Thursday’s skies over Birmingham are gray, almost stereotypically. The wind has bitten, the heat wave that swept the country a week ago is long gone. Downtown has a quiet buzz about it; there are boats on the canal and cars on the road and people are jostling everywhere, as you tend to do in city centers. The architecture is gray and brown and grayish blue as far as the eye can see. The water in the canals is of a deep, dark hue.
Between it all, however, there are pops of color. A touch of yellow here, a touch of pink there. Then you come across little bull statues on two legs, colored in mosaic – yellow, blue, orange, purple, pink, green, all bright. His name is Perry, he’s the mascot and he’s here to make you smile. the 2022 Commonwealth Games are in town and Perry is here to make sure you don’t miss it.
Not that you’ll miss it at the airport – there’s a dedicated lane for athletes and anyone else who’s in town for the Games. There are banners everywhere and at the station next door. The Games were due to be staged in Durban this year, but economic troubles have seen Birmingham intensify. There are also economic problems here – the day before the opening ceremony, the trains went on strike, with workers demanding fair wages.
It’s a reasonable request, and you have to make it when the world is watching, so without complaining, I pile into a cab. Zulfiqar, the driver, is intrigued by the Games – and not just in terms of improved earning opportunities. He comes from Pakistan and is excited about any potential matchup between India and Pakistan in hockey. When he hears I’m from the media, however, he lets out a nervous laugh and an “Oooo, dangerous guy!” I tell him I’m just covering sports and there’s relief on the other end – “writing on a Babar Azam cover makes the world a better place, huh.” He scores a point there.
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Meanwhile, Dorothy, the receptionist at my hotel, couldn’t care less about the Games themselves. She is originally from Poland but has been Brummie for decades and just wants to let you know how you can best explore and enjoy her city. She speaks of the multiculturalism of the place with great pride and is happy that the whole world can see it, even if only in glimpse.
The Commonwealth Games themselves are at first sight an anachronism, a throwback to a dark past of oppression and discrimination. Now, perhaps the one thing that connects the nations participating in these Games is that the sun has finally set on the Empire that once plundered them, but that’s not about this time. The Games remind us that sport can open bridges where before none seemed likely. It’s about unity, friendly competition and joy.
But above all, it is about the athletes themselves.
In a world where sports like athletics, table tennis and even hockey struggle to get the attention like cricket and football, this means something very special. It was special when Neeraj Chopra blasted his way to gold last time out in Gold Coast, Australia, a major foundation stone on his way to greatness. When Saina Nehwal dug deep to remind the world watching of the champion she once was. When Manu Bhaker, then 16, announced herself to the nation. When Manika Batra and co. introduces table tennis into the mainstream conversation. And it’s always special when Mary Kom proves her goatery. It’s about them.
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In 2022, Indians are the ones to beat in some events (hello, Mrs. Sindhu, Mrs. Chanu), and in others they face an impossible challenge (at the pool, for example). There’s even women’s cricket, another sport that is oddly overlooked at times. Harmanpreet Kaur will once again take center stage.
It’s about them, people who have dedicated their lives to sport and just need a stage to showcase it. The Games are this stage.
The Indian athletics team was on the same flight as me. They seemed incredibly superior to everyone else on the flight as pure physical specimens: a reminder that all professional athletes are somehow elite, regardless of their medal prospects. Come tomorrow, they and about 200 of their compatriots and just over 5,000 of their peers will give their best. On the track, on the field, on the courts and the tables and the… lawns. It will be an essential action. I’ll take a look, and I hope you will too.
For now, however, Birmingham’s Duran Duran is waiting in a few hours. It is planet Earth, you are looking at planet Earth.