Philip Barker

The ceremonial baton containing the Queen’s message to the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games athletes is visiting Liverpool and Birmingham this weekend. Both cities hope to be chosen as England’s candidate to host the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

In the 1980s, Birmingham famously and unsuccessfully bid for the 1992 Olympics, but their attempt to win the Commonwealth Games over 40 years ago is long forgotten.

It had been a year of political turmoil in Britain in 1974 with power cuts, a three-day week and two General Elections.

There had been a change of Government. Edward Heath’s Conservatives had been voted out and Labour’s Harold Wilson had become Prime Minister. His cabinet included Denis Howell, a former Football League referee who was Member of Parliament for Small Heath in Birmingham. Howell was Minister for Sport and he was keen for his city to bid for the Commonwealth Games in 1982.

The 1974 Games had been staged in Christchurch, New Zealand, and were hailed as “the happiest Games of all”.

To this day, many still remember the fabulous 1,500 metre final won by Tanzania’s Filbert Bayi from New Zealand’s future Olympic champion John Walker. It set the seal on a magnificent 10 days of competition. There had been many other fond memories and Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip left the stadium in an open-top Land Rover which weaved its way through the happy competitors.

Howell was not the only one to be enthusiastic about Birmingham’s chances of success in 1982. The City Council was Labour controlled at the time and were embarking on a programme to provide better sporting and facilities including a new athletics stadium and developing an exhibition space.

The city architects’ office had prepared a confidential dossier outlining where the competition would take place. No decision had yet been made on venues for cycling or shooting, but a Birmingham Games in 1982 was to have included gymnastics and would also have seen the debut of judo in a Commonwealth Games setting.

The University of Birmingham was earmarked as the Athletes Village, subject to approval by “the University Council”.

It included an athletics track, sports halls and other facilities and offered accommodation for 2,290.

This was some five miles from the main athletics stadium at Perry Bar. The construction of what was to become the Alexander Stadium was scheduled to start in April 1975 at an estimated cost of £620,000.

Denis Howell, the Minister for Sport at the time, was keen to see Birmingham bid for the Commonwealth Games ©Getty Images
Denis Howell, the Minister for Sport at the time, was keen to see Birmingham bid for the Commonwealth Games ©Getty Images

Athletics would take place on a tartan all-weather track. In addition to a covered main stand holding 5,000, temporary seating was to raise the capacity to 30,000.

Amateur Athletic Association (AAA) official Dorothy Nelson Neal, a pioneer in women’s coaching and member of local club Birchfield Harriers, was amongst those to register her delight. “There’s been a Victorian outlook on facilities here for far too long. An international athletics arena here is a vital necessity,” she said.

The stadium had the support of Birmingham councillor Ken Barton, later a prominent figure in the city's Olympic bid. It had been developed “in consultation with technical representatives from the athletics bodies”.

A handwritten note on the dossier advised that the AAA had requested tunnels to the changing room and a sloped entrance for the marathoners and walkers.

Snow Hill in the city centre was to hold swimming, badminton, boxing, gymnastics and judo. “It will form part of a city centre development including a railway station and a bus station, the site having direct links to the city’s motorway network,” said planners. Bowls would be held in one of the city’s parks,

One sport would not need any extra construction. The 19th Century Town Hall was considered “a suitable venue for weightlifting allowing a proscenium type presentation”.

The National Exhibition Centre, which opened in 1976, would also have played a part.

No-one seemed quite sure just how much it would all cost. A figure of £10 million was mentioned at first and then Labour council leader Clive Wilkinson suggested that the cost of the Games would be nearer £25 million. “The Games are hoped to be an important factor in attracting industry and investment,” he said.

“They will bring thousands of visitors and TV cameras will show the world what a marvellous city this is.”

Wilkinson pointed to the plans for the National Exhibition Centre as another important asset.

The decision on whether to bid was taken in December 1974. There was to be a free vote, but many forecast that the decision would be taken on party lines and opposition came from both Liberal and Conservative groups.

Liberal leader Dennis Minnis complained the lack of information “was an insult to council members”.

The Conservatives rejected the Labour costings for the event and the disputes about finance rumbled on throughout the entire lifetime of the bid.

“We agree it would be very nice to have the Commonwealth Games here, but we believe it would be wrong to commit the ratepayers at this time. The plain fact is that we are in the worst economic climate our country has ever known,” said Neville Bosworth, leader of Birmingham’s Conservatives.

He dismissed the estimates and suggested that the Games might cost as much as £40 million to stage. His opposite number dismissed this as a “wildcat” estimate.

When the vote was taken, the council had won by 55 to 41. A relatively slender majority, but they still decided to go ahead providing they received financial backing from the government.

“I would have welcomed a more positive vote in favour, but that does not rule out any possibility of Birmingham eventually being considered,” said an unnamed official of the Commonwealth Games Council for England.

The Alexander Stadium was a key part of the 1982 Commonwealth Games bid and is so again as Birmingham looks to host the 2022 edition ©Getty Images
The Alexander Stadium was a key part of the 1982 Commonwealth Games bid and is so again as Birmingham looks to host the 2022 edition ©Getty Images

It was said in the Birmingham Evening Mail newspaper at the time that it was the “Right decision at the Wrong Time”.

It admitted the Games would be: “A tremendous boost for the West Midlands. It is not just a matter of prestige but it is high time Birmingham was recognised as something more than a money grubbing workshop.

“Today it cannot be justified in Birmingham, the West Midlands or anywhere else in Britain, but in 18 months time, when the final choice is made, the outlook ought to be a good deal clearer and hopefully brighter.”

Another editorial in the same newspaper recalled the 1970 Games in Edinburgh and suggested darkly that “Edinburgh ratepayers are still counting the cost. The total bill is still an unknown quantity”.

The Games were still known as the British Commonwealth Games in those days. The Federation were due to meet to vote on the host city shortly before the Montreal Olympic Games in 1976.

The Australian city of Brisbane were expected to provide the main opposition, but the Nigerian city of Lagos were also expected to bid.

Hopes were raised in April 1976 when Howell and Sports Council chairman Sir Robin Brook announced that a grant of £4 million would be made available if Birmingham were successful.

“I can’t believe the hardest-headed Conservatives in the city would turn down this project. If they did I would be a very sad and disillusioned man,” said Howell.

However, his optimism was ill-founded for within a month, the whole bid was plunged into jeopardy.

In local elections, Labour lost Birmingham Council to the Conservatives. There had never been a cross-party agreement on a bid and many in the new regime felt that the grant was not sufficient.

“My personal objection has been that this has been an open-ended commitment,” said Bosworth. After a review, the bid was abandoned and when it came to the election in Montreal, Brisbane had a free run.

Yet the facilities built in that era may yet have a Commonwealth Games legacy. The NEC and Alexander Stadium were open soon after the 1982 bid collapsed and in Birmingham’s 2022 bid, boxing, judo, table tennis and freestyle wrestling would all take place at the NEC.

The Alexander Stadium hosts the International Association of Athletics Federation Diamond League athletics meet this weekend. “An enhanced and refurbished stadium is pivotal to the Birmingham 2022 Games,” claim the bid team. If successful, the plan to increase the capacity for 40,000 and as with the bid in the 1970s, the arena is also intended to host the opening and closing ceremonies.