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African-led Commonwealth Games will add sparkle to UK life

Letter from London

African-led Commonwealth Games will add sparkle to UK life

Preparations for the Commonwealth Games to be held in Birmingham (pictured above) in August are in full swing. They will come as a welcome relief from the grimness of wars, Covid and Brexit fallouts for both the British people and the Commonwealth community. What is more, people of African heritage are fully in charge this time around, writes Clayton Goodwin.

The countdown to the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham this August has started. The city and the West Midlands generally are already en fête, which would be even more marked if wars and rumours of wars, the pandemic and political misdemeanours didn’t dominate media coverage quite so much. 

“Sports, and these Games in particular, are an opportunity to bring people together,” Ama Agbeze, the outstanding netball-player of her generation, told me. “The competition has its own family atmosphere which is not always possible with something as large and amorphous as the Olympic Games.” Or, indeed, as controversial, with dope and gender scandals there deemed to be as newsworthy as record times run and distances thrown/jumped. 

The Birmingham 2022 organisers have made such a firm play for participation by all the community, and communities, that the official opening on Thursday 28 July 2022 seems to be but one step in a process which has long since started and will continue throughout the summer. 

Africans are involved at all levels of management and operation, as much as African athletes are expected to dominate the track. The event is a welcome opportunity to get away, even temporarily, from the tragedies of the war in Ukraine, the twin plagues of Covid and Brexit, and the Westminster and Royal soap-operas. 

Ama Agbeze’s appointment to the Board of Directors for the Games and to Chair the Athletes Advisory Committee shows earnest intent. Her expertise and local relevance are impeccable. Ama was born in the Selly Oak area of Birmingham to Igbo parents from Enugu State, Nigeria. The 39-year-old’s own international netball career culminated in her leading England to win the gold medal on the Australian Gold Coast in 2018, the last time that these Games were contested.

Ama’s eve-of-the-final appeal of “It’s our time. We are ready. We’re completely together – it’s us. It’s now!” has been taken up as being one of the most inspiring rallying-calls in all sport and it inspired England to achieve an upset victory over the favoured Australians. 

In the immediate term, the success led her to an appointment at Buckingham Palace to receive an MBE from Prince William, and to general recognition of her leadership qualities in more than just one discipline. 

She is joined on the Board by – among others – fellow-directors of African heritage in Deputy Chairman Professor Geoff Thompson, five-times world karate champion, Derrick Anderson of the West Midlands Combined Authority, and Sandra Osborne of the Commonwealth Games Federation.

The policy of cultural inclusion is confirmed by other appointments, including that of Donna Fraser, UK-born athlete of Vincentian heritage, as the Games’ Head of Inclusion & Engagement. Just last year the former 400 metres runner, who is a noted inspirational speaker and has achieved high sports administrative representation, was upgraded to an OBE for her contribution to “equality, inclusion and diversity in the workplace”. 

Athletics, which is at the core of the Commonwealth Games, does not seem to suffer the same stigma in respect of diversity as some other sports, particularly cricket.  

Reversing racist reputation

The victory of Paulette Hamilton in the Birmingham Erdington parliamentary by-election within days of the start of the Games countdown underscores how the West Midlands region is reversing its former racist reputation. 

Paulette is the first Black MP in a city made notorious by national politician Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech in 1968, predicting erroneously that blood would flow from civil strife arising from African/Caribbean immigration.

It has also suffered the association of nearby Smethwick with the racist tone of the 1964 general election campaign of Conservative candidate Peter Griffiths (we all know which kind of neighbour he didn’t want!) and the early career of Sir Oswald Mosley, doyen of the country’s fascist orators.   

My own memories of the Commonwealth Games go back to Manchester 2002, and to one exceptional moment in the triple-jump. The popular Ashia Hansen, who was born in the US, adopted by a Ghanaian father / English mother, and lived in Ghana before moving to England, where she experienced childhood racism, had been undergoing a difficult time, mainly through injury. 

There was a groan around the stadium when Françoise Mbango Etone snatched the lead from her with the penultimate jump of the contest. Ashia had just one more attempt to win the gold medal. All eyes were on her a she raced down the runway, took off in a do-or-die effort – the white flag went up – and the crowd were cheering her victory enthusiastically before she landed, beating her rival. Even hardened reporters, usually immune to sentiment, were in tears. Only afterwards did our conscience prick us to feel sorry for the Cameroonian.

There will be similar emotion this time round – if the troubles of the world let the Games go ahead. That sport brings people together is none the less true for being a cliché – and there is rather a lot of sport in the coming months. 

While writing this article I have been watching some excellent cricket in the ICC Women’s World Cup on television, and 2022 is scheduled to close with football’s FIFA World Cup, which in other circumstances is bound to be the high-point of any year – but it is already facing the threat of withdrawals and exclusions. 

Message to Africa

Ama Agbeze’s enthusiasm for the potential of the Commonwealth Games is genuine.  She has played against all the leading netball countries and keeps a close, sympathetic eye on the progress of the principal players, and is already casting that eye to the further future. In a special message to New African readers, Ama said:

“African netballing nations have been rising in power and prominence and I hope that one day very soon, that can be Nigeria too. We are a nation of athletically gifted people and the sport would thrive there.” 

The World Cup is in South Africa next year, so it is a great time to spotlight Africa and hopefully some other African nations will consider hosting the African Nations and greater still, the Netball World Cup. 

“In the near future I am working on going to Africa to do some coaching and promoting netball. So far there are three countries in the plan but I would love there to be more. I know Africans and Nigerians especially love their sport and my uncles have told me of people taking their TVs into the streets so they could communally watch some of my games that have been on TV. It’s exciting for netball.”

Four years ago I was one of only two journalists at the Copper Box Arena, the sport’s traditional London venue, for a reasonably important netball tournament. When I returned shortly afterwards the demand for press seats was so great that there was standing room only for late arrivals. 

England’s victory in the Commonwealth Games in the meantime had sparked a revolution in interest – with the public, the media and the sponsors. Something hitherto regarded as being little more than a part-time activity had become a major sport. The World Cup at Liverpool the following summer generated as much unalloyed crowd enthusiasm – for all countries, but particularly for the supercharged Zimbabweans – as I have seen anywhere since the hey-day of the all-conquering West Indies cricketers. 

Sport can change people, and the perceptions people have of other people. Just ask the athletically successful and world-renowned Jamaicans who, incidentally, celebrate their 60th anniversary of independence on 6 August, the day on which several sports will be reaching their conclusion.

As the lady said: “We are ready. We’re completely together – it’s us. It’s now!”

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