Monday, 4 August 2014

Glasgow Commonwealth Games 2014 - Sport and Culture Festival

Normally I write things here to try to flag up events people maybe don't know about which are going on in Glasgow. Music, plays or venues I would recommend people try out. However adding my tuppence worth on the Commonwealth Games, this is maybe a bit superfluous. There cannot be a person in Britain unaware of the Commonwealth Games with the blanket coverage on the BBC and there cannot be a person in Glasgow who hasn't spent two weeks trying to work out how to avoid the road closures and fenced off areas to get from A to B. So I shall limit myself to a quick review of how the Commonwealth Games was for me.

My own Glaswegian nature is usually be be slightly cynical about a lot of things, particularly enforced jollity. However I was determined to make the most of the Commonwealth Games visit to Glasgow. Alongside the sports we were also promised a series of cultural events, under the Festival 2014 umbrella. The mounting anticipation to the event was heightened in the days leading up to it by the sight of long neglected road markings on many of Glasgow's streets being given a fresh lick of paint, a flurry of pothole repairs, grass cutting and fence painting. If there is one good "legacy" of the Games, it is surely to make it clear to Glasgow City Council that a wee bit more effort from them in the future in maintaining such basic city infrastructure wouldn't go amiss.

Then the barriers around the venues and athletes' village went up and the level of disruption that would occur became obvious, particularly for those living in the east end of the city. However, despite the best efforts of the media to uncover dissenting voices, most people were getting caught up in the excitement of it all and looking forward to Glasgow being the centre of attention for 11 days. I diverted my usual jogging routes to have a wee nosey at the Games venues as they were  made ready (here) and finally the Games arrived in town. Anyway here is a quick review of how I found the Commonwealth Games.

Commonwealth Games - Cultural Festival

In an effort to highlight Glasgow's obesity problem Tunnock's tea
cakes and Irn Bru featured prominently in the opening ceremony
The opening ceremony at Celtic Park kicked it all off. Despite fully intending to leave my cynical side elsewhere, the excruciating first quarter of an hour of this tested my resolve. It wasn't clear from the TV coverage what was going on, or that the cheesy cliché-ridden start was meant to be tongue in cheek. To be honest, with the unintelligible Scottish version of John Barrowman singing his heart out, it was hard to be clear if he knew what was going on either. It settled down after that and once the wee Scottie dogs had led everyone out, we have forgiven them the opening farago. I was a bit disappointed that whilst we got talking heads in the studio on our TV screens, the people in the stadium were being warmed up by the likes of Glasgow ska-band Esperanza.

Before even the opening ceremony started I had already seen Aidan Moffat's Commonwealth Games funded musical tour of Scotland earlier in the year ("Where You're Meant To Be"). Also, running for about 6 months under the auspices of the "East End Social" banner, Glasgow record label Chemikal Underground launched an ambitious series of events. "Part music programme, part community engagement project" it brought music and musicians to areas and venues normally overlooked in the eastern side of Glasgow. They brought Edinburgh's poetry led Neu Reekie evening to the Platform in Easterhouse, where I heard readings from Jackie Kay, a presentation from top video artist Rachel Maclean and music from Broken Records and The Pastels.

Throughout the Commonwealth Games the cultural programme provided a varied list of events, based largely on Glasgow Green where music from as diverse a list as Sydney Devine, Lloyd Cole and the Amphetameanies was on show.  The Glasgow Green site was usually free entry although once you visited the bars you realised where the profits were being made.

Ford car showroom on Glasgow Green
The security checks at the gates were slow and off-puttingly po-faced. There were enough distractions for children and the usual variety of food outlets but the huge PR stands for Virgin Media, Emirates, SSE and Ford were a bit unsubtle. Less corporate were the entertainments laid on at The Quay by the BBC. We went down there a few times as there were free tickets available for numerous BBC TV and radio recordings, a bar and fun fair and the chance for kids to try out various sports. A Govan boxing club taster session has my daughter wanting to join them now. The Royal Navy minesweeper HMS Bangor was also moored here, but it struck me as being a bit out of kilter that we got to take smiling photos of my seven year old getting to fire a big heavy, real .338 rifle on board. What larks!

