“Ten, nine, eight, no wait, I’ve got ahead of myself, nine, eight, seven…” The Birmingham Commonwealth Games began with this out-of-synch countdown in (and yes I had to triple check this) Royal Leamington Spa, where, at just gone eight on Friday morning, 80 finely-honed athletes filed out of a little wooden pavilion in Victoria Park to begin the first of nine days of ruthlessly competitive lawn bowls. Friendly Games my foot. Go tell it to Wales’ five-time world champion Laura Daniels, who wiped out a 59-year-old Falkland Islander called Daphne Arthur-Almond 21-2 while you were finishing your breakfast.
God but they must have spent a lot on bunting in Leamington. They’ve put up miles of the stuff. It’s amazing they’d anything left in the budget for the 2,000 seat arena they’ve built too. Nigel Huddleston, under-suit of state at Department of Culture Media and Sport, had promised the town it was money well spent because they were going to be hosting one of the hot ticket events. And since it was 25C out, he was at least half right.
Huddleston put out another press release later in the day about the “rocketing excitement” and “record demand” for tickets. Here in Leamington they had come in their dozens, and from as far away as Solihull and Smethwick. The MC hosting the event did well to find a couple of paying spectators to interview on the big screen. “We wanted to go for something less popular,” one of them explained. There was an awkward silence, which the director filled by cutting away to a shot of the in-house DJ. Thankfully, they faded him down and the actual bowls was, somewhat oddly, soundtracked by a selection of classic rock tracks played on a plaintive violin.
There were 19 games going on, so soon enough the place was filled with the rustle and thrum of cutthroat sport being played very, very quietly, all clacking woods and jacks and muted cries of “c’mon, c’mon” and “move, move, move”. A lot of the noise was coming from rink 7, where Scotland beat England in the first round of the para men’s pairs B6-B8. This was being played in front of two groups of rival administrators, presumably the great and good of UK bowls, and their comments (“C’mon Kevin!” and “Great shot Craig!”) seemed to be aimed as much at each other as they were the men in the middle.
But the fun of the Commonwealth Games is in following the underdogs, and I was drawn irresistibly to rink 3 where Shae Wilson, a 22-year-old from Norfolk Island, beat the 59-year-old Litia Tikoisuva from Fiji. Apparently there are 2,186 people on Norfolk Island, and eleven of them are competing here in Leamington. Lawn bowls must be big on the little island because that’s 0.5% of the entire population, and they haven’t bothered entering any other events.
A similar percentage of Leamington’s residents seemed to be at the station waiting for the 11.15am back into town. As part of their efforts to make this an environmentally friendly games the organisers are urging everyone on to the existing trains and buses, a well-intentioned plan which places a parlous degree of faith in the precarious public transport system. By late morning it was standing room only, unless, like the family of four who pressed in next to me, you were lucky enough to bag a seat in one of the toilet cubicles. “It’s those fucking Games isn’t it,” muttered one disgusted commuter as she elbowed her way aboard.
Wherever they were off to it wasn’t Hall 4 of the NEC, where the men’s light welterweight boxing was just under way. The place was a quarter-full, although no doubt the crowds will pick up in the evenings.
The price of defeat for the underdogs here was a little more severe than it had been in Leamington. The bowlers consoled themselves with ice lollies, the boxers with ice packs. Nauru’s light welterweight Colan Caleb had travelled for almost 35 hours to be in Birmingham, but had the misfortune to then be drawn against the marvellously-monikered Jonas Junias Jonas, the defending champion from Namibia. So after all that travel Caleb’s Games ended in the two minutes it took the referee to decide it was time to stop the fight. “That was not a good test,” Jonas said afterwards.
Two minutes was good going in the circumstances. The Seychelles’ Fabio Taryll Liam Rosalie lasted 34 seconds against Australia’s Billy Polkinghorn, which was just long enough for him to be punched in the face, hard, twice, and was, of course, at least three times as long as any of the rest of us would fancy. The headline event here was another UK derby, Wales’ Haaris Khan against England’s Lewis Richardson, who won handily on points.
Back in the centre of Birmingham, a shorter train ride this time, though just as busy, the Games was really underway at the 3×3 basketball arena in Smithfield. So this was where everyone was headed. Don’t tell the good people of Leamington, but the 3×3, which is making its debut at the Games, really is the hot ticket. The place is sold out all week. There were a couple of victories for England here, in the men’s and women’s wheelchair events, and another for Scotland’s men, although their women lost to Australia. It was fast, and fun, and full, so close to the centre it felt like part of the city, which meant, most importantly, we could all get home without having to get on another train.