There are now just two years to go to the opening ceremony of the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, and the movers and shakers from British athletics were in the city yesterday to mark the milestone.
Chief executive of the Commonwealth Games organising committee Ian Reid and sports minister Nigel Huddleston visited the site of the former Smithfield wholesale market, which will be the venue for the 3x3 basketball and beach volleyball tournaments.
Temporary courts for the two sports have been set up at the site as part of the celebrations, giving current and future stars of both sports the chance to be first to try out the site.
Ciara Shackleton, 15, and her sister Rhianna, 13, from Penkridge, were among those playing on the basketball courts.
The youngsters, who play for City of Birmingham Basketball Club, said they were looking forward to the Games coming to Birmingham.
"I think it will be really exciting to see lots of different people playing different sports, and lots of people coming to see them," said Ciara, who goes to Wolgarston High School.
"I'm really excited," added Rhianna. "It's a chance to see some really good players,
Zindzi Alex-Eyitene, 17, from Halesowen, who also plays for the City of Birmingham team, said: "It's good to put Birmingham on the map. Seeing the top players is good for your training and development, as you can learn from them."
Her friend Sarah Elfrey, a pupil at Hagley RC High School, near Stourbridge, added: "It's really exciting to get the experience of seeing the people at first hand who we aspire to be like."
Mr Huddleston said 2022 would be a fantastic year of celebration for the UK, with major events including the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee and Festival 2022.
“With two years to go until Birmingham 2022, we've reached another major milestone," he said.
"The site at Smithfield will be right at the heart of that, acting as a powerful focal point in making this a Games for everyone and helping to create a real buzz in the heart of the city.”
He added that the Sandwell Aquatics Centre in Smethwick and the mountain bike track on Cannock Chase would make it an event for the whole region to celebrate.
Mr Reid said the Games would bring a huge economic boost to the region, bringing in £300 million worth of investment into West Midlands.
"It will form part of the recovery from Covid, with tens of thousands of job opportunities resulting from the games," he said.
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"We’re on track with our plans to host a spectacular event which will not only put Birmingham and the West Midlands centre stage but will also be an integral part of the region’s recovery plan."
He said the Smithfield site was a fantastic location for these two sports, bringing together thousands of people and creating a centre for the Games in the heart of the city centre.
"It’s currently a blank canvas which will allow us to transform this location into a vibrant venue for two exciting sports that will no doubt bring a festival atmosphere to the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games," he said.
It will be the first time the shorter 3x3 version of basketball will be played during the games, and also the first time wheelchair basketball in any format has been played.
Beach volleyball will be making its second appearance at a Commonwealth Games after the sport was added to the Birmingham 2022 programme last summer.
Stewart Kellett, chief executive of Basketball England, said the 3x3 format of the game was growing very fast, particularly with young people. He said it was invigorating the sport in a similar way to how T20 had done for cricket.
Worcester Wolves star Kofi Josephs, who represented England in the 2018 Games in Australia, said he was looking forward to the games coming to his home city.
"It's going to be amazing to have it at home, people can experience all the diversity the city has to offer," said the 28-year-old, from Aston.
Mr Kellett said he hoped the games would encourage more young people to take up the sport.
He said Basketball England was offering support to people who wanted to create new courts in their own community. For more information visit basketballengland.co.uk
Derelict site feels more like a set from a Tarantino movie
It’s a bright, warm summer’s morning, the sun is shimmering on Birmingham’s famous Rotunda, the bright lights bouncing off the silver discs of neighbouring Selfridge’s.
But despite the glorious weather and stylish backdrop, the derelict site of the former Smithfield wholesale market in the heart of the city still feels more like the set of a Tarantino movie than an elite sporting venue.
That is all set to change soon. Very soon. With just two years to go before the Commonwealth Games comes to Birmingham, this weed-infested, graffiti-covered wasteland in the shadow of the glitzy Bull Ring shopping centre is about to be transformed into the arena for two of the competitions’ newest sports. It is here where thousands of sports fans from across the globe will come to watch some of the world’s leading athletes, players of 3x3 basketball and beach volleyball.
A makeshift basketball court and volleyball sandpit have been installed to give a flavour of what is to come, and some of the country’s top athletes have been drafted in to show off their skills. But nobody is in any doubt that there is a lot of work to be done in a relatively short space of time to make the Games a success.
Ian Reid, chief executive of the Games’ organising committee, is the man with the daunting task of seeing this site changed beyond recognition over the next 729 days. Motioning towards an area of hardstanding in the distance, he excitedly describes how a 2,500-seater basketball stadium will soon be built. Waving in the opposite direction, he shows where the 4,000-seater beach volleyball court will go.
“It was only decided we would be hosting the games with four years to go, and the first two years have flown by,” he says. “Now with just two years to go, the excitement is starting to build.”
A few yards away, sports minister Nigel Huddleston surveys the Birmingham skyline, taking in the Rotunda and the neighbouring St Martin’s Church.
“You have got this great contrast between historic and the modern in Birmingham,” says the MP for nearby Mid-Worcestershire. “The games will show Birmingham and the West Midlands to an audience, right across the world, of one billion people. We have been through a very difficult time in these last few months, indeed during my first couple of months as sports minister there was no sport at all. It’s great now to be able to get out and about, and after a difficult few months were now working on something we can all look forward to.”
He adds that the mountain bike track at Cannock Chase and Sandwell Aquatics Centre in Smethwick will also be crucial to success of the Games, and says he has been hugely impressed with the work he has seen so far.
A few yards away, a group of beach volleyball players are showing of their skills in the sand. Isn’t it a bit strange playing beach volleyball about as far away as you can get in the UK to the nearest beach?
Not at all, says 24-year-old Issa Batrane from central London, who hopes he will be returning to the site in two years’ time as part of the England team. “It gives you the opportunity to enjoy that beach experience in the city,” he says.
Issa says he is really excited about seeing the games taking place on home soil.
“Having a home crowd focusing on you and cheering you on is unlike anything else,” he says. “And hopefully bringing back a gold medal as well.”
There is no shortage of optimism and excitement then, but is there also a risk, no matter how precise the planning, that the whole thing could be thrown off schedule by the coronavirus?
“It always can,” accepts Mr Huddleston. “But we’re keeping a really close eye and monitoring the situation, we have got some very good contingency measures.”
Mr Reid sounds slightly more bullish: “It’s always at the back of our minds, but there is no way we can control that. It’s not until the summer of 2022, and it’s possible by then we might have a vaccine in place, we will hopefully be in a better position than we are at the moment.
“It gives us time to get Covid-19 out of the way.”