Philip Barker

The new year arrives across the Commonwealth today.

When the clock strikes midnight in Birmingham itself, it will concentrate attention on the 2022 Commonwealth Games set to be the biggest sporting event in the history of the city.

Many will be aware that Birmingham once bid for the Olympics, but had events had taken a different turn, the city might well have been the host for the Commonwealth Games of 1982.

Lagos and Brisbane had already made their intentions to bid clear when Birmingham launched a bid only a few months after the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealand.

These had been attended by Denis Howell, then Member of Parliament for the Birmingham constituency of Small Heath who had earlier been a local councillor in the city.

"The Christchurch Commonwealth Games were among the happiest I have attended," Howell wrote in his memoirs.

"They well justified the description of The Friendly Games."

Shortly afterwards, Labour won the first of two general elections held in Britain in 1974. Harold Wilson became Prime Minister again and appointed Howell as Sports Minister. Labour also controlled the local council in Birmingham.

The only time the Commonwealth Games had previously been held in England had been 1934 when London hosted what were then still known as the British Empire Games.

Howell found a valuable local ally in Ken Barton, a Labour councillor and trade union shop steward who was chairman of the council’s leisure services committee.

In December 1974, councillors voted 55 to 41 to proceed, although an unnamed Games official admitted, "I would have welcomed a more positive vote in favour."

Brisbane ultimately staged the 1982 Commonwealth Games ©Getty Images
Brisbane ultimately staged the 1982 Commonwealth Games ©Getty Images

"The Right Decision at the Wrong Time", the Birmingham Mail suggested in an editorial.

"It would be a tremendous boost for the West Midlands if the Games were staged in Birmingham in 1982. Today it cannot be justified for Birmingham, the West Midlands or anyone else in Britain, but in 18 months time, the outlook ought to be clearer and a great deal brighter."

The newspaper's stance embodied the uncertainty which overshadowed the bid.

It was estimated that the total cost of facilities for the Games would be £10.2 million ($13.8 million/€12.1 million).

"We have to show not just what the city is, but what it will have," Barton said, as a ring-bound consultation booklet was published with details of the facilities.

"We shall show them that Birmingham is not a smoky industrial city but a place for people all over the world to see and enjoy," Barton insisted.

The Opening Ceremony and athletics were to take place at exactly the same location that will be used for Birmingham 2022.

"Perry Park, the proposed location, is five miles from the University of Birmingham with good access by both private and public transport", plans revealed.

"The site was admirably served by buses and is within ten minutes of the railway station," added Barton.

The site was to become known as the Alexander Stadium. Construction began in April 1975 on a stadium which would "comprise an all-weather surface track in Chevron, tartan or Olymprene." The home straight would have 10 lanes.

A covered stand of 5,000 and a permanent terrace for 10,000 were to be supplemented by a temporary stand of 15,000.

Organisers claimed "the layout has been developed in consultation with technical representatives from the athletic bodies."

The handwritten notes to one copy noted that the Amateur Athletic Association wanted a "tunnel from the changing rooms to the arena."

The stadium was also to be where the marathon and 30 mile walk would finish.

The cover of the initial dossier for Birmingham's bid ©Philip Barker
The cover of the initial dossier for Birmingham's bid ©Philip Barker

"A.A.A. requests slope 'into stadium' for marathon runners and walkers entry should be lessened", said a handwritten note.

The majority of athletes were to be accommodated at university halls of residence in Birmingham. This was "subject to approval by the University council."

It was a plan which will have familiar chimes in 2022 for athletes who will live in accommodation on university campuses in Birmingham and the surrounding area.

In 2022 bowls will take place in Leamington Spa, but in the 1982 bid dossier, one of the Birmingham city parks was earmarked for the purpose.

Originally, a new complex at Snow Hill was to be the setting for most of the indoor sports.

Swimming was to be in a new 50 metres pool with a seating capacity of 3,000, of which 2,000 would be permanent seats.

