8.7sec Bolt in the rain but a night to remember

RANDALL NORTHAM, or “The Curmudgeon of Facebook” as he has become known, had a smile put on his face by a wet evening spent at Hampden Park

Usain Bolt, looking suitably pleased with the deference of the questions offered by the BBC
Usain Bolt, looking suitably pleased with the deference of the questions offered immediately after his race by the BBC

I had been telling everybody that I would be in Glasgow for the 8.7 seconds of the Commonwealth Games show, but in truth, seeing Usain Bolt was never the point of the evening, even though I was hoping that his presence would increase sales of the book on him I published in 2012.

When he did enter the stadium at the end of the night to prepare for the 4×100 metres relay, there was a flutter of excitement, but that was mostly confined to the corner by the start of the home straight, where they were closest to him. When Bolt led Jamaica to victory, the crowd went wild, but no more so than when England won the 4×400 metres in a thrilling final a few minutes earlier.

Then, when we got back to Edinburgh where we are staying and I plugged into the media reports of the night, and it’s all about Bolt.

Except it wasn’t. I suppose, had I still been reporting, I would have based my piece on Bolt, but surely I would have brought some perspective to it? Unlike the BBC.

For me the evening was an odd experience.

It was bucketing down, we were in a massive queue with strangely cheerful marshals offering high fives and invitations to sing, and I was oddly excited. It is the first time I have been in a crowd as a punter.

The last big event I covered was in Atlanta in 1996 – generally accepted as the nadir of the Olympic movement. I have attended events since as a guest of organisers or sponsors, but I have never been anywhere without a ticket that gives me privileged access. Last night was different, but despite the weather, I found myself enjoying it all, which is not entirely like me.

Not the four horsemen, but the mopping operation to keep the clear the runways of surface water for the field events in Hampden Park last night
Not the four horsemen, but the mopping operation to keep the clear the runways of surface water for the field events in Hampden Park last night

My daughter bought the tickets as a Christmas present for her mother and me, and so the three of us got soaked as we shuffled forward waiting to get into the stadium. It’s not as bad as the IAAF World Cup in Barcelona, when the torrential rain came through the roof, but it was bad enough that I did expect to see four horsemen riding in over the stadium.

Since Atlanta, my experience of big athletics and multi-sport events has been filtered through the increasingly flawed prism of the BBC.

So last night there was no “ticked all the boxes”, no “he’ll be disappointed with that”, no “he’s been on an incredible journey”. I was able to make up my own mind, or at least thought I might in between the two people on the stadium speakers who were chirping relentlessly about selfies, tweeting, and “the Commonwealth Games experience”.

I settled in for an evening of what is, in footballing terms, essentially Championship sport with the odd highly paid Premiership player thrown in to add stardust.

Then the music started – while the athletics was going on! I hope the person who thought this up, presumably a real-life Siobhan Sharpe, is siting in a brightly lit room and nursing a migraine. If it wasn’t the music, it’s the announcers. I like crisp, clear, factual announcing at athletics meetings. But at Hampden, the announcers seem to take their role to be cheerleaders, exhorting the already pumped up crowd to pump themselves up some more.

But I discover that the field events are allowed to continue when the runners are running or performing their laps of honour. In my lifetime, a lap of honour has gone from the winner shyly circumnavigating the track as quickly as he or she could, to the medallists all running around, to last night’s crawl around the perimeter by all the medallists and any Scots, if there were any in the final, letting people take “selfies” with them and signing autographs.

The field events – on this night the women’s pole vault and the men’s triple jump and javelin – are not wrapped up neatly in a package at the end a la the BBC, and the spectators around me are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about them.

But where the three of us are – on the top turn near the 200 start – we cannot see the electronic scoreboards which give heights for the pole vault and distances for the triple jump. The officials’ desk is in the way of the pole vault and the athletes’ area is obscuring all but the name of the triple jumper. Given all the attention to the detail of encouraging audience participation, surely this is a detail which ought to have been considered and avoided?

I’m not used to that, nor am I used to sitting so close to the pole vault. The women competitors must have experienced the worst conditions I have seen for the event, but they splashed on regardless. It was great theatre, even if the heights are low, if you see what I mean.

We saw a great women’s 5,000m – Jo Pavey was amazing, at 40 years old, she was already competing in my era – and the relays are brilliant. Pavey was 21 when Matthew Hudson-Smith was born, and he is soon going to be in the Premiership of athletics if he stays healthy. Thanks to his anchor leg run, England won the men’s 4x400m relay as he held off Chris Brown of the Bahamas, a member of the team that won gold in London two years ago.

The end of the night was stretched, presumably because we must get ourselves ready for Bolt. But the pole vault continued and Alana Boyd was going for a Commonwealth Games record when, suddenly, those “cheerful” people on the public address are back, trying to make us decide whether we prefer 500 miles to Loch Lomond. We decided, it seems, for The Proclaimers, and so the stadium management played the bloody song when Boyd was attempting the record for the third time. Entirely crass and typical it seems of the modern sporting experience.

Will I go again? Well, Rio’s too far and I wouldn’t go all the way to Australia for the 2018 Commonwealth Games, which leaves Beijing for the 2015 athletics world championships – same restriction as Rio really. But I might try for the world championships in London in 2017, if I’m still around.

Until then I’ll have to endure the BBC. But they could do all of us athletics fans who care about words and facts rather than celebrity and good looks a favour by giving us a feed on the red button where all we get are the pictures and the atmospheric sound. No presenters thinking they know more than they do because they’ve been fronting the sport for a couple of years and no ex-athletes letting their mouths run away with their brains. Because that sort of red button service would be close to what I enjoyed on in Hampden on Saturday night, but without the blocked views of the scoreboards. And without the Proclaimers.


Mon Sep 15: SJA Autumn Golf Day, Muswell Hill GC – Book your place now. Non-members very welcome

Thu Dec 11: SJA British Sports Awards, sponsored by The National Lottery, at the Grand Connaught Rooms