Lord Smith of Kelvin on the Commonwealth Games.

Lord Smith of KelvinBy Thomas Hornall

Lord Smith of Kelvin is regarded as one of the most astute businessmen of his generation; he has been knighted, honoured as an independent cross-bench peer to the House of Lords and this year was appointed to the Order of the Thistle, the highest honour in Scotland.

As current chairman of Scottish and Southern Energy, the UK Green Investment Bank, as Strathclyde Chancellor and having just stepped down as chairman of Weir Group, it seems remarkable that Lord Smith finds time to himself-let alone time to organise one of the biggest sporting events in the world. In 2008 he was appointed as chairman of the organising committee of the Commonwealth Games and will see all of his work over the last 6 years come to fruition in July.

“When I took the call I initially thought I would be too busy to do it” he says, remembering being asked over the phone while being driven to a meeting, he recalls an interested driver turning around and telling him “if that call was what I think it was, it won’t happen again in your lifetime”. Lord Smith promptly called back and offered himself to the role.

Staging an event of this magnitude requires an extraordinarily meticulous amount of planning and Glasgow has been helped in its preparation by London hosting the Olympics just two years ago. Lord Smith explains that “we had a number of observers down there sitting with the Olympic organisers covering things like broadcast, security and transport. We’ve actually had people from the Gold coast doing the same with us. The success of the Olympic Games has benefitted us as well in terms of sponsorship, ticket sales and volunteers”.

In fact, more than 50,000 people applied for only 15,000 volunteer positions at Glasgow 2014; more than Melbourne and Manchester combined and more than 95% of tickets have already been sold. The sporting eyes of the world will yet again be drawn to Britain.

The financial cost of hosting an event such as this is something which is often broached and Glasgow has built especially for the Commonwealth Games the state-of-the-art £113m pound Emirates Arena and adjoining Sir Chris Hoy velodrome in Parkhead.
“It’s really a magnificent venue and the main area there can be lengthened and shortened to play all sorts of different sports, it’s a very flexible sporting arena, but, the thing to remember about Glasgow” smiles Lord Smith “Is that 70% of our venues were already there. We’re using a lot of existing stadia like Celtic Park, Hampden and Ibrox”

Hampden is being used for athletic events and as such had to undergo a clever temporary modification, he explains “Because there are things like javelin throwers and different events going on at the same time we needed to take out the first 6 rows of the seating at Hampden, then we actually raised the running track using around 6,000 metal columns- otherwise it would have been like watching ants in an amphitheatre!”

Having been previously used for the equestrian event during the Olympics at Greenwich this is the first time this technique has been used on as large a scale and Lord Smith feels it could help less developed nations in time to host Games of their own “Every big city in the world has a football pitch and using this technique they can be transformed into athletics arena’s for a much lower cost than building a new stadium- and then you get your football pitch back at the end”

In similar vein to Wimbledon Lord smith hopes there is a commonwealth fever which will encourage more children and young people to become involved in sport, especially when they see “their heroes using these same facilities which they’ll be able to use, they’re actually using places like the Emirates Arena and the Tolcross pool right now” Around £200m has been spent on sporting infrastructure ahead of the games and around £5m of this has been invested directly at the club and local level. I mention Lead2014; a programme that trains tutors to help run commonwealth-themed sporting activities at schools throughout the country and last year over 18,000 schoolchildren were involved with proceedings organised by high-school and university student volunteers.
“This programme also develops the tutor’s managerial skills and develops them as people as well. They’re actually having to take charge and it’s great work experience for them later in life, too” says Lord Smith.

“Even if you hate sport” he says “you’ll want to come to Glasgow during Games time because there’s a huge cultural exercise being put on at the same time.” Indeed, there are works of street theatre; dance, comedy shows, and public displays all planned for the event with the organising committee, Creative Scotland, and Glasgow Life all collaborating in the programme. Glasgow’s book festival Aye write! took on a commonwealth theme in places this year, there will be top quality comedic talent on display at shows such as The Commonwealth Stands Up and events such as the Big Big Sing and Get Scotland Dancing will be aimed at getting people involved this year, with the latter having had over 80,000 participants since its inception in 2011. Especially stunning is the ambitious Perch- a display which combines street and aerial theatre on stages high above the street level which is accompanied by orchestras and choirs.

Continuing the cultural note, Lord Smith was chairman of the National Museums of Scotland from 1993-2002 and was knighted for his services in this capacity in 1999. As “Glasgow born and bred” he spoke proudly about what the city contains
“There really are some wonderful centres in Scotland; the Riverside museum won European museum of the year, we have the Burrell collection and the Kelvingrove art gallery. The SSE Hydro really is a beautiful venue too and if you’re a music group, you’ll do London, Manchester and you’ll definitely do Glasgow.” The SSE is a £125m venue opened in September last year and is going to host the 2014 MTV European Music Awards in November. With plans for a Kelvinhall revamp and Tramway hosting the Turner Prize in 2015 Glasgow’s international reputation is only going to be further bolstered in the coming months and years.

An erudite and convivial man, we talk at length about what lasting effect the Commonwealth Games will have on the city and the country, the shrewd business instinct that has coloured his career is always present though and Lord Smith details that
“There’s also an economic legacy. More than 80% by value of all the contracts associated with the Games have gone to Scottish Firms. This leads to the velocity of circulation of money and these firms have won contracts from catering to the construction of villages. The Commonwealth Games village has seen around 700 new houses built, there’s also a care home- that bit of the East end has undergone a regeneration”
After the closing ceremony, when the 6,500 athletes leave, work will start to convert this village into real homes for people to live in. One of the contracts that have gone to Scottish hands have been the medals themselves, which will be designed by Jonathan Boyd, a Glasgow school of art graduate, and the medal bearers dress designs which have been made by Kerry Nixon, an eminent Scottish designer.

As the chancellor of Strathclyde Lord Smith naturally was enthusiastic about the new technology and innovation centre currently under construction. A report by BiGGAR Economics found that Strathclyde’s partnerships with business and industry will offer a £1.4bn boost to the Scottish and global economy over the next decade and the new £89m centre will play a key role in the growth forecast. It’s an area in which Lord Smith has personal experience and talking about his time as the chairman of Weir group he remembers

“We actually came to Strathclyde to develop some new methods for pump extractions and different things. The guys working for their PHD’s want real projects to work on, not abstract concepts. Some of the things they developed have actually been sold by Weir group in the international market in places such as Texas, China and Australia.”
“It’s so important that universities and companies that want to innovate do actually collaborate. Strathclyde is a leading centre of learning in renewable energy and Scottish and Southern Energy have already invested in this new centre as have others. Jim Mcdonald has really internationalised Strathclyde and reached out to industry and this centre will attract international interest for collaborations”

As we near the end of our time I ask if these last 6 years will have been as arduous as I imagine them to have been and whether it has been worth it. “Well, they’re not paying me!” he jokes, before candidly saying that there have been moments along the way which have been difficult but having come through at the other side it has been “tremendously rewarding” to see the Games take shape.

Glasgow will be set alight in July and there is everything to look forward to with the sports being accompanied by such an eclectic and expansive schedule of different shows, programmes and events. Ever the visionary though, Lord Smith concludes that the lasting legacies which the Games will leave will be most important.

“With the sporting legacy hopefully there will be a lasting health benefit too. Economically, socially and culturally these Games can have a lasting impact on Glasgow and Scotland and that’s what really matters. Manchester is the sports capital of England and a lot of that is owed to the Commonwealth Games, I do think that we can become a sporting capital for the UK in years to come”

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