HMS Bangor moored on the Clyde
Whilst at the BBC we stumbled from Mel Geidroyc interviewing Helen Skelton for the radio, into the audience for a Simple Minds sound check which was a bit weird. It was busy at times down here, but never mobbed which seems odd. Like a lot of the events I think that the dire warnings about road closures and no parking anywhere was ultimately a bit off-putting for some people. One event which was well attended down here was the flotilla organised to bring a couple of hundred boats up the Clyde, which was an impressive sight and seemed to highlight the glaring lack of boating activity normally taking place on a once crowded river. At the flotilla thing the boat which I enjoyed clambering about on most was a new CalMac car ferry, where they were letting you wander about the bridge playing with all their shiny new gadgets.

Commonwealth Flotilla on the Clyde

It was great to see the newly refurbished Kelvingrove bandstand in use again. As a child we were often here or at the bandstand in Queens Park for political rallies. I had also spent many an afternoon down here at the Radio Clyde sponsored heavy metal days for some reason and as a student I think The River Detectives or Horse would've been the last acts I'd have seen here before it was closed down. Horse was back again one evening and I managed to catch some of the excellent Remember Remember one night (go buy their great new album "Forgetting the Present" if you haven't already). In the earlier evening one day I came down to catch a film "A View From Here" about refugees and Glaswegians living in Glasgow multistorey flats. I've been trying to see this for a while as I spent my teenage years in the Lincoln flats in Knightswood that feature in it. My block is in the process of being demolished and the arts projects involving tenants, which featured in the film, to commemorate their lives in the flats seemed a more appropriate way to mark their demolition than the abandoned (and crass) plan to blow up the Red Road flats for our entertainment in the opening ceremony. My only gripe down here would be that as we were all being encouraged to walk, cycle and use public transport it might have been an idea to lay on some bicycle racks for the dozens of us that took this advice.

Remember Remember at the Kelvingrove bandstand
My favourite events in the cultural programme however were down in the Briggait. Here author Louise Welsh and architect Jude Barber ran the Empire Cafe. With tobacco, sugar, spices, coffee and tea coming from the colonies of the Empire to Britain, the cafe was therefore the appropriate setting for poetry, performances, debates, workshops and walks exploring Glasgow's links with the North Atlantic slave trade. I have taken myself on a wee tour of Glasgow's Merchant City before to try to learn about this part of the history of the city which we are not taught about. We still don't talk about it. The current exhibition in Kelvingrove "How Glasgow Flourished" whilst at least acknowledging slavery, again seems to underplay the role that the work of slaves played in making Glasgow merchants rich. One evening the debate (in which the representative from Glasgow Museums didn't exactly shine) was over whether Glasgow should have a permanent museum commemorating our role in the slave trade. Another debate I went to (pertinent to the current referendum) was on whether Scots should see ourselves as colonised or colonisers. The consensus on both days was that a plaque, an apology or an inert museum feature was pointless unless it was also engaging, encouraged debate and dialogue and that people were educated and learnt lessons from the past. As the Sunday Herald reported yesterday these calls appear to be being heard. The mix of poetry, music and debate was fantastic and congratulations to all involved for their efforts. I particularly enjoyed being at these things in the Briggait building as my great, great granny had a fish stall in here for many years when it was the fishmarket.

Ben Nevis bar
Apart from these formal happenings some of the more informal things I stumbled upon were memorable too, whether the merrily drunken Scottish woman in The Brass Monkey pub singing about the bronze medal she'd won or the African musicians and kora player who had joined the usual folk musicians in the Ben Nevis pub we stopped in on the way to the Hydro one night.

