Preparations are ramping up for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games.
Organisers recently announced the medal programme for the competition, an important but not particularly thrilling aspect of the run-up to any sporting event. Regardless, Birmingham 2022 found a way of making the announcement significant. The Games are set to be the first major multi-sport event to award more medals to women than men.
There will be 136 opportunities for women to medal in Birmingham, compared to only 134 for male athletes. An eight-team women's T20 cricket tournament will be held at Edgbaston while there will also be 13 mixed events - a record number.
To celebrate the achievement, Birmingham 2022 held a day of panel discussions featuring female athletes. This kicked off with a media briefing in the morning. Among the sportswomen present was Eboni Usoro-Brown, part of the England netball team who clinched gold against the hosts at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast.
For Usoro-Brown, the focus on women’s sport at Birmingham 2022 presented a real opportunity to regain the momentum lost as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"This has obviously been an unusual year and I think after the last few years, women’s sport in general has been on an upwards trajectory," she said.
"I think having women’s sport as a centrepiece during Birmingham 2022 will give it that big boost and emphasis to again get restarted and continue to grow. Unlike the male sports, we do not necessarily have the level of investment in it, and certainly in women’s sport.
"So again, the fact that it is being held in Birmingham, one of the most vibrant cities in the UK, and on the BBC free to air, I think it’s going to be absolutely fantastic for women’s sport in general to take centre place and hopefully inspire the next generation."
Indeed, while female athletes have sorely lacked opportunities to compete this year due to the global health crisis, 2022 is set to offer a wealth of events.
The Winter Olympic Games in Beijing starts the year off, of course, but the remainder of 2022 will be dominated by summer sports. The next edition of the World Athletics Championships - now due to take place in Oregon from July 15 to 24 - will be followed by the Commonwealth Games from July 28 to August 8. Subsequently, the main athletics programme at the redeveloped Alexander Stadium is not scheduled to begin until day five of competition on August 2, giving additional recovery time to athletes competing at the World Championships.
Another factor for organisers is the UEFA European Women's Championship, which is also taking place in England in 2022. The final of the competition is due to be held at Wembley Stadium on July 31. Around 15 sports at Birmingham 2022 are scheduled to be in action on the same evening.
Birmingham 2022 professes to be promoting women’s sport, but will the clash between another major competition featuring female athletes result in a diminished audience for both? Not in the eyes of Hannah Cockroft, Britain’s five-time Paralympic wheelchair racing champion and a 12-time world champion.
"I think it’s going to be amazing," she said.
"It’s going to be like London 2012 all over again.
"We know that the nation love sport, whatever it is, they get behind it. If we have got football to bounce back off, we can come off the back off that. Obviously athletics as well - we have also got the World Championships and European Championships that year, so a very busy year.
"I genuinely think it is all just going to stick together and work really, really well. The schedules have been planned out so precisely, and I think people are going to ride from one sport to the next and absolutely love it."
Cockroft was not the only athlete to evoke the spirit of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, which did indeed produce a heady atmosphere around Britain. The idea of a similar exhilarating summer of sport, which also elevates female athletes, seems almost too good to be true after the current year. Weightlifter Sarah Davies, a member of the Birmingham 2022 Athletes’ Advisory Committee, was confident it could happen again.
"Birmingham 2022 have been really proactive in making sure we have this phenomenal summer in 2022 of sport, all ranges but the big focus on women’s sport will be incredible," Davies said.
"We have said women’s sport does not get the same coverage as men’s sport, and the calendars have kind of been shifted around to allow for that, so that we make sure every sport gets a good equal range in. Birmingham 2022 were really good in consulting with the athlete group to make sure that we are all happy with it moving forward.
"So, I think it is going to be a really exciting summer of sport and hopefully we will bring back that kind of 2012 vibe that we had that summer."
It will not just be a significant summer for women’s sport. Organisers have also confirmed Birmingham 2022 will boast the biggest Para-sport programme in Commonwealth Games history. The addition of events like the 100 metres T33 allows Cockroft to aim for a Commonwealth medal for the first time.
She again invoked London 2012 when discussing the advantages of competing in front of a home crowd. The Paralympics proved to be incredibly popular eight years ago and inspired many, such as British wheelchair basketball player Siobhan Fitzpatrick, to take up Para-sport.
"For me, London 2012 was how I found that Para-sport was even a thing, and that’s how I got into wheelchair basketball in the first place," Fitzpatrick said.
"So for me to experience that home environment, making history with the sport being in the Games for the first time, would be phenomenal."
Cockroft agreed with this sentiment and suggested Birmingham 2022 could have the same impact.
"Everyone can be there, and you can open the sport up to so many new audiences," she said.
"I remember going back to my wheelchair racing club in Leeds after London 2012, and there were 20 new people just whizzing round in race chairs because they had seen our support, and come and watched it.
"That is what I love about it, that the British public really get behind us. They love watching it, but then they also want to get involved. They don’t just stop at watching it.
"They come out, and find their route into sport, and that’s what makes the British public so great."
Living up to the success of London 2012 is a big ask, but the likes of Davies and Cockroft seem certain it can happen. Regardless, the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games look set to be an extremely significant event for both female athletes and Para-athletes.