The Matt Slater Column: Why the Commonwealth Games offers a beacon in dark sporting times

Amid dark moments for sport in the UK and around the world, Press Association’s chief sports reporter finds a way to reconnect with the point of it all

The Matt Slater Column: Why the Commonwealth Games offers a beacon in dark sporting times

It has been a tough run for those of us who toil in the toy department. 

We got into this game for the free tickets, cosy chats with stars and sandwiches at half-time, or so the fans-with-laptops clichés go. The reality has been different of late. 

The sports news lobby has been reporting on child sexual abuse, parliamentary reports rubbishing the reputations of British greats, and the first frosts of a new Cold War.

The work has been complex, distressing and important, and it has stretched journalistic muscles some of us did not know we possessed. 

But then, just when I was starting to feel like a real reporter, the sun poked out for half an hour and I again saw signs that sport is fun, inspires people and can warm the souls of even the most jaded journo.

There have been several moments in the last year or so, usually while listening to Fifa president Gianni Infantino or IOC boss Thomas Bach, when I have forgotten why anybody should care about elite sport at all. 

It started when I received a small plastic card in the post from the Football Association (FA). It was my coaching licence for the season. 

I had written about the push to accredit the army of volunteers who keep grassroots football going but had forgotten to apply for the free licence until one of the victims of the abuse scandal reminded me about it. 

He, too, is coaching youngsters now and believes the card is a tiny example of how the situation has improved since he was left so vulnerable 30 years ago.

Nobody is suggesting a piece of plastic is going to prevent anyone being abused again but the much-derided governing body of our national game is trying: it trained me, and thousands of others this season, in safeguarding, at its expense, and has now certified us as well. 

With a few clever nudges about joining England’s ‘winning team’ and the promise of greater footballing insight, I have been persuaded to let the FA monitor me more closely. That is governing and every now again they do it well.

I was then the next cab on the rank in the office for a chance to talk to the British team before it set out for the Winter Paralympics. 

The main talking point after the Winter Olympics had been how expensive Britain’s five medals had been and whether we were better off spending it on sports you can… well, play here. 

Kelly Gallagher, the first Brit to win a gold on snow at either an Olympics or Paralympics when she won super-G gold in 2014, was having none of that. The personification of positivity, she soon set me straight on Britain’s winter sports pedigree and why she was willing to risk more broken bones. 

Listening to her and the rest of the team talk about the unique “madness” of throwing yourself down icy chutes or steep mountains, particularly if you cannot see, I started to feel a bit, you know, inspired. The very thing we had been questioning when dividing medals by money.

Kelly Gallagher's inspirational story reminds us why government funding is important

That does not mean, however, there are not fundamental questions to be asked about our sporting priorities. 

Thankfully some of those questions were asked in one of the best parliamentary debates on sport I have witnessed a week after that meeting with Gallagher. And yes, I realise that is like saying ‘the best trip to Ikea’ or ‘episode of Mrs Brown’s Boys’.

The topic was why are we not funding a sport as accessible as basketball and the answer was: ‘I don’t know. Let’s fund it.’

Sofas at Britain’s funding agencies are currently being upended and penny jars raided, but I am certain the result will be a lifeline for a talented bunch of athletes, particularly the women’s team, and a more holistic view of the games we play and why we play them.

There have been several moments in the last year or so, usually while listening to Fifa president Gianni Infantino or International Olympic Committee (IOC) boss Thomas Bach, when I have forgotten why anybody should care about elite sport at all. They have made me wonder if they do, which is not a good look for the bank-breaking circuses they are trying to sell to increasingly wary democracies – the dictatorships still love them, mind.

Which is why I will be paying way more attention to April’s Commonwealth Games than usual for me. 

Previous ‘Friendly Games’ have seemed just that: too friendly to take seriously. I have been converted, though, by a wrestler from New Orleans.

It happened when I interviewed Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) CEO David Grevemberg not long before Bach beckoned the Russian Olympic Committee back into the fold after its three-month ban for sabotaging global sport.

Grevemberg spoke for nearly an hour on the phone as made his way home to Glasgow, where he still lives after leading the city’s successful staging of the 2014 Games, and he told me about a multi-sport event with a heart and a brain. 

Cities and the CGF are regeneration partners and they do not wait for the closing ceremony to start wondering what happens next; para athletes compete on the same stage; there is gender equality, human rights and environmental protection are paramount; and there is a point to it all – Glasgow raised £6.5million for Unicef; the Gold Coast will highlight indigenous reconciliation.

Do not worry: I have not embarked on a career-ending mission to tell only good news. Normal service will be resumed shortly.

But I think it is worth pointing out that when several British politicians suddenly worked out that Vladimir Putin is a tricky customer and suggested England should boycott the World Cup, the response from fans was a variation on: ‘So what is new?’

Press Association is an official SportsPro media partner. Follow Matt on Twitter @mjshrimper.

This column originally appeared in issue 98 of SportsPro Magazine. To find out more or to subscribe, click here.