The other non-sporting thing I'd like to commend to you was "Clyde the Thistle". The official mascot of the games appears to have shifted tens of thousands of soft toys and the trail around Glasgow of 25 photogenic Clyde statues seems to have been strangely popular. These statues looked cheery and slightly scared at the same time, I'm not sure if that was intentional. As a lifelong Partick Thistle fan I am pleased that so many people have taken this lowly weed to their hearts despite (from a football fan's perspective) the anachronistic naming of a Thistle with the title of our one time footballing rivals. As a close relative of mine spent a good amount of time over recent months as one of the Clyde mascots, even receiving training at the Conservatoire of Scotland to "express without sound how Clyde would show that he was excited?", etc. I'm pleased that he was a success. Children took to him more that they did to the unsettling Mandeville and Wenlock mascots from the Olympics, so well done 12 year old Beth Gilmour from Cumbernauld (current home to Clyde FC) for designing him. My personal favourite was seeing Clyde in the red and yellow of Partick Thistle at Buchanan Street bus station.

Clyde the Commonwealth Games mascot
Partick Thistle mascot "Harry Wragg" back in the day
(photo stolen from @greigforbes)

Commonwealth Games - Sport Festival

When they initially went on sale, getting tickets for the Commonwealth Games was a bit of a hassle. Like many people I applied for a variety of things on their fussy website but got nothing initially. Then in the second phase of ticket sales I applied for a wider variety of things and ended up getting almost everything this time. As we have three children one disappointment for me was that for most things you could only apply for four tickets, meaning that we couldn't all go as a family to anything we were interested in. Also price reductions for children were not available in all sports, and if they were then only on the cheaper seats. This stank of squeezing as much money as possible out of ticket sales. Then as the games drew nearer we find that suddenly hundreds more tickets were available, presumably returns from the sponsors and other nations. Much as my children, as keen swimmers, had wanted to go to Tollcross Pool, by now I'd spent so much already on tickets that I wasn't going to try again for the third time for swimming tickets. The rush for these new tickets led to the website crashing and was poorly managed. From the outset the ticketing created bad feeling, however Glasgow was swept up in the excitement of the Games arriving in town and the impression on TV was that venues for all the sports were crowded and noisy. 

The sport wasn't all top notch stuff. Lawn bowls may be popular in Glasgow (Glasgow lawn bowls blogpost) but it doesn't create many superstars. At some events such as the marathon and cycling the loudest cheers were often for the athletes in danger of being lapped. So what did my scatter-gun approach to ticket buying mean we ended up seeing? 


Hampden Park as an athletics arena
We all know that Hampden Park is a poor stadium for watching football in. When it was redeveloped a few years ago by the SFA they managed to create one of the world's most bland and atmosphere-free football arenas. The Commonwealth Games planned to save money on creating a new athletics arena by converting Hampden for the Games. It works so well for athletics that there are now calls to just leave it as it is now and find a new home for Queens Park FC and the SFA. This won't happen, but the athletics we saw here were great. As several rows of seats were removed to accommodate a running track I didn't realise that our "Row L" seats meant we would be in the third row and right in amongst it all. The integration of para-sports into the athletics programme is surely the model that other events should follow as we seamlessly went from watching the para-sport discus to the women's 1500m heats and so on. The atmosphere was great, helped by blazing sunshine. Lessons seemed to have been learned from the delays on the opening day of the athletics, when the security checks led to ludicrous queues outside Hampden. We got to and from the stadium without delay with free public transport and shuttle buses laid on. My children got right into it, could follow what was going on and cheered and clapped away with the best of them.

Discus bronze medalist from Nigeria
Free to watch and taken in by many on the streets of Glasgow were the excellent marathon races. 

Marathon goes past Geoarge Sq. (Photo @ItsDelbert)
As my dad used to run marathons I have spent many a cold Sunday morning on street corners applauding at races, so it was funny to watch an elite race where a clutch of runners go past you and are not followed by a few thousand plodders needing some encouragement. I watched it at George Square and then promptly came home and filled out my application for the Great Scottish Run on October 5th, which runs a similar route. That's got to be a good thing.


The cumbersome Scottish badminton uniforms probably stopped them winning more medals
 My son goes regularly to a badminton club, and somehow knows who Scotland's best badminton players are so he was keen to see some badminton at the Games. These were held in the Emirates  Arena opposite from Celtic Park. We've watched badminton and cycling competitions here before so knew our way around. We watched the final of the badminton team event, which was between England and Malaysia and the silly English newspaper articles about English athletes being advised on what to do if they were boo-ed was again shown to be scare-mongering nonsense as both teams were given vocal support. The usual sport that I spend my Saturdays watching is football, and its players are often criticised for their gamesmanship, but the moaning to the referee and gamesmanship both teams displayed here when feigning service was far more irritating and petty than anything you'll see at Firhill. The squash players we saw later in the week were just as bad which I found interesting as I don't usually watch these sports.

