Birmingham got it right but the future of the Commonwealth Games is uncertain | Commonwealth Games 2022

TThe men’s 5,000m wasn’t a fast race, but it had an exciting ending. Uganda’s Jacob Kiplimo won it in a sprint past two Kenyans, Nicholas Kimeli and Jacob Krop, who had led from the start. Kiplimo roused the 30,000 spectators at the Alexander Stadium as he overtook them both with about 100 meters to go. In all the excitement, no one noticed the guy they’d just swept past on the home stretch. The three passed him so quickly that if you had blinked you would have missed him on TV. His name was Rosefelo Siosi from Solomon Islands and he still had three laps to go.

The crowd was just beginning to calm down as Siosi crossed the line behind them and continued around the next bend. When he regained consciousness, all the runners had finished before him. They stood at the edge of the track and got wind again. Siosi now had the track to himself. One by one, people in the stands seemed to get the hang of what was going on. The noise increased and soon they were cheering again, even louder than they had for the winners. On his final lap, which lasted 80 seconds, Siosi received a sustained ovation. He eventually finished in 17 minutes 26.93 seconds, 90 seconds behind the field.

Back then, Siosi’s best season this season, it would not even come close to making the top 1,000 in the UK rankings this year. It’s hard to know exactly how low it would be because there’s a break at 17 minutes. But at the moment it didn’t matter.

If this all sounds oddly familiar to you, it’s not just because it’s one of those underdog stories the Commonwealth Games always seem to produce. That’s because exactly the same thing happened eight years ago, when Siosi received a standing ovation from the crowd in Hampden when he ran the final lap of the 2014 Commonwealth men’s 5,000m final all by himself. He finished that race in 16 minutes 55.33 seconds, 90 seconds behind the field. The only real difference now was that he was 30 seconds slower. Perhaps the most celebrated club runner in athletics history, Siosi was undoubtedly one of the faces of the Games.

Because like him, they just keep stumbling along while everyone cheers for them. These worked well for one reason, and that was because the audience showed up. There were a few quiet venues, particularly those on the outskirts, but Alexander Stadium and Sandwell Aquatics Center both seemed to be pretty much sold out for almost every session. And with all the typically British grumbling about public transport (which was often chaotic) and prices at the concession stands (which were outrageous), everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Solomon Islands’ Rosefelo Siosi finished last in the 5,000m – 90 seconds behind the winner. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

Birmingham was a good host. It felt ready for its moment. They made the games feel like they were taking place in the city and not in a gated neighborhood. Especially in Smithfield, the inner-city location that hosted a late-night games festival, and in Centenary Square, where organizers parked the giant animatronic bull that stole the opening ceremony from Simon Le Bon. Somehow the whole event seemed to be done with a sense of humor too, which could be heard from the stadium announcers’ jumps about how much money it had cost the council to show the sunsets and the sand rake team’s dance routines at beach volleyball.

It didn’t seem to bother anyone that many of the best competitors didn’t come. Take the women’s 100m, which should have been the headline event of the entire Games. It should have been a repeat of the World Championship showdown between Elaine Thompson-Herah, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Shericka Jackson, three of the fastest women in history. It wasn’t because the organizers could only persuade Thompson-Herah to show up. Fraser-Pryce and Jackson preferred the Diamond League meeting in Silesia. The athletes make the Olympics, but it was the fans who saved the Commonwealth Games.

The problem with that is that it fades quickly, as does Siosis’ ovation at the stadium. And in the silence that follows, the problems of the games will still be there. Like the cost. For its £780m, Birmingham got a rejuvenated stadium, a new watersports center and promises of a legacy that will ring awfully hollow to anyone who remembers hearing similar things after London 2012. The games have undoubtedly become too big and too expensive for many countries in the Commonwealth to want to host them even if they could, which is one of the reasons why they will be split across multiple locations in Victoria in 2026.

Secretly, members of the Commonwealth Games Federation are resentful of all the issues you’ve also read about here in The Guardian. They worry about whether they will be relevant if the best athletes stay away, wondering if Barbados’ recent decision to become a republic is a portent of what is to come, what will happen to the Commonwealth when Queen Elizabeth is dying, and what we reckon with our own imperial history will mean everything for games that have always been held as a celebration of it.

Dame Louise Martin, president of the federation, has previously said they need to downsize games. And if the Birmingham Games go well, they could still be the last of this magnitude.

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