Badminton, boxing, gymnastics and judo would also be staged in Snow Hill.

"A preliminary assessment of the requirements has shown that enough facilities would be available at the centre to meet the requirements of each of these sports."

Birmingham seemed determined that judo would be part of the 1982 Games and set aside an arena which would hold between 3,000 and 5,000 spectators. Despite the optimism, judo did not become a medal sport until 1990.

"It is understood that the judo will be extended to include women competitors by 1982 and this might lengthen the competition from three to eight days", said he booklet.

Weightlifting was to be held at the town hall, described as "a 19th century concert hall in the town centre. A suitable venue allowing a proscenium type presentation."

The Alexander Stadium is being redeveloped in advance of Birmingham 2022 ©Birmingham 2022
The Alexander Stadium is being redeveloped in advance of Birmingham 2022 ©Birmingham 2022

As disputes over the costs continued, a revised plan relocated many indoor sports to the National Exhibition Centre still under construction in 1975.

A public meeting was convened to debate the matter.

"The Games would draw the eyes of the world to our city, its citizens and resources," West Midlands Sports Council secretary Jim Sadler insisted in a letter to the Birmingham Post.

Conservative group leader Neville Bosworth warned of costs exceeding £40 million ($54 million/€48 million).

Labour’s Clive Wilkinson branded this a "wildcat" estimate but Bosworth later threatened to cancel the bid in the event that the Conservatives gained control of Birmingham Council.

"The financial implications of this business are horrifying," Bosworth insisted. "I want to make it absolutely clear that upon our election to control of the city council, it will be our intent to withdraw this application."

In April 1976, Howell and Sports Council chairman Sir Robin Brook then made a dramatic announcement. In the event of a successful bid, a grant of £4 million ($5.4 million/€4.8 million) would be forthcoming from public funds.

This was to take the form of £1.5 million ($2 million/€1.8 million) from the Government and the remainder from the Sports Council, payable over the six years leading to the Games.

Michael Sparkes, secretary of the Commonwealth Games Council for England, was said by one report to be "taken aback by such largesse from the Government."

Municipal elections gave control of Birmingham to the Conservatives. In June 1976, a final vote of 71 to 49 confirmed Birmingham's withdrawal from the race.

Howell was furious and insisted it would "do immeasurable harm to the reputation of Birmingham around the world. I therefore know they will regard the withdrawal, not only with sadness but as a breach of faith."

There was disappointment from the cycling community. Tommy Godwin, a 1948 Olympic medallist, had been among those supporting a campaign to build a velodrome in the Birmingham area.

Birmingham's Commonwealth Games ambitions should finally be realised next year ©Birmingham City Council
Birmingham's Commonwealth Games ambitions should finally be realised next year ©Birmingham City Council

British cycling claimed the decision "destroyed the plans for the construction of a cycling centre at a time when cycling as a sport is expanding and in dire need of such a facility."

By 2022, a location for a suitable velodrome in Birmingham still did not exist. Instead the competition will be at the Olympic Park in London.

The final vote on the destiny of the 1982 decision was to be taken at a Commonwealth Games Federation meeting held in Montreal shortly before the Olympic Games.

Lagos had also withdrawn and a bid from Kenya had not materialised, so it soon became apparent that Brisbane had no competition. Whether the city fathers of 1976 celebrated in quite the same fashion as their latter-day counterparts when the 2032 Olympic decision was announced in Tokyo is not recorded.

As the 1982 Games began in Brisbane, there were attempts at disruption by Aboriginal rights pressure groups. They protested against hardline measures against the indigenous population taken by Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

From a sporting viewpoint, the Games proved a great success and encouraged Brisbane to bid for the 1992 Olympics. By a twist of fate, their rivals included Birmingham with a campaign led by Howell and Barton.

Both lost out to Barcelona in the International Olympic Committee vote but Birmingham 2022 will at last make real the hopes expressed by Howell and Barton more than 40 years ago.

Brisbane’s Olympic dream will also finally come to pass in 2032.