Birmingham Commonwealth Games prove sport and politics intertwine – Christine Jardine MP

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These games in their early acts upset the old maxim of not mixing sports and politics.

And not just in the gripping drama of its opening ceremony but in the very expression of its competitions and recognition of diversity. Both on the playing field and on the victory podium. An expression of modern Britain, the diversity of the Commonwealth and the development of games.

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It wasn’t until Edinburgh in 1970, after all, that they became the Commonwealth Games and the word ’empire’ was dropped.

And this time “friendly” will not be enough to capture what they offer. I think it would be fair to say that, as with the opening ceremony of every major sporting event, there can often be a dose of nervous anticipation.

Excitement, yes. But over the years, we’ve been fascinated by kaleidoscopes of cultural confusion and imagery that can make us seasick rather than satisfying.

Confused rather than enlightened on the host city. But Birmingham last week was the complete antithesis of that.

There wasn’t quite the surprise and thrill of the Queen parachuting into London, but Prince Charles driving an Aston Martin through the stadium was the perfectly appropriate and nostalgic entrance.

Tom Daley carries the Queen’s Baton during the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony at Birmingham’s Alexander Stadium (Photo: Elsa/Getty Images)

What followed was a multicultural, diverse and joyful performance of Europe’s youngest city.

The raging mechanical bull, dragged around the stadium by women representing the chain makers of the Industrial Revolution, was almost uncomfortable to watch. A reminder of who we were, how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.

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The color and culture of the neon-clad dancers from Ireland, India and beyond was a dazzling display of integration and a nod to Birmingham as the country’s second most diverse city, after only London.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their fists in a civil rights gesture at the Olympic medal stand in Mexico City in 1968 (Photo: AFP via Getty Images)

Malala Yousafzai’s statement about the welcome she received when she first arrived in the city she and her family now call home underscored the message clearly.

And that was not the only aspect that made you think. Tom Daley carried the Queen’s baton alongside the LGBT flag, to remind that in 35 of the competing countries, homosexuality is still a crime. Seven of them have a maximum death sentence.

Each athlete who carried the baton in turn in the stadium did so to raise awareness for a specific cause.

Cancer research, mental health, the NHS and its frontline workers, and finally Denise Lewis have taken over in the name of diversity and inclusivity.

This commitment is enshrined in the organizers’ decision to reject separate para-games in favor of a single, integrated celebration of the sport. That it took so long to get there is the only disappointment.

Here is an international event that promises to aim for more than the sporting greatness of its individual competitors.

Maybe it’s something in the post-pandemic air, or maybe our sports in general have woken up to what so many of us have known for so long. That old maxim about sport and politics, which the Commonwealth Games so blatantly rejected, was never really followed anyway.

Vladimir Putin is not the first autocrat to use sport, especially the Olympics, to exploit his athletes and seek success in the name of international validation.

Sports boycotts were an important part of the international anti-apartheid campaign which both highlighted and helped end the injustice of white minority rule in South Africa.

And was there ever a simpler but more powerful expression of protest than the gloved fists of American athletes during the Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

But this time it is the sporting establishment itself that has taken over and seems determined to make its contribution to change.

Perhaps they were emboldened by the reaction of other players such as Eurovision, Grand Slam tennis and various other sports in ostracizing Russia and supporting Ukraine.

In this country, many of our major cities, including Edinburgh, are vying to host the song contest instead of Ukraine to get the message out.

It is clear that when the cause is important enough, it cannot be kept out of the entertainment or sports arena.

Ironically, the juxtaposition of what we see in Birmingham with our current political landscape is stark. The Tory leadership candidates appear totally out of sync not just with the country but with the rest of the world as ‘the other’ – celebrated aloud on Thursday night – is shunned in debate after debate.

It’s hard not to feel that these cheering spectators were much more than what was actually in the stadium.

What they celebrated and will speak throughout these games is a living argument against building barriers. Against the dismissal of people.

Birmingham itself as a city embodies what can be gained by welcoming people who bring a new dimension, a new value to our society.

Recognition that we have come from many different starting points to get to where we are as a society.

That we need to work harder to ensure that we are inclusive in all that we do and that the ability to realize their potential is accessible to all.

But perhaps a phrase from Lenny Henry, a national treasure whose family came here from the Caribbean, summed up the purpose of these games.

The Commonwealth, he said, is about one thing. To be universal.

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