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Matt Maher: Organisers build for success in face of big challenges

At present Alexander Stadium does not have the appearance of a sporting venue.

The building site will be transformed
The building site will be transformed

It looks like what it currently is: a building site.

Yet work is progressing rapidly and between the concrete and the cranes it is possible to picture how it will be next August, when for a few short days Birmingham and the West Midlands will be the centre of the sporting world.

Just how many world-class athletes will be performing at the stadium when its £72million renovation is completed will be an increasingly pressing question over the coming months.

If it hasn’t been tough enough arranging the biggest sporting extravaganza the region has ever seen during a pandemic, the Birmingham 2022 have also had to wrestle with a heavily-congested calendar where track and field, the Games’ most popular and prominent sport, is concerned. The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics by a year had the knock on effect of pushing the world and European athletics championship, both originally scheduled for this summer, back by 12 months.

They will now take place within five weeks of each other next year. Sandwiched in between, meanwhile, is the Commonwealths and the obvious fear among organisers is British athletes prioritising those global events over the Games.

The significance of Laura Muir choosing this week to reaffirm her commitment to compete in Birmingham should therefore not be downplayed. Muir, who won silver in Tokyo in the 1500 metres, is currently one of the most recognisable faces in British athletics.

“Laura is world class. When you speak to her, you see how delighted she is to have the chance to compete here,” Matt Kidson, Birmingham 2022’s director of sport, said this week as the Express & Star and other members of the media were granted a tour of the Alexander Stadium works.

Should the Birmingham Games succeed in attracting the Commonwealth’s top performers, Kidson and his team will be able to take a fair chunk of the credit.

As the job title suggests, he is responsible for overseeing the successful delivery of all 19 sports due to take place.

“It is effectively like having 19 world championships in one city in 11 days. It is a huge undertaking,” Kidson explains.

Since the Olympics were originally postponed early in the pandemic, countless hours have been spent perfecting a schedule which will convince athletes they can compete in Birmingham without compromising other goals.

The task is far from easy. There are just 37 days between the start of the World Championships in Oregon on July 15 and the climax of the Europeans in Munich on August 21.

But Kidson believes the decision to schedule athletics in the final week of the Birmingham Games will allow athletes the requisite breathing space. The running order of events has also been meticulously planned.

“It has been about going to a granular level,” says Kidson.

“We have taken our schedule and the world championships schedule and designed ours to make sure the athletes have as much rest as possible.

“Laura, for example, will get 10 days rest between her last event in the US and her first in the UK. That is the key thing, particularly with the travel from Oregon being significant.

“It has been a big challenge but we want the best athletes here and we know they want to come here. That is why we have done so much work on the schedules.”

Painstaking though the last few months have been, Kidson believes Birmingham will benefit from taking place a year on from Tokyo, without the uncertainty which shrouded the build-up to those Games. On that note, the presence of large crowds will also be a significant pull for British athletes.

Double Paralympic champion Kadeena Cox spoke this week of how the Birmingham Games could recreate the spirit of London 2012.

“This is the biggest event in the UK since London,” says Kidson. “This is a home Games and it should have a bigger appeal and bigger exposure for athletes. The chance to compete in front of a home crowd doesn’t come around all that often.”

Time is moving fast. Both the Alexander Stadium and the Games Aquatics Centre, being built in Sandwell at a cost of £73m are both due to be completed in early spring, after which test events will be scheduled.

Kidson currently has around 55 people in his team but that will rise to more than 100 when the Games begin.

“Normally you get to know people on a day by day basis, seeing them face to face. But we haven’t had that due to the pandemic,” he says.

“That is one of the big challenges, getting those relationships working.

“Have I enjoyed it? Absolutely, it has been tough at times but at the end of the day I’m confident we are going to put on an amazing event.”

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