For the next 11 days, the city of Birmingham, in the heart of England’s West Midlands, will take centre stage as it hosts the XXII Commonwealth Games.
The Saxon village that grew into a town in the 12th century is now England’s second-largest city, and will host more than 5000 athletes from 72 countries contesting 283 medal events from July 29 through to August 8.
The time difference in the UK won’t be kind to Australian viewers, with the Opening Ceremony beginning on Friday at 4.45am AEST, and competition beginning later that day.
The Seven network will deliver free-to-air TV with Channel 7 and 7Mate, while the 7 Plus app will also offer up to 30 live and replay channels.
Hosts include Olympic champions Ian Thorpe, Cate Campbell and Curtis McGrath, and sports will be broadcast every night from 7pm (AEST), with many medal events in prime time.
Esteemed broadcaster Bruce McAvaney will return for his fifth Commonwealth Games, covering the opening and closing ceremonies and the athletics.
And to get everyone in the mood on Thursday, a special edition of Seven’s The Front Bar, hosted by Andy Maher, Mick Molloy and Sam Pang, will celebrate all things Commonwealth Games at 8.30pm AEST.
The opening ceremony
As with every Olympic and Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, Birmingham is shrouded in secrecy, as thousands of volunteers, artists, performers and musicians made their way to the city’s newly refurbished Alexander Stadium for practice sessions in recent days.
Writer and director of turn-of-the-century Birmingham gangster epic series, Peaky Blinders, hometown hero Steven Knight (also credited with creating Who Wants To Be A Millionaire) will executive produce the event.
What we do know is that Charles and Camilla will represent the Queen at the ceremony alongside the Earl (vice-patron of the Commonwealth Games Federation) and the Countess of Wessex.
The Prince of Wales will deliver a speech and read the Queen’s message, which was placed into the Commonwealth Games Baton last year at Buckingham Palace, before it left on a 294-day journey to all 72 nations and territories of the Commonwealth.
British band and original new romantics, Duran Duran, will close out the opening in front of an audience of more than 30,000, musical interludes will come from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) and reggae legends UB40 are representing the Games with the official anthem Champion.
God Save The Queen will be sung by mezzo-soprano Samantha Oxborough, a graduate of The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, with the CBSO.
The BBC reported the Games will be the first ‘‘top-flight multi-sport even’’ hosted in the UK since the Glasgow Games in 2014, and before that the 2012 London Olympics.
The UK’s Commonwealth Games Minister Nigel Huddleston described the opening ceremony as ‘‘the next blockbuster in our major year of sport and culture – the curtain-raiser for an incredible 11 days of sport’’.
‘‘London 2012 brought spectacles of this kind to a whole new generation … 10 years on, this ceremony will connect a new, global audience and showcase the very best of Birmingham and the whole of the UK,’’ he said.
Speaking at a press briefing, Mr Knight said his show will have real heart and emotion.
“What’s different, I think, about this is that a lot of these events are visually spectacular but emotionally timid,” Mr Knight said.
“A lot of times I think people are afraid to take a stance, afraid to make a point, that they’re believing that they’ve got to please all of the people all the time.
“What this does is tells a real story. It’s got real emotion. It’s got real heart.
“And you know, I think people will be really moved by what they see, not just the bangs and the crashes but the bangs and crashes of emotions that are in there, the story of the people, and I’ve used that term for a purpose,” he said.
“It’s that the Birmingham story is the story of the common people and it always has been and that’s what this story is, and the things that Birmingham has given to the world such as electricity, technology, English-speaking drama from William Shakespeare 20 miles down the road.’’
UB40’s compelling four-minute music video, released on July 26, showcases pretty much everything about England’s second biggest city, its people, and the hopes and dreams of the competing track and field athletes, swimmers, boxers and paralympians.
It’s told through the journey of a young athlete hoping for glory.
‘‘Higher, faster, further, stronger!’’ are the inspirational lyrics we’ll hear over the next two weeks, which will most likely showcase the opening and be played across multiple giant screens inside the stadium.
