There are charming quirks and delightful stories wherever you turn during the Commonwealth Games. One of the best started on Thursday in the cycling time trial at Wolverhampton’s West Park.
The guy’s name is Chris Symonds, a 48 year old who rides for Ghana. Where his story is a little different comes from his day job – he has worked as a doorman in the House of Commons for 20 years. As he says: ‘Your MP would know me.’
It’s easy to love all that. If you look at sports through the narrow lens of victories and medals, you miss a lot of fun.
Adam Peaty was a star attraction at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham
They miss Symonds speaking of a training regimen that includes his 12-mile one-way trip to Westminster; they miss 47-year-old cyclist from Walsall, Jim Horton, who is now an immigration officer in the Falklands and rode for them here. He saw Mark Cavendish recently and was buzzing. It’s delicious stuff.
And yet it’s tempting to go back to what Symonds says about the MPs. They know him, but how much do we know about so many at the center of this £800 million party in the Midlands?
There are approximately 6,500 athletes at these Commonwealth Games. The question is simple: how many of those participants can you name, despite all the exciting sport, the strong crowd and the atmosphere?
There are the easy ones: Adam Peaty, Geraint Thomas, Laura Kenny, Katarina Johnson-Thompson, Laura Muir, Cavendish and Keely Hodgkinson are the most prominent from the homelands.
Jamaican sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce is in Birmingham but will not participate in the Games
Then you can go for Emily Campbell, that power of nature that breaks records in weightlifting. Or Eilish McColgan, who returns the 10,000m title to a famous family. From further afield there’s Chad le Clos or Elaine Thompson-Herah, the five-time Olympic champion and arguably the best sprinter of any gender in the world.
But who now? There is no Dina Asher-Smith, no Tom Daley, no Max Whitlock – injured, campaigning and commenting respectively. Curiously, there is the case of Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, the Jamaican winner of 23 major sprint medals. She is here, but not because she is at the Games, but only to prepare for a modest meeting in Italy.
And that is a serious problem. Not in the direct sense, because more than a million tickets have already been sold for these Games, of which 30,000 at each of the 12 athletics sessions alone.
The atmosphere at Alexander Stadium on Wednesday, when McColgan won gold and hugged her mother Liz, was as good as never before at a track in this country since Super Saturday in 2012.
The crowds were high in Birmingham with over a million tickets sold
The problem comes from what happens next, as these ancient Games are already a creaking, wooden ship in a modern storm – it’s only in Birmingham because Durban withdrew as host.
The sports calendar has never been so crazy, hosting major events has never been more expensive, and the most profitable way to sell these performances to broadcasters and governments is to lure star names – athletes with recognizable faces can put poster or advertisement.
That there are so few in Birmingham will be a concern for the Games at a time when they are fighting for their place in the order, with no rush from bidders to host the 2030 event. They enjoy the present, but are very concerned about the future.
The indifference of athletes, and from there the sight of weakened competition, is even more damaging than any chin-caressing we do about the problematic connotations of the Commonwealth and what it represents.
The atmosphere at Alexander Stadium on Wednesday, when Eilish McColgan won gold, was as good as never before
Some of the fields here have underlined that point – 16 of the 42 medals available in artistic gymnastics went to England. One of the para-cycling races featured only four riders. Some athletic disciplines were of lesser quality than the British Championships, which in themselves are not a barometer of greatness.
The balance is that swimming has some powerhouses, just like hockey, and this is the biggest podium on which netball and squash appear without Olympic participation.
But if this fun platform is to survive, it needs more. More than a handful of competitive sports. More than wonderful stories of the underdog. What it needs are a few more stars.