IIt’s Tuesday evening and I’m watching a group of excitable young people in colorful clothing dance on a patch of sand in Birmingham city centre. Heather Knight, the England cricket captain, is sat to my right and we’re part of a crowd who have gathered for some beach volleyball action at the Commonwealth Games. The dancers – also known as, the Brum Beach Crew – are an added bonus, as are the flashes of “MONSTER BLOCK” and “MEGA RALLY” on the venue’s two large screens during both pool games: Gambia v Sri Lanka (men) and England v Scotland (women). All in all it’s a surreal experience, but also part of an unexpectedly fun family holiday.
This was meant to be the year when my wife, daughter and I did our usual thing of going abroad for our summer break, having not been able to do so in 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic. But it was not to be and again Covid was to blame, with my daughter’s new passport caught up in the backlog caused by the Passport Office’s struggles to deal with a surge of applications as, like us, thousands of Britons made plans to get back on a plane. So we were going to have our summer holiday on home soil and decided to do so in Birmingham given it was hosting a major sporting event and, well, was easy to get to from our house in south London. Competition and convenience swayed it but, with all due respect to the fine people of England’s second city, there was not a huge deal of excitement about the trip as we headed north last Monday.
That, however, changed pretty much as soon as we arrived at Birmingham New Street station, walked up New Street itself and were hit with the sight and sounds of Victoria Square. The hub in the heart of the city was throbbing amid a gloriously warm August afternoon, packed full of people either passing through or stopping to listen, and dance, to the live music put on by organizers as part of the festival aspect of these Games. Some were also watching the sporting action showing on the huge television located to the side of the performance stage. It was just what we needed, our collective senses well and truly gripped, and that would remain the case throughout our three-day visit.
Quite rightly there is unease in many quarters with the continued existence of the Commonwealth Games, and especially with it being hosted in the UK in a post-Windrush age. But being in Birmingham this past week it was impossible not to get swept up in the sheer positivity of it all, with much of that stemming from the city’s full embrace of its status as hosts. The place was transformed from my previous visits, quite literally in terms of the £770m spent on, among other things, new transport links, but also, to use that most summery of words, in terms of “vibe”.
Everybody was really happy, with a lot of that down to the Commonwealth Collective, the orange-and-grey-clad volunteers found not just at the various venues but also in many streets and open spaces. They were as friendly as they were helpful, and while at times it felt a bit cultish it was also infectious and added to the sense of a city and its people taking great pride in being at the center of the sporting universe, albeit for less than a fortnight.
Speaking of sport, while beach volleyball was our undeniable highlight – partly because of the sheer thrill of the action and partly because of how hilarious it was to watch such an un-British event taking place in a converted wholesale market and within walking distance of Mr Khan’s Kebabs and Pizza shop – we also enjoyed seeing netball at the NEC and athletics at Alexander Stadium, the highlight of the latter a toss up between Matthew Hudson-Smith’s impressive win in the 400m heats and the group of Ugandans who were sat behind us and chanted with unrestrained excitement whenever one of their compatriots took to the track.
Again, that touches on the collective and inclusive positivity we saw and felt in Birmingham, something I reflected on in Victoria Square on Wednesday evening, in between a DJ set that ended with Groove Is In The Heart by Deee-Lite and live coverage on the big screen of the men’s and women’s 100m finals. We consistently do these major sporting events well in this country and, I’m pleased to report, attending them can really make up for missing out on a holiday abroad.