Also on the night, Grammy-winning Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi and saxophonist Soweto Kinch will lead a dream sequence entitled Hear My Voice, based on the title track from 2020 film Trial of the Chicago Seven.
A choir of more than 700 people, from 15 choirs from across the West Midlands, will also be performing.
Theatre producer Iqbal Khan told the BBC he wanted to tell Birmingham’s story from the beginning of his journey, ‘‘and I wanted to tell it right to show that there is a vivid and vibrant confidence about this place’’.
Mr Khan worked alongside rapper Joshua ‘RTKal’ Holness on the ceremony’s soundtrack.
Eleven days of sporting excellence, triumph and PBs
Most of Britain has been sweltering in 40 degree-plus temperatures lately, but Birmingham looks set for a cool evening, no rain, and a pleasant 24 degrees on the first day of competition.
Alexander Stadium will host the opening and closing ceremonies, the athletics and para athletics, with seven other major locations for competition.
These include the Sandwell Aquatics Centre for diving, swimming and para swimming, Cannock Chase Forest for cycling (mountain bike), Sutton Park, triathlon and para triathlon, Coventry Stadium for rugby, Warwick and Wolverhampton for cycling, and Victoria Park for lawn bowls and para bowls.
Australia has 435 athletes, including about 80 para athletes competing in 19 able-bodied sports and eight para sports.
The T20 women’s cricket will make its Games debut and it will be only the second time the sport has been played in the event, following the men’s 50-over tournament in 1998.
We won 80 gold, 61 silver and 60 bronze medals at the Gold Coast Games in 2018 and have topped the medal table 11 times.
The most golds – six – at a single Games went to swimmer Susie O’Neill in 1998 and Ian Thorpe in 2002.
Australian Commonwealth Games Association chief executive Craig Phillips says it’s tough on ‘‘someone else’s patch’’ to lead the medal table, but ‘‘the reality for us is, we are the No.1 sporting nation in the Commonwealth so there is always that expectation’’.
What’s the Commonwealth Games village like?
The Australian team will be split into five in Birmingham, with athletes at two university campuses and two hotels, and track cyclists in London.
The split accommodation also mitigates risks of a coronavirus outbreak within the team: ‘‘It wasn’t the reason it happened … but it actually does help us,’’ Mr Phillips said.
Against the COVID-19 backdrop, Mr Phillips and his executive team have mandated that Australia’s athletes will depart within two days of their competition finishing.
Where are we expected to win most medals?
- Swimming: At the Gold Coast pool, Australia set a fresh high-water mark with 28 gold, including five to Mitch Larkin and four to Emma McKeon, among 73 swimming medals. McKeon also won four Olympic golds in Tokyo last year. The swim team includes champs Ariarne Titmus, Kaylee McKeown and Zac Stubblety-Cook.
- Cycling: Aussie cyclists won 14 Commonwealth golds four years ago but track cycling is rebuilding after a Tokyo Olympics that returned just one bronze medal. Road cycling squads for Birmingham look strong and could well repeat their sweep of the four gold medals on the Gold Coast, with sprint ace Caleb Ewan, time-trial star Rohan Dennis and the in-form Grace Brown as headliners.
- Track and field: In 2018, we collected 13 gold medals. This time, expectations are somewhat tempered for an 85-strong athletics team. Peter Bol will lead Australia’s charge on the track, the field should produce medallists such as Matt Denny in the discus, pole vaulter Kurtis Marschall and high jumper Brandon Starc.
- Special mention from the recent World Championships in Oregon: Kelsey-Lee Barber in the javelin and Eleanor Patterson in the high jump won gold, and bronze went to pole vaulter Nina Kennedy.
- Men’s and women’s cricketers, basketballers, lawn bowlers, hockey and beach volleyball players are also among gold medal favourites.
- Gymnastics, shooting, squash, table tennis and triathlon loom as genuine shots to help Australia retain its reputation as the Commonwealth’s sporting power.