Badminton medal ceremony
 In the end Malaysia won and some minor royal I'd forgotten existed came out to disperse the medals. The wee bagpipe tune that they start these ceremonies with gets right into your head and I've been humming it tunelessly for days now. Again transport was no problem, as we were directed straight down onto a train at Dalmarnock station that took us straight home to Patrick. Again the free public transport with your games ticket has got to be copied again as a great way of cutting down cars on the road and making people aware of what public transport they could get when it is made cheap and easy.


Weightlifting final at the Armadillo
 I went with my dad and my kids to a weightlifting final in the Armadillo (or Clyde Auditorium as it was once called) and we had a ball. It is a sport that has always been mired in controversy and accusations of steroid abuse and during the games one Nigerian medalist failed a drug test. However as a spectacle it is very entertaining and exciting, basically building up to the last man who manages a lift, wins. What you miss watching it on TV is all the daft music and commentary in the arena, with the Birdie Song and Batman theme tune featuring amongst others. The gold medal went to a proud man from Kiribati who celebrated with a wee dance before we learned what the national anthem and flag of this nation in the Pacific Ocean were. The weightlifting is definitely a good night out.


Squash doubles show court, Scotstoun
 If I'm being honest I'd have to say that we found the squash less entertaining than the weightlifting. We'd bought tickets for this as my wife and I have an annual game of squash against each other (I think I'm winning 15-0 in the series) and as it was being held in Scotstoun we could just walk along to it. This has been a controversial venue as squash tries to build its profile. No permanent show court will be left in the city to host future competitions after this court is taken apart and the astroturf football pitch it sits on restored. We had tickets for the squash doubles and the games themselves were chaotic and hard to follow. The glass court is quite groovy but it is a fast game and with so much jockeying for position, long points which you had sat through end up as a "let" for reasons that are never clear without the benefit of TV replays. After numerous jokes about the TV programme The Cube, my children decided it would be more exciting if the court was gradually filled with water and animal hazards as the game progressed. I can't say that I was won around to the notion of including squash in the Olympics.


The Hydro where the boxing finals were held, with the Armadillo behind it
My personal sporting highlight was a Saturday night that my wife and I spent at the boxing finals in the Hydro. With one woman's final and five men's finals on it was a packed night of boxing. The Hydro makes a great venue, with there not being a bad view in the house for something like this. No matter how far away you were from the ring the action was easy to follow without recourse to the large overhead screens. I've watched amateur boxing before either in a tent at the Miners' Gala Day in Edinburgh or at the Fairfield Working Mens Club in Govan. Under the new scoring rules and without the fighters wearing headguards the difference between amateur and professional boxing is now more blurred. The crowd were never partisan (although as it was the heavier divisions there weren't any Scottish boxers fighting) and the only boo-ing of the night was directed at the judges when the crowd disagreed with their decision to award the light-heavyweight bout to the New Zealander David Nyika over Kennedy St Pierre of Mauritius. England's Scott Fitzgerald put on the best boxing display of the night and will surely either be a contender for medals in Rio in two years, or on the professional circuit by then. Scott Fitzgerald - remember the name. After six medal ceremonies the bagpiped tune for these was going round and around my head for days.

Have a listen to it hear if you missed it during the 261 medal ceremonies over the past 11 days.

Boxing at the Hydro, Glasgow


I didn't get any tickets to the velodrome, but like many people headed out onto the streets to cheer on the road races on the last Sunday of the games, hoping that David Millar could end his career with a medal in Scotland. It was soon apparent that he couldn't and like many people once the rain started teaming down I retreated to a bar to watch the finale on television. Lizzie Armitstead and Geraint Thomas were worthy winners and whilst the helicopters were able to dodge the downpours, Glasgow did look very handsome and green. 

