mexico Olympics, where wife Sheila had won long jump silver. This time, the couple each celebrated gold.

The men’s long jump gold went to Lynn Davies of Wales, watched closely by a future Commonwealth and Olympic 100m champion. 

Allan Wells, then 18, later told insidethegames: "My job was to ‘rake’ the long jump pit. In fact most of the time I was watching Lynn Davies. He was a hero of mine. I thought this is the place!

"I also kept an eye on the reactions of the runners in the 100 metres. The atmosphere was so tense. It was something that really inspired me."

New Zealand’s Sylvia Potts fell at the finish of the women's 1,500m ©Getty Images
New Zealand’s Sylvia Potts fell at the finish of the women's 1,500m ©Getty Images

Elsewhere in the city, the other sports also provided inspiration and drama.

After 102 miles of the cycle road race, a photograph was needed to separate Bruce Biddle of New Zealand from Australian Ray Bilney.

There was no shooting competition in 1970. The Games are the last not to feature the sport, although it is not part of the Birmingham 2022 programme.

Fencing was included, the last time it appeared on the Games programme. Sandy Leckie, the Scotland flagbearer at the Opening Ceremony, prevented an English clean sweep with gold in the men's sabre.

The organisers believed they had discovered the secret of keeping the athletes happy.

"House them superbly, feed them like kings and keep them happily entertained," they said.

When the competition was over, competitors entered the arena, together side by side. Canadian cyclist Jocelyn Lovell even commandeered a child’s tricycle as others formed a conga line while the Queen watched.

Sadly, when the Games returned to Edinburgh in 1986, they were beset by financial problems and were hit badly by the boycott which Edinburgh 1970 had so narrowly avoided. The reason was the same, sporting contact with South Africa.