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Matt Maher: Eyes of the world on the Midlands – about time too

The Commonwealth Games is the biggest sporting event to ever happen in the Midlands and it isn’t even close.

The Red Arrows fly over the crowd during the opening ceremony of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games at the Alexander Stadium, Birmingham. Picture date: Thursday July 28, 2022. PA Photo. See PA story COMMONWEALTH Ceremony. Photo credit should read: Jacob King/PA Wire.
The Red Arrows fly over the crowd during the opening ceremony of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games at the Alexander Stadium, Birmingham. Picture date: Thursday July 28, 2022. PA Photo. See PA story COMMONWEALTH Ceremony. Photo credit should read: Jacob King/PA Wire.

Sure, we’ve played our part in some big shows before, whether it be Villa Park hosting matches at Euro 96, or the NIA holding major championships for athletics, badminton and others.

Only last month, Molineux became the centre of the England football world when it welcomed both the senior men’s and women’s teams in the space of a week.

But there has never been anything like this. Never before will so many eyes from so many places have been focused on the region for so long, through 11 days of competition involving more than 6,500 athletes from 72 nations. There were suggestions last night’s spectacular opening ceremony at the Alexander Stadium would be watched by one billion people.

For once, the PR line feels valid. This really does feel like an opportunity for Birmingham and the wider area to redefine perceptions and firmly re-establish its place.

A quiet pride has always existed yet at times, it has been too quiet.

“Play it down, don’t say it loud, that has been our style,” says Ian Metcalfe, Team England chair, a member of the Birmingham 2022 organising committee and a proud Brummie who believes the decline of the manufacturing industry in the 1980s had a lasting impact on the region’s collective psyche.

“We lost our sense of place, our sense of civic pride and watched with some envy as places like Manchester stole our thunder, if you like.

“Now, I believe that is starting to change. I believe we are witnessing a renaissance.”

The claim from politicians is the Games will now accelerate the latter. One thing you can guarantee is the word ‘legacy’ being used to exhaustion between now and Monday week.

Whether the Games will prove to be anything other than a colossal marketing tool for the area is a question which can only be answered in time.

What we do have, in the meantime, is the promise of a truly exciting sporting spectacle.

The biggest event to be staged in England since the London Olympics a decade ago, Birmingham 2022 will also be the most diverse ever, with more medals handed out to women than men and an expanded para sports programme included as part of the main schedule.

Of course, it won’t be perfect. There remains a sense of disappointment track cycling, one of the most popular events, will take place more than 100 miles away in London.

But then in truth, the circumstances which saw Birmingham awarded the Games in the first place were hardly perfect. With fewer than five years to prepare, instead of the usual seven and with a pandemic thrown into the mix, the fact the majority of the initial plans have been completed on time and just about on budget is arguably something to celebrate in itself.

That includes the construction of the £73million Sandwell Aquatics Centre, which will host its first competitive races this morning and be one of the main focal points throughout the Games.

It is a venue which, tomorrow morning, will be graced by a three-time Olympic champion in the shape of Adam Peaty, undoubtedly one of the event’s headline acts.

The Commonwealth Games will always face questions about its relevance and there is no point pretending it isn’t an event with its roots in bloody Empire.

Yet where purely sport itself is concerned, it only requires a glance at the start lists to understand how important it remains to athletes.

Just ask Peaty, who battled back from a broken foot in order to be here, joking he would even have been prepared to swim in a walking boot such was his determination to compete just a 50-minute drive from his Staffordshire hometown.

He and Laura Kenny, who leads the cycling squad, are among the established Team England heroes. As the days and events tick by, others will emerge and the greatest thrill will be in the unexpected triumphs, as young athletes – many of whom with links to the Midlands – grasp their moment on a global stage.

Former Sandwell schoolboy Joe Fraser gets his first chance tonight in the men’s team gymnastics tournament, while Bilston’s Russian-born boxer Delicious Orie, 6ft 6in and a relative newcomer to his sport, provides one of the Games’ more remarkable backstories.

Even Orie’s path to competing in Birmingham pales against that of Cyrille Tchatchet, the weightlifter who walked out of Glasgow 2014 after competing for Cameroon with his just his shoes and belt in his backpack and was then standing on the edge of a cliff before a call to the Samaritans saved his life.

Now a senior mental health practitioner working in Sandwell and living in Walsall, he will proudly pull on the England jersey with the aim of claiming a medal in the 92kg category.

Whether Tchatchet succeeds or not, he is already a winner.

Of course there are valid questions – even concerns – about what might happen next.

A decade on, London 2012 has fallen a long way short in delivering everything the organisers and politicians promised. Serious scrutiny will be required to ensure Birmingham 2022 leaves something more substantial than a few days of thrilling escape.

But until a week on Monday, at least, it is permissible to sit back and enjoy the ride.

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