It’s seven full years now since, in the words of an almost unimaginably long and dreary roll call of minor politicians, England first started “standing ready” to host either Russia or Qatar’s World Cup. In backbench debates in the Commons, in select committee hearings, in 300 word op-eds in the tabloids, they’ve chipped in in their dozens to complain about corruption in Fifa’s bidding process, and then to generously offer up England as the place that should arbitrarily be given the tournament once it’s arbitrarily been taken from someone else.
And suddenly we appear to be in a similar, if not quite the same, situation with the Commonwealth Games. Durban in South Africa has been all but stripped of its rights to host the 2022 Games, and suddenly both Birmingham and Liverpool all but “stand ready” to step in.
It is not a perfect analogy. No one has explicitly accused South Africa of corruption – which in recent times is arguably progress – but merely of incompetence, which is reassuringly consistent.
It’s five years until the Games, and the body that awards them, the Commonwealth Games Federation, has decided it can no longer ignore the fact that nobody has begun organising them. There is no organising committee, no contract has been signed, and so on. It’s a pity, really. Durban is not far from President Jacob Zuma’s private Nkandla ranch, lovingly built in secret with taxpayer funds over several years.
Surely they could host it there? It has its own swimming pool, after all – even if, according to the President’s own defence to state prosecutors, it was only built to keep water for putting out fires. If they hunt for long enough around its thousands of acres, it’s not out of the question they’ll find the running track, velodrome, squash courts, shooting ranges, rugby and hockey pitches they so urgently need.
But in the meantime, suddenly it is Birmingham and Liverpool falling over one another to rush up the extraordinary range of facilities these aggressively unwatched multi-sport contests require, which run to not just all of the above, but a 5,000-room athletes’ village to house all the competitors.
Is it ungenerous to ask what the point is of the Commonwealth Games? I tuned intermittently in to the action at the Glasgow Games four years ago, not least because I was a sports reporter at the time, and it is reasonable to say that some of it underwhelmed.
“A special mention must go to Chris Walker from Gibraltar, who at 47 years old is the triathlon’s oldest competitor, and by some margin,” the commentator mentioned at one point.
I was never quite sure whether or not it was Walker who was pictured minutes later, splashing about with the fitful energy of a shipwrecked pirate as the same commentator now pondered over “whether anyone’s ever been lapped in a two-lap race before”.
Does it particularly matter who can run the fastest, throw the furthest and netball the finest from all the nations that were once conquered by Britain? Right up until 23 June last year, it was entirely legitimate to be embarrassed by the Empire, and never more so than at Commonwealth Games time. The island of Niue, for example, is all but unreachable now, in the era of the 747, and yet Britain’s empire builders still diligently managed to take it over.
In 2014, it’s possible I pondered over whether the Commonwealth Games were needed at all. Now, even the most ardent Remainer faces little choice but to accept they are probably essential to our nation’s economic future. During London 2012, the Government turned Lancaster House into a crack deal-striking centre, flogging all the Olympic-hosting expertise on show to the world that had come to see it. We need a Commonwealth Games as soon as we possibly can.
Once upon a time, around 12 months ago, Britain’s economy depended on flogging its only world-class export – financial and legal services – to the first-world European nations that needed it. Now that we are pursuing a strategy only half-jokingly referred to on Whitehall as Empire 2.0, some sub-par freestyle swimming races are urgently required as the backdrop through which to fill that gaping void by convincing Lesotho and Guyana and Papua New Guinea that it is they, and not, say, the Germans, who definitely do need our banking knowhow and Nissan Qashqais.
Durban’s loss will be our gain. God Save The Queen and please Someone Watch The Lawn Bowls.