Ask anyone from Birmingham how they feel about hosting a major sporting competition and they’ll tell you it’s been a long time coming. Indeed, for TV presenter Ayo Akinwolere, it’s something he’s waited for most of his life.
“It’s about bl***y time,” he exclaims to GiveMeSport Women, when asked about his thoughts on Birmingham hosting this year’s Commonwealth Games.
Akinwolere will be part of BBC’s presenting team for the Games this summer, commentating on live coverage of events and hosting his own show on BBC 3. His excitement for the upcoming competition is palpable and his deep admiration for the city of Birmingham was used, in his own words, as a persuasive tool during his “pitch to the BBC.”
Having moved from Nigeria to Birmingham as a child, Akinwolere describes himself as a “child of the Commonwealth.” Alexander Stadium played home to his school sports days, while Birmingham University was where he frequently used to play football. When he talks of his deep-rooted love for the city, it is clear this is not just promotional –– it’s personal.
“Finally, an international light is being shone on Birmingham and people are going to see this city for what I know it is,” he stresses. “It’s full of culture, incredible green spaces and it’s a city that’s had some great athletes come out of it.
“We’ve got great football teams, great universities, and also a great nightlife. And it’s not just going to host the Commonwealth Games. There’s also going to be an emphasis on [promoting] the culture around Birmingham to make sure that when people come to the city, they really understand why this is such an amazing destination.”
🚨BIG NEWS 🚨 Back home to where it all started! Delighted to say ill be joining this bunch of heavyweights as part of the presenting team for @birminghamcg22 BBC SPORT coverage, with my own show on BBC THREE— Ayo Akinwolere (@AyoAkinwo) June 22, 2022
Bout time Birmingham got pinned back on the map!
Akinwolere’s infectious passion is evident, not just for the Games, not just for Birmingham but for sport in general. When telling of his childhood memories of playing football, the discussion soon segues into his aspirations of turning professional as a teenager.
“I almost got a scholarship to go to America to play football but got denied by my Nigerian mum basically,” he jokes.
Though the professional footballer dream was short-lived, Akinwolere has been fortunate enough to cover the sport for CBS and Premier League Productions. Soon, he is discussing his beloved Arsenal –– reflecting on the torment of recent seasons and his optimism for the future.
“I think we finally got rid of quite a bit of deadwood from the club. Let’s just see where the season goes but the general conversation around all Arsenal fans is it’s great to have Gabriel Jesus. There are a few more appointments that will make me feel a bit more comfortable about next season but I think the Europa League is probably where we need to be right now, so let’s just build on it.”
Conscious of steering the interview too much in the direction of Premier League football, we resume talking about the Games, with Akinwolere’s hopefulness for the Gunners matched by his belief that the Games could generate the same buzz that London 2012 created.
“I remember being in London at that time and the city was just buzzing,” he recalls. “The stadiums were buzzing and everyone had that Olympic energy.
“So I’m hoping that we get people roaming the streets of Birmingham, trying to enjoy the city and all the cultural stuff around it, but also enjoying the great sporting spectacle.”
Over the years, the Games have given rise to some iconic British moments, many of which Akinwolere remembers fondly.
Helen Housby’s sensational last-gasp goal that handed England netball gold at Gold Coast 2018 sticks out in his mind, not just as a moment that raised the profile of netball, but for female British athletes in general.
I think the beauty of the Commonwealth Games is that sometimes we get to see sports not many people know about and we get to see some athletes that aren’t household names, become them.
“It’s also a massive launchpad for athletes who want to take things to the next level. People forget the likes of Lennox Lewis, who won a Commonwealth gold many years ago in 1986 and he went on to become a world-famous boxing star.”
“But I think this country is brilliant when it comes