I’VE been in Glasgow for a couple of days now, and it’s already clear that this is a city determined to enjoy itself.
There were the usual grumbles in the build up to the Commonwealth Games – too much money coming out of the public purse, too much travel disruption, not enough tickets available for local Glaswegians – but as was the case with the London Olympics, once the opening ceremony began, the prevailing mood quickly became celebratory.
Gauging the benefits of hosting a major multi-sport event is always something of an inexact science, but there are clearly direct economic effects in terms of infrastructure spending and employment opportunities, not to mention the more indirect positive impact of raising the profile and image of a city or region that finds itself thrust into the global spotlight.
Just as importantly, however, the Commonwealth Games are affording the residents of Glasgow an opportunity to flaunt their civic pride with visitors from all around the world.
In 2002, Manchester hosted the Games and was arguably never the same city again. There was a hard legacy in the shape of the City of Manchester Stadium (which has subsequently become the Etihad), not to mention the sparkling new velodrome which has become the headquarters of the British Cycling team.
But the Games are also credited with changing Manchester’s prevailing mindset, giving the city its swagger back and convincing the rest of the country, not to mention Commonwealth nations on the other side of the world, that Manchester was a major player capable of staging high-profile international events.
All of which brings us to Newcastle and the rest of the North-East. We pride ourselves on being a region that plays a significant role in national life, and love to bask in a passion for sport that is often the envy of the rest of the country, yet when it comes to staging major sporting events, we’re pretty much inconsequential.
Take away the club sides in football, rugby and cricket, and what have you got in terms of a sporting programme? International cricket at Emirates Durham ICG? The county had to give games back last year because they didn’t think they could stage them. The Rugby World Cup at St James’ Park? Next year’s tournament will feature three group matches, but nothing in the latter stages of the competition. Major athletics meetings at Gateshead International Stadium? Not since the venue lost its Diamond League status to London, Birmingham and Glasgow.
The Great North Run and associated Great North City Games thrust the region into the sporting spotlight each September, but they have grown thanks to the drive and passion of Brendan Foster and his Nova group rather than anything more collective in terms of a shared sporting vision that encompasses local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and various other pan-North-East groups that should be driving the region forward.
When Glasgow decided to bid for the Commonwealth Games more than eight years ago, the City Council developed a radical proposal that included £1bn of infrastructure improvement and the redevelopment of a number of existing venues.
They agreed to fund 20 per cent of the cost, and successfully petitioned the Scottish Government in Edinburgh to fund the remainder of the budget. Plenty of people said they could never deliver on their promises, but yesterday’s opening day of competition proved that if you aim high, you sometimes reach the stars.
So why aren’t our political and economic leaders as bold and ambitious? Is there any reason why Newcastle should not be a Commonwealth host city, with Gateshead and Sunderland lending a hand to spread the benefits of the Games throughout the region?
St James’ Park and the Stadium of Light would be ideal for the opening ceremony and rugby sevens, while the showcase of a bid could be a redeveloped Gateshead International Stadium that would reclaim its former status as one of the leading venues in British and even world athletics.
Sunderland’s sparkling new Aquatic Centre is already capable of hosting the swimming events, with Newcastle’s Metro Radio Arena ideally suited to some of the indoor disciplines such as boxing, judo and weightlifting.
Northumbria University’s Sport Central already hosts Newcastle Eagles’ basketball matches, so it wouldn’t take much to transform it into a Commonwealth netball venue, while Gateshead Leisure Centre could conceivably stage table tennis. Choose one of Newcastle’s bowls clubs to host that sport, and you’re pretty much there.
A successful bid would require national government support, but if the leading powers in Westminster are really serious about spreading financial growth to the regions, and increasing the autonomy of areas away from London, why wouldn’t they back something as potentially transformative as a Commonwealth Games in the North-East?
And having poured a ridiculous amount of money into the black hole that was the English bid for the 2018 football World Cup, the national Government can hardly claim there is no political appetite for more major sporting events in the wake of London 2012.
Before it got to that stage, though, there would have to be broad-based regional support for a bid that the whole of the North-East could get behind, and a powerful sense that the authorities in Newcastle in particular were completely convinced by the case for staging a Commonwealth Games.
Manchester’s leaders were won over by the argument, as were those in Glasgow, and while the former only hosted the Games 12 years ago, the limited number of Commonwealth countries capable of staging the four-yearly event means England’s turn will come around again fairly soon if anyone wants it.
Just imagine if North-Easterner Aimee Willmott had been contesting last night’s 400m Individual Medley final in Sunderland instead of Scotland, or if Northumbrian Laura Weightman was preparing to compete in the 1,500m on home soil instead of at Hampden.
A pipe dream? Some will inevitably think so. But if Manchester and Glasgow can do it, so can Newcastle. It just needs someone in a position of power to turn the dream into a reality.