The game’s afoot

This week the ‘Queen’s Baton Relay’ is proceeding through the Welsh stage of its 118,000 mile journey from London to the opening ceremony of the 20th Commonwealth Games in Glasgow on 23 July. This gives me the excuse to look back to 1958 when Cardiff hosted the Games – the only time so far that an international sporting tournament has taken place solely in Wales (the 1999 Rugby World Cup was co-hosted with the other ‘home nations’ and the 2010 Ryder Cup doesn’t count either since that competition is supranational).

The Commonwealth Games is the 3rd largest multi-sport event in the world (after the Olympics and the Asian Games) and the only one in which Wales is allowed to take part. Therefore, given our exile from all political international bodies and forums, the Games do more for our international visibility than just about anything else. Rugby Union, of course, is our other opportunity to snatch a little limelight, while qualifying for the finals of football’s World Cup would eclipse both – but that’s unlikely to happen this side of Armageddon (Gareth Bale is indisposed). So the Commonwealth Games is important to Wales. And, reciprocally, Wales is important to the Commonwealth Games: because our presence is so rare at any world event we immediately make it special just by being there, and because the unique qualities we bring add ingredients that would otherwise be missing. The baton tradition, for instance, was introduced for Cardiff in 1958, a down-home and human-scale riposte to Hitler’s vainglorious 1936 brainchild, the Olympic Torch Relay.


The 1958 opening ceremony at the Arms Park

The 6th Commonwealth Games (then called the British Empire & Commonwealth Games) stretched austere, shabby, post-war Cardiff to the limit. Only made the official capital of Wales three years earlier, Cardiff faced the first public scrutiny of how it was embracing the new role – and the city came out of it well, improvising solutions to logistical problems and giving a warm Welsh welcome to the 1,200 athletes from 35 competing nations and thousands of visitors from around the world, to the extent that the press dubbed them the “friendly games”, a tag that stuck and is the Games’ motto to this day.

Back in 1958 Cardiff was something more than a destination for white water rafters and Whovians; it was still a working, industrial city with self-respect and figured on no tourist’s itinerary. As a result there were few hotel rooms (well, not the sort where nice couples from Winnipeg would want to stay anyhow). To solve the problem the organising committee persuaded 3,000 householders in private dwellings around Cardiff to put up the visitors, causing a wonderful cultural intermingling of lasting benefit to the city’s knowledge base and liberal instincts.

There was none of the obscene spending on bombastic and instantly redundant facilities that we are now all too familiar with from successive overblown Olympics. The one amenity purpose-built for the occasion was the Wales Empire Pool on Wood Street. Brick-clad, steel-framed and barrel-roofed, this was Cardiff’s first modernist public building, a stylish homage to factory Bauhaus by in-house city architect John Dryburgh (1918-1991).  It would last just 40 years, the much-loved icon being demolished at the WRU’s behest for their Millennium Plaza white elephant despite mass opposition across the city.

While the Empire Pool was the venue for the swimming and diving, Maindy Stadium was revamped for the cycling and main venue the Arms Park had a running track laid for the athletics (with just inches to spare to meet regulations) along with a general tarting up for royalty. The Sophia Gardens Pavilion, a disused aircraft hanger from Stormy Down erected in 1951, hosted the boxing and wrestling. It was here that Howard Winstone (1939-2000) won Wales’ only gold in the bantamweight final on the last night of the Games (the Pavilion was demolished in 1981 after heavy snow caused the roof to cave in; it’s now the site of a car park). Bowling was held at the Cardiff Bowls Club in Sophia Gardens and the GKN Sports Club (now housing) in Sloper Road, and the fencing took place at Cae’r Castell School (now Eastern High) in Rumney. The remaining sports were based outside Cardiff: weightlifting at Barry Memorial Hall, the cycle road race in the Ogwr valley around Ewenni on the Glamorgan coast, and rowing on Llyn Padarn in Gwynedd.

The marathon took a route from the Arms Park eastward out of Cardiff along Newport Road, through Rumney, St Mellons and Castleton as far as the Ebbw Bridge on the western side of Newport before turning south to the coast and heading back to Cardiff along the Wentloog levels. Rejoining Newport Road at Rumney Bridge, the runners cut through Roath up to the Heath then back down through Gabalfa and Bute Park to the finish in the Arms Park. The athletes’ village was located at RAF St Athan in the Vale in rows of barrack huts, with buses ferrying competitors to and from the various venues.

It was charmingly ad-hoc, commercialism was out of the question, there wasn’t a whiff of corporate involvement, chest-beating triumphalistic nationalism  was entirely absent, synthetic emotion and ludicrous hyperbole were neither seen nor heard, the competitors were naturally fit, recognisable human beings not preening steroid-pumped gym-bunnies, and it all ran like clockwork. Most events were sold out, with the Arms Park filled to its restricted 34,000 capacity for both the opening and closing ceremonies. During the week a music and song festival ran concurrently. There were concerts at the Reardon Smith Hall in Cathays Park, Llandaf Cathedral and the old Union Assembly Hall in Park Place, and every night in the Castle grounds there was a spectacular Son et Lumière show.

After decades of declining importance, Cardiff got some confidence back and began to see clues to a post-coal future. But more than this, the Games set in train two momentous political changes. The South Africa team, selected as usual on the basis of race and colour not ability, attracted a number of objections from the other 34 nations, including many newly-independent African states competing for the first time internationally. Initially mobilised in Cardiff, this was the seed-bed of the sporting boycott which saw South Africa withdraw from the Commonwealth in 1961 and become global pariahs until the end of apartheid.

The second shift took place at the closing ceremony. The Queen, in those days still a young, vigorous Regina, spent the night on the Royal Yacht Britannia moored in Alexandra Dock, took luncheon at the City Hall, and then arrived at the Arms Park through a specially-formed ‘Royal Entrance’ – actually the back yard of the General Post Office with some awning and a roll of carpet. From a dais in the middle of the field she mouthed the usual formulaic stuff in a few brief sentences before ending with: “I intend to create my son Charles Prince of Wales today. When he is grown up I will present him to you in Caernarfon.” This was a surprise; Charles was then 10 years old and Wales was only just getting over the previous incumbent, the Nazi-sympathising wastrel Edward VIII (1894-1972) who had opted for a life of irresponsible luxury in a lavender marriage with an American divorcee. What Elizabeth thought to be a grand gesture of munificence towards her lap-dog principality was on the contrary widely perceived around Wales as patronising, ill-timed, unnecessary and demeaning. Since 1301 we had endured 20 of these usurpers; on that far-off summer afternoon something clicked in Welsh consciousness and the long road to self-determination opened out ahead.

56 years on and the Welsh government, Cardiff Council and the Commonwealth Games Council for Wales are conducting a feasibility study into making a bid to host the 2026 Commonwealth Games. The city has so many sporting venues these days, not to mention vacant hotel beds, such a bid would almost certainly succeed. Apparently they are waiting to see how Glasgow goes before making a decision – a strange hesitancy from those who continually stress the urgency of attaining ‘world class’ status. Perhaps they are really waiting for the outcome of that far more important Scottish event on 18 September: the independence referendum. The Labour authorities in charge of Wales would not want to do anything that might encourage ideas of Welsh autonomy. Hmm…2026…12 years time…we can be ready by then.



Picture: Rugby Relics