Birmingham 2022: Can landmark event create lasting legacy for city, country or Games?

By Dan RoanBBC sports editor

Whether it was the 1.5 million tickets sold - more than at any other Commonwealth Games in the UK - or the fact viewers streamed the action a record 57 million times, or the crowds that packed Centenary Square on a daily basis to get a glimpse of the giant mechanical bull that became such a vivid symbol of the event, it is clear that there was serious appetite for Birmingham 2022.

The glorious weather helped, of course. As did the city, its people and the volunteers, surpassing expectations and raising spirits with a friendliness, warmth and spirit that left an impression on anyone who spent time there. There was a real sense that Birmingham wanted to seize its moment and prove itself.

And after the pandemic, such major sporting events seem to be relished by the public even more than before. Considering the challenge of Covid, and the fact that Birmingham had around half the time most cities have to prepare, having stepped in following the withdrawal of original host Durban, organisers will be delighted it was as successful as it seems to have been.

Surrounded by a family-friendly, celebratory atmosphere that drew parallels with the women's football Euros with which it overlapped, Birmingham 2022 concluded a landmark summer of sport in Britain.

But beyond memories of the many sporting highlights and the inspiration provided by the countless athlete role-models, once the feelgood factor fades, what will the legacy of the Games be?

Will it persuade more people to become active in a way London 2012 failed to do? How will it improve the lives of the communities who live in a city that includes some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the country?

Will it help the West Midlands - a region that, according to new research by the BBC, has seen more swimming pool closures in the last three years than anywhere else in the UK?

This, after all, was the most expensive sports event to be held in Britain since London 2012 at a cost of £778m. And a quarter of the money had to be raised by the local authority after years of significant strain on council finances.

"There is a commitment to work together that's better than I've ever known in the eight years I've been here," says Mike Chamberlain, the chief executive of Sport Birmingham, the organisation trying to tackle inactivity in the region.

"The legacy plan is not to just focus on the numbers of members at sports clubs, but to do something more meaningful, focusing on inactivity in some of the most deprived communities, where the need is greatest. To work with community groups - the ones that are trusted, not just traditional governing bodies.

"We've got to make the most of it and engage with young people."

'It feels so proud to be a Brummie'

Talks are now under way about the establishment of a centre for combat sports, something Chamberlain believes would engage those communities where inactivity is worst. A campaign has also begun for a new velodrome to be built. And efforts are being made to attract business sponsorship of community facilities - before the current momentum fades.

Birmingham now has a renovated Alexander Stadium, and already there are plans for bids to bring the European and World Athletics Championships to the West Midlands, among many other events.

There is even talk of a possible 2036 or 2040 Olympics bid, in partnership with another city. There is a brand new aquatics centre in Sandwell. Twenty 3x3 basketball courts are being built in the city. More than £1m worth of sporting equipment used for the event - from volleyball sand to judo mats - is staying in the region.

Funding agency Sport England says it has directed a chunk of a £35m legacy investment into local participation programmes to help get people more active.

Whether that is enough when the event cost around £800m is open to debate. Sources have told the BBC that there had originally been hopes for a £50m legacy pot.

"We are focused on creating greater opportunity for people who previously felt excluded from sport and physical activity, and generally growing the number of active people as a result of the impetus that the legacy of the Games will have," says Tim Hollingsworth, chief executive of Sport England.

"We should have the chance to see the numbers change."

Athletics in particular will now hope it can tap into the enthusiasm that saw capacity crowds at the Alexander Stadium. And organisers of rugby league's World Cup - to be staged in England later this year - will no doubt be relieved to see that even amid a cost of living crisis, the British public's love of hosting major sporting events appears undimmed.

In the UK in 2019, pre-Covid, 75 million tickets were sold for sporting events - a rate of 1.15 per capita, which was higher than in any other country.

Matt Rogan, author of 'All to Play For', a book examining how legacy can be secured, said: "While Britain bounced back to some extent in a compromised year in 2021, the Women's Euros and Commonwealth Games have shown us quite how important live sport is to the coherence and confidence of our nation.

"Birmingham is one of the youngest cities in Europe - 46% of residents in Perry Bar where the Alexander Stadium [is] are under the age of 30," Rogan says. "Sport is a key lever to regenerate our cities for younger generations now that physical shops and offices are less of a draw than they might have been even 10 years ago.

"These Games have been particularly effective as a catalyst to drive activity and social impact. For example, Warwickshire Cricket Club worked for over a year to create a host of new opportunities for women and girls to get involved locally with cricket throughout the county. That's already paying dividends."

Beyond sport, local leaders point to the jobs, travel infrastructure, affordable housing and business opportunities that the event generated, with the government suggesting it could be worth hundreds of millions of pounds to the city.

It is worth noting that while London 2012 was a catalyst for the regeneration of the east of the capital, affordable housing targets there have been missed. But while it is hard to quantify the value of any shift in perception of Birmingham as a result of the Games, there are hopes the way this vibrant, diverse and youthful city embraced the event, and the global platform it afforded its rich heritage, culture, music and architecture, will boost tourism, investment and civic pride.

But nothing can be taken for granted either. Speaking at a business forum event this week, West Midlands mayor Andy Street said: "There's a long way to go from this opportunity we have. So our argument to the government is we now need a coherent plan strategy around what we're calling 'Global West Midlands'.

"When the party is over… we will face some big challenges. This winter is going to be very hard for a lot of people. We've also got some incredible opportunities. We have to think about that investment piece, that tourism piece, for that opportunity."

The Commonwealth Games movement could also have a lot to thank Birmingham for. With Barbados having become a republic last year, the event came at a time of renewed focus on the future of the Commonwealth.

Seen by some as an outdated legacy of colonialism, the Games - previously called the Empire Games - has been struggling to forge a new meaning, and find potential host cities, with an over-reliance on Australia and the UK as hosts in recent decades.

Indeed, Birmingham could be the last such Games of its kind. The next one, in Victoria in 2026, will feature a scaled-back, more flexible programme across four 'hubs'. Athletics and swimming are the only two 'traditional' sports that have to be included, as part of a new approach designed to lure more cities into bidding.

In a packed sporting calendar, there have always been questions over the event's status, and the withdrawal of a host of top stars at Birmingham, some of whom prioritised other competitions, once again raised questions over its relevance. But the Commonwealth Games Federation says a number of countries have already expressed an interest in hosting the event as a result of Birmingham's success.

Organisers also suggest the Games were a force for inclusivity, sustainability and progressiveness - and may influence future major events. The fact there were more medals for women than men. The biggest integrated Para-sports programme in the history of the Games. The success of sports new to the Games like women's cricket. The way established venues were used in a bid to leave a carbon-neutral legacy. The fact that diver Tom Daley was able to make a stand for the LGBTQ+ community at the opening ceremony - an example of athlete activism that would not be allowed at an Olympics.

While he is hoping one legacy of the Games could be reforms in those Commonwealth countries where being gay is currently illegal, England's medal-winning hockey players are hoping another potential impact could be a renewed focus on school physical education. They have written to the Conservative party leadership candidates urging them to prioritise team sports in schools

It is clearly too early to assess the precise impact the Commonwealth Games will have on Birmingham, the West Midlands, the UK and sport more widely. But leaving a lasting legacy is ultimately what will determine whether Birmingham 2022 was a true success.

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