Under saltire-blue skies and in the kind of temperatures that could melt girders to a syrupy liquid, Glasgow welcomed the athletes of a significant chunk of the planet on Wednesday to what was being sold as the city’s “biggest ever party”, the opening ceremony of the 20th Commonwealth Games.
Two years after London threw a little shindig of its own, the Scottish city was determined show that while these four-yearly Games might not quite match their Olympic cousins in scale, when it came to its ambition and the warmth of its welcome, Glasgow would not be outdone.
Had the 2007 vote of the Games’ organising federation gone differently, the athletes from 71 countries and territories would have been parading this week into a stadium in Abuja, the Nigerian capital. Instead, 28 years after Edinburgh staged the Games, it fell to Glasgow to host the 22 events over 11 days of competition.
Alex Salmond, the Scottish first minister, had promised the ceremony would “show the world the very best of Scotland“, and on that count it amply delivered, so long as your definition of the country’s greatest output includes pipers, dancing Tunnock’s teacakes, Scottie dogs and Susan Boyle singing Mull of Kintyre.
Opening ceremonies are marketing expos as well as son-et-lumière spectaculars, however, and while some Scots might have bristled at the kilts-and-shortbread portrayal of their country, there was no denying the overwhelming exuberance and good humour of the event.
At times as the 4,851 athletes paraded into the stadium, and particularly after audience members were asked to donate by text to Unicef and the thousands in the stands spontaneously raised their mobiles to display a constellation of pinpricks of light, it managed to be genuinely moving. A moment of commemoration for the victims of flight MH17 was observed in absolute silence.
There was an element of quiet subversion, too, when the Scots-American actor John Barrowman, during the opening number, kissed another man during a tribute to Gretna Green. Homosexuality, as gay rights campaigners have stressed in the leadup to the Games, is criminalised in a majority of Commonwealth countries.
A bizarre early plan to demolish one of the city’s derelict housing blocks live during the ceremony having been shelved, it fell to Rod Stewart to provide the early big bangs, though even the veteran crooner could not hold his own against the Queen, whose entry with the Duke of Edinburgh in a limousine was accompanied by a flypast by the Red Arrows. Was it significant that, contrary to the promises of the ceremony programme, the smoke trailed by the nine Hawk aircraft was not blue and white alone, but red, white and blue? These are days where such things matter.
For his part, Salmond had promised to steer clear of questions of independence for the duration of the Games, and despite an interview on Wednesday in which he did nothing of the sort, he was true to his word during the ceremony, heralding the “commonwealth of nations” with: “Fàilte gu Alba! Welcome to Scotland!”
Fears of nationalist ill will among the crowds, too, proved very wide of the mark, with the English delegation receiving a huge cheer, topped only by the demented roar when the Scottish team, their tartan outfits every bit as appalling as promised, made their entry.
It was wildly unrealistic to expect these Games only to be about sport, all the same. Glasgow is a city, like the rest of Scotland, convulsed by the independence question; whether charmed by the Games or irritated by its transport inconveniences and expense, the conversation of locals invariably returns to the issue.
Nor are local people the only ones with an eye on September’s referendum. Outside Celtic Park was a gathering of perhaps 100 Tamils, protesting at the inclusion of “genocidal Sri Lanka” in the event. “Referendum for independence is a right of every nation,” read many of their placards. The resonance of a group of nations, many of them former British colonies, gathering in a country that will shortly vote on whether to leave the UK is not considerable.
For all the inevitable politics around an event whose very makeup is intensely political, it was impossible not to be struck by the overwhelming spirit of festivity that has seized parts of Glasgow. In George Square earlier, undeterred by the hairdryer temperatures, hundreds queued for hours to pick up last-minute tickets.
Nicola Taylor and her daughter Keri Cassidy-Taylor, from Lisburn in Northern Ireland, had tried eight times to collect their ceremony tickets from the square, having been deterred each time by the alarming length of the wait. But even that could not dim their enthusiasm.
“I think it’s the intangible stuff that makes it, the atmosphere, everybody wishing everybody well,” said Taylor. “There are lots of very happy people walking around.”
And in a city where sport is often deeply divisive – Celtic Park may have been favoured for the opening ceremony, but fear not: Ibrox, home of Rangers FC, will host the rugby sevens – Glasgow will hope that is one legacy that will last well beyond 3 August.
Metres from the queue, a kilted piper was playing an exuberant reel. An elderly woman began to twirl a boy of about six, while a group of women wearing Botswana T-shirts formed a spontaneous circle and broke into something between a jig and an African dance.
The best of Glasgow – and the best of what the Queen would later call “the diverse, resourceful and cohesive family” of Commonwealth nations – will take more than a couple of hours to capture.
– Guardian & Commonwealth
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