Ten years after London 2012, the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham are another opportunity to examine the role of sporting mega-events in urban change – and see if we’ve learned anything from last time.

Workers tidy up the exterior of Birmingham’s Alexander Stadium on 4 March 2022 during a visit by Leader of the Labour Party Keir Starmer. (Darren Staples / Getty Images)

This summer marks ten years since the staging of the London 2012 Olympics. While there remains a hazy feelgood glow from the event, there is little doubt that the games failed to deliver on any of the grander claims that were made for it as a catalyst for economic and social regeneration. Neither Londoners nor the rest of the nation are participating any more frequently in sport or exercise, while beyond the Olympic Park’s remnants most of Stratford remains as deprived as it ever was. The Olympic Village, shorn of nearly all its social housing commitments, is generating rent for the Qatar Investment Authority, while the main beneficiary of the Olympic Park is the private company West Ham United, who play at the main stadium for a peppercorn rent.

A decade on, have we learnt anything about the role of sporting mega-events in urban change? Can we do any better? This summer’s 2022 Commonwealth Games, hosted in Birmingham from 28 July to 8 August, are an opportunity, albeit on a budget less than ten percent of the London games, to examine this.

On the face of it, the games have much to recommend them. Birmingham, so rarely the focus of national or international attention, is going to get a bit of both. It is also getting a slice of public money spent on it, with a budget of £788 million; £594 million from central government, and Birmingham City Council covering the other £184 million.

New-build sports facilities, and therefore white elephants, have been kept to a minimum, with the games requiring the construction of just the Sandwell Aquatics Centre and a major refurbishment for Alexander Stadium, where the athletics will be staged, at a cost of around £150 million for the two. Sensibly, more money is actually being spent on a cluster of much needed transport projects including the city’s new rapid bus network, the renovation of University, Perry Barr, and Coventry rail stations, and the creation of more dedicated bike and pedestrian routes through the region.

The organisers are promising a zero carbon games, achieved, in part, by the planting of 2022 acres of forest across the West Midlands and dozens of mini-forests within Birmingham. The games have been preceded by hundreds of neighbourhood roadshows and wrapped in a six-month cultural festival. In a symbolic break with the masculine majority in global sports the games will feature more women’s events and medals than men’s and is pioneering a range of mixed-gender formats. It is also the first major multi-sport event to integrate Paralympic competition into the mainstream.

Above all, the council and the organisers have chosen to make a virtue of Birmingham’s super diversity. The games certainly offer an opportunity to examine and refashion the historical narratives around Birmingham’s many migrant communities, through the medium of what was, from 1930 to 1954 the British Empire Games, and the Empire and Commonwealth games till 1970. Indeed the Commonwealth Games Federation’s Chief Executive was promising a ‘truth and reconciliation action plan’ to acknowledge this problematic historic legacy.

It is on this issue, above all, that the Birmingham games have fallen short of their stated intentions. Things did not start well when in 2020 the organising committee was sharply criticised for having just two out of fourteen members of its board from a minority ethnic background. The cultural festival accompanying the games has been a persistent target for criticism with many of the minority arts groups in the city feeling marginalised at best, disregarded at worst. In its report this March, the Birmingham Race Impact Group (BRIG), who have been monitoring the games’ progress, wrote ‘the conclusions of the Report Card make dismal reading and leave the diverse communities of Birmingham feeling that they have been largely ignored.’ Needless to say, no truth and reconciliation plan has emerged from anywhere.

The plans to use the games as an instrument of urban regeneration are also looking problematic. In the first place, the numbers are just minuscule, given how much Birmingham has already lost over the last decade. Between 2011 and 2021, Birmingham city council made £642 million of cuts and in 2021-22 were projecting cuts of another £123 million; together, a figure almost identical to the games’ budget. The original plan to invest in and build an athletes’ village with a substantial portion of social housing in Perry Barr were abandoned two years ago.

At the same time, according to the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, the £75 million spent on Alexander Stadium may well prove to be a poor investment. They failed to see how the facility was to be maintained and used after the games. ‘We are … disappointed that the council has so far been unable to provide us … with any headline figures relating to such continuing use. This does little to assuage our concerns over the robustness of the long-term financial aspirations for Alexander Stadium.’ This is hardly surprising. For all the talk of legacy, the Select Committee discovered that ‘the legacy programme is being funded through fundraising and a multi-partnership approach, rather than any allocation from the Games’ core budget.’ Little wonder that the BRIG and Birmingham minority communities have no faith in the games delivering a meaningful sporting or economic legacy to them.

The net zero aspirations for the games, welcome and necessary as they are, remain, like all mega-event plans, dependent on the opaque and esoteric accounting around offsetting. To make up for the very considerable carbon footprint generated by flying more than 10,000 athletes, coaches, and journalists to Birmingham, the games will be planting local forests and buying credits in carbon capture programmes elsewhere.

Aside from the problems of being a ‘get out of jail free card’, deferring the problem of unsustainable levels of aviation, and having most of their impact thirty years in the future when we need carbon reductions right now, it just isn’t clear and transparent that the level of investment being made is anywhere close to adequate. Certainly, the games’ transport legacy makes barely a dent in a local transport infrastructure that remains wedded to the private motorcar.

In the meantime, in the final countdown to the games the organisers, like London 2012 before them, announced that the army will be brought in to make up for a shortfall in applicants for the grim, minimum-wage, zero-hour jobs on offer in cleaning, catering, and security that any event like this ultimately rests upon. In this regard at any rate, we appear to have learned nothing over the last decade, while the promise of hosting sporting events is as chimerical as ever.

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