Sometimes it takes a sport you don’t know at all to remind you just how universal is the love of games. Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games, like London’s Olympics before it, has offered those opportunities in abundance. For me it was the lawn bowls, whose crowded greens made it hard for a novice to work out which piece of play was being applauded at any one time.
Still, focusing in on the efforts of four portly men – who looked like the mates your dad goes to Santana gigs with – I realised that you didn’t need to be an expert. Anyone could appreciate the sight of a wood sliding towards the jack with silent-but-deadly precision. Anyone could enjoy the passion of the players waving it along with instructions to “Hurry, hurry! Squeeze up! Squeeeeze!”
Being distanced by ignorance offers a perspective that our own private passions can render impossible. Leave your personal arena of knowledge behind – the academe of cricket statistics, the tyranny of transfer window updates – and you can see, at a distance, sport’s primary, and enduring, purpose as entertainment. It doesn’t matter if you’re a professional or a semi-pro. Everyone at the bowls, whether they were in the crowd, or on the green, was pursuing a leisure activity.
It was something that couldn’t have been more apparent as you followed the families leaving the train station for Glasgow’s SECC over the past week. There was nothing charged about these crowds: people of all sporting persuasions and none, ready to cheer for their own athletes but others too.
It struck me that this must have been what it was like in the days when the Victorians invented sport – the pre-tribal era, when games were still a rare day out, and a walk to Wembley wasn’t laced with bitterness and danger. Before analysis of a football game became as complex as a stockbrokers’ tip sheet, and match results were reported with the seriousness of world war. An afternoon at the weightlifting in the Armadillo was enough to confirm this: you didn’t see many po-faces.
At this particular Friendly Games, the organisers have seemed determined to one-up London 2012 with their cheeriness. I’ve seen a mum feted like a medallist as she negotiated a double-buggy through security. I’ve seen a policeman race an eight-year-old (and lose). As for the foam-fingered volunteers, their mission is clear. “The Clydesiders will get upset if you don’t give them a high five,” a Glaswegian accent threatened through a Tannoy – you couldn’t get 50m down a road without being asked to go up top. Perhaps the entire city is on for some reward if their palm-slapping tally outdoes London’s.
It’s just one of the successful elements of That Shindig Two Years Ago that Glasgow has incorporated, from the stirring pre-match montages to the famous faces wishing you a safe journey from the giant screen as you leave. The only problem with repeating “surprise and delight” features is that they don’t surprise as much the second time round, and it was going to be impossible to recreate that Olympic spirit. Comparisons were always destined to be odious, as demonstrated perfectly by Usain Bolt’s ill-fated conversation about Glasgow’s damp charms.
Being at the London Games felt not just like you’d won the lottery – with the ticket ballot this was true – but that the prize itself had been a trip to the moon. The Commonwealth Games was never going to compete with that experience. It could have benefited from a bit of creative thinking, a little more originality. What the Commonwealths really has going it for it is that, unlike the Olympics, it can afford to take itself less seriously. There was a great example at the medal ceremony for the women’s team gymnastics, where the Australian firebrand Olivia Vivian led the crowd in a rousing chorus of “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie” from the podium. You can’t see that happening in front of Jacques Rogge.
There’s clearly a gap in the market here. The Olympics has become the Vichy government of sport. It is propped up by the commercial interests it protects with the chilling efficiency of a police state, while earnestly waving its five-ringed flag and talking of “spirit” and “values”. It proclaims itself above the “political” while enforcing its own message in a manner that amounts to censorship.
How wonderful it would be if, in the future, the Commonwealths didn’t attempt to ape its rich, glamorous cousin, but instead positioned itself as the anti-Olympics. Imagine it: an event where everyone agreed to admit that sport was about having fun, not the pursuit of long-compromised ideals. Where athletes could party with the crowd without fear of upsetting their sponsors. Where the politically minded could speak out, and no one was required to empty themselves of thought in return for the laminated accreditation round their neck.
The next Games takes place in Australia’s Gold Coast, a surfing haven with a tendency towards hedonism and no special reputation for high-minded rhetoric. It’s the perfect place for the Commonwealth Games to leave the shadow of the Olympics, shed its inferiority complex, and strike out on its own. Being the Friendly Games can mean more than people falling over themselves to wish you a good day.