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Birmingham 2022 goes from a Games nobody wanted to a surprise hit

BIRMINGHAM, England — Nearly three decades after the 1994 Victoria Commonwealth Games were hosted for a now ­quaint-seeming $160 million, Birmingham is putting on a $1.2-billion extravaganza. And what as show it has been.
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Spectators watch the women's Pool A field hockey match between England and India at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)

BIRMINGHAM, England — Nearly three decades after the 1994 Victoria Commonwealth Games were hosted for a now ­quaint-seeming $160 million, Birmingham is putting on a $1.2-billion extravaganza.

And what as show it has been. Who says nobody cares about the Commonwealth Games anymore? Even morning qualifying sessions of track and field are sold-out here at 32,500-seat Alexander Stadium, something not even Eugene, Oregon, known as Track Town USA, could accomplish in the spottily-attended world championships last month at Hayward Field.

The Island women’s field hockey players with Canada in the World Cup last month in Spain played before only handfuls of fans for most of its games. Here they are playing in front of 6,000 fans at the University of Birmingham Stadium.

“The crowds here have been awesome. It’s almost surreal,” said Canadian player Anna ­Mollenhauer of Victoria.

“The Athletes Village is vibrant with so much going on.”

Around town, too, as tens of thousands of people gather daily in Library Square and Victoria Square to watch the Games events on huge screens and listen to musical entertainment. Almost all spectators have been maskless. The one word rarely mentioned during these Games has been COVID. What a difference from not only the fan-less Tokyo Olympics last summer and fan-restricted 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics from only in February.

The din created in the swimming venue by the daily capacity crowd of 6,000, sitting maskless cheek by jowl, was deafening.

“The big crowds helped provide energy and got you hyped. It was an amazing experience,” said 15-year-old Canadian teen sensation Summer McIntosh, who won two gold and two silver medals.

“This has been a huge multi-sport Games experience, especially for the younger athletes, and stepping stone toward Paris [2024 Olympics],” added ­swimmer Jeremy Bagshaw of Victoria.

It’s hard to believe that in 2017 when Durban, South Africa, pulled out of hosting the 2022 Commonwealth Games for financial reasons, the Commonwealth Games Federation couldn’t give the Games away and were faced with no hosts coming forward for either 2022 or 2026. The Games were basically there for the taking for any city to be the first to raise its hand. A Victoria group showed interest in both 2022 and 2026 but the provincial government said no to putting up the $400,000 needed from its level at about the same time it also passed on hosting the 2026 soccer World Cup, the latter a decision that was eventually re-visited.

Eventually, Birmingham stepped forward for the 2022 Commonwealth Games and Melbourne, Australia, for 2026. Hamilton, Ont., has long eyed and is a virtual lock for the 2030 Games, which will celebrate the centenary of the first Games in Hamilton in 1930 and will also complicate federal funding for the 2030 Vancouver Winter Olympics bid, with reports indicating New Zealand will host the 2034 Commonwealth Games.

From not being able to give the Games way and thought to be a relic of Empire with its future in doubt, the Commonwealth franchise in a turnabout is suddenly hot and appears set for at least the next 12 years.

“Any opportunity you get to race on the international stage with incredible athletes, you take it,” said Canadian Olympic multi-medallist swimmer Kylie Masse, who won a gold and three silvers in Birmingham.

Added Swimming Canada national coach John Atkinson as swimming concluded: “Some new names are now established performers [including Para gold-medallist Nicholas Bennett of Parksville] and others showed themselves at these Games. Now we move into the last two years of the quad and onward to Paris.”

More than 50 Island or Island-based athletes are competing in the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games, which began July 28 and run through Monday.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com