Now all we need is some real cycle lanes in Glasgow, not the pretend ones we have on several streets at present.

So, in summary...

Good points

  • Glasgow was buzzing throughout the Games. People threw themselves enthusiastically into it, determined as ever to show the world that we see ourselves as friendly, welcoming and hospitable. We love our city and want you to come and love it too
  • The crowds at the events were big and were enthusiastic and it proved that we can organise these things successfully on our own - this may be the only point seized upon by anyone in the ongoing independence debate which seemed to have been put on hold for the past 2 weeks
  • Efforts were made to have a worthwhile cultural programme running alongside the sport, particularly successful in the Empire Cafe and East End Social strands
  • Public transport could replace cars. Spectators were repeatedly warned not to bring cars and followed the advice to the extent that someone I know who lives in Kings Park near Hampden loved the games as her streets were so quiet. There were glitches and plenty of shuttle buses seemed to run about empty as their routes were not well publicised. However this needs regular, reliable public transport to work, such as late night trains on the subway, cheap or simple fares. Once the games finish we won't have these again.
  • You can cycle in Glasgow. More people now cycle than ever before but with barely any protected cycle lanes in Glasgow you do feel it is an accident waiting to happen. Although many cycle paths were shut by games security fences I got about easily on my bike, enjoying going along the roads the cars weren't allowed on. Simple things like more bicycle racks would help build this up and normalise it. (Note to media people - nobody but Gordon Matheson himself calls the city bikes "Gordon's Gears" - okay?)
  • Glasgow looked great on telly. Well, it did, didn't it? The council need to notice surely that a bit more spent on basic maintenance is necessary to keep it looking the way it should, but I fear we'll drift back to pot holes, long grass in the parks and unpainted fences in Victoria Park
  • On a purely personal note I caught up with some old friends who moved to Jersey years ago, that came back to Glasgow to see this. That was good fun

Bad points

  • I don't like to moan but...was that catering the best we could come up with? I soon became very familiar with the same uninspiring array of food wagons. In the Armadillo I took my seat then wasn't allowed out to them for some reason I can't quite work out, to get some dinner as I'd rushed from work. That left me with a choice of hot dogs or hot dogs inside the venue. Still I suppose I didn't really need another portion of battered haggis balls and chips. (Poor wee haggis).
  • More effort could have been made to include local people in the games. Whether on Glasgow Green, Easterhouse at the Platform, the BBC activities at the Quay or the sports themselves it was always the same middle class crowds. If the locals aren't actively brought in to these things they are excluded by the prices as much as anything else. There may have been plenty of free entertainment on Glasgow Green and at the BBC, but if bodysearches stop you bringing food and drink in with you, you exclude anyone who cannot afford £4.90 for a pint of lager and £7 for a burger. Surely free games tickets could have been set aside for more local sports clubs in Glasgow rather than corporate sponsors?
  • The Clydesiders were hailed/ patronised as a great Games success, but I really feel this was people doing essential work of the games without being paid. A friend worked as a volunteer driver, doing 10 hour shifts, sometimes through the night. That is just exploitation.
  • The BBC coverage was thorough but struck a strange tone referring repeatedly to athletes from other parts of the UK winning medals in their "home games". I really felt this was Glasgow's Games and Scotland's Games and that they were muscling in. The same with the largely English commentators and presenters on TV. Were there no sports journalists at BBC Scotland that could have been given the gig?
  • And finally, Gordon Matheson. What an embarrassing buffoon that man is!
I feared before had we'd get a bit of a showing up, but in the end Glasgow looked great, the crowds were great and we all had a great time. The Commonwealth itself is an outdated anachronism but the odd mix of sports and athletes taking part meant the Games had the pleasant feel of an event somewhere halfway between an Olympics and a school sports day. I mean that as a good thing.


  1. My son who is a Carpenter for "Paul Hodgkiss Designs" made most of the wooden Quaichs, and Podiums, for the Commonwealth Games... I am a proud mum... :)

  2. My son who is a Carpenter for "Paul Hodgkiss Designs" made most of the wooden Quaichs, and Podiums, for the Commonwealth Games... I am a proud mum... :)