Birmingham has recovered but the future of the Commonwealth Games is uncertain | Commonwealth Games 2022

TThe men’s 5000m was not a fast race, but it had an exciting finish. Jacob Kiplimo of Uganda won it in a sprint against the two Kenyans Nicolas Kimeli and Jacob Kropp who had led from the start. Kiplimo brought the 30,000-strong crowd at the Alexander Stadium to their feet, passing them about 100 meters away. In all the excitement, no one noticed the man they had just swept on the home stretch. The three of them overtook him so quickly that you would have missed him on TV in a blink of an eye. He was Rosefelo Siozzi of the Solomon Islands and he had three laps to go.

The crowd was just starting to settle back in when Siozzi crossed the line behind them and continued to run around the next turn. By the time he came around again, all the runners ahead of him had finished. They stood on the side of the track and recovered their spirits. Siozzi now had the track to himself. In the stands, one by one, people seemed to realize what was happening. The noise grew and soon they were cheering again, even louder than for the winners. On his final lap, which took 80 seconds, Siozzi received a standing ovation. He eventually finished in 17 minutes 26.93 seconds, 90 seconds behind the field.

That time, Siosi’s best this season, wouldn’t even come close to making the UK top 1000 this year. It’s hard to know exactly how low it will be because there is a 17 minute cutoff. But that didn’t matter right now.

If this all sounds strangely familiar, it’s not just because it’s one of those underdog stories that the Commonwealth Games always produce. That’s because exactly the same thing happened eight years ago when Siozzi received a standing ovation from the Hampden crowd when he ran the final lap of the 2014 Commonwealth men’s 5000m final all by himself. He finished that race in 16 minutes 55.33 seconds, 90 seconds behind the field. The only real difference now was that he was 30 seconds slower. Sciosi may be the most revered club runner in the history of athletics and was undoubtedly one of the faces of the Games.

Because, like him, they just keep tripping while everyone cheers them on. These worked well for one reason, which was that the public showed up. There were a few quiet spots, especially those around the fringes, but Alexander Stadium and Sandwell Aquatics Center seemed almost sold out for almost every session. And for all the typical British mumbling about public transport (which, yes, was often shambolic) and concession stand prices (which, yes, were outrageously high), everyone seemed to be having a good time too.

Rosefelo Siozzi from the Solomon Islands at 5000m
Rosefelo Siozzi of the Solomon Islands finished last in the 5000m – 90 seconds behind the winner. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

Birmingham were good hosts. He felt ready for his moment. They made the Games feel like they were happening in the city, not in a gated community from it. Especially in Smithfield, the city center that hosted a late-night Games festival, and Centenary Square, where organizers parked the huge animatronic bull that stole Simon Le Bon’s opening ceremony. Somehow the whole event seemed to be done with a sense of humor too, which you could hear in the stadium announcers’ rants about how much money it cost the council to lie on sunsets and see in the dance routines performed by a sand rowing team on Beach volleyball.

It didn’t even seem to bother anyone that many of the top competitors didn’t bother to come. Take the women’s 100m, which was supposed to be the flagship event of all the games. It was to be a repeat of the World Championship showdown between Elaine Thompson-Hera, Shelley-Anne Fraser-Pryce and Sherika Jackson, three of the fastest women in history. It wasn’t because the organizers were only able to convince Thompson-Herah to show up. Fraser-Pryce and Jackson preferred the Diamond League meeting in Silesia. Athletes make the Olympics, but it was the fans who saved the Commonwealth Games.

The problem with that is that it will fade quickly, just like Siozzi’s standing ovation in the stadium. And in the silence that follows, the problems facing the Games will continue to exist. Like the price. For its £780m, Birmingham got a rejuvenated stadium, a new aquatics center and promises of a legacy that will sound awfully hollow to anyone who remembers hearing such things after London 2012. The Games have undoubtedly become too big and too expensive for many Commonwealth countries to want to host them even if they could, which is one reason why they will be split between multiple sites in Victoria in 2026.

Privately, members of the Commonwealth Games Federation are also worried about all the problems you read about here in The Guardian. They worry about whether they will be relevant if top athletes stay away, wonder if Barbados’ recent decision to become a republic is a harbinger of things to come, what will happen to the Commonwealth when Queen Elizabeth dies, and what will interchangeable with ours, imperial history will mean all that to a Games that has always been presented as its celebration.

Dame Louise Martin, president of the federation, has already said they will have to scale back the Games. And if the Games in Birmingham go well, they could turn out to be the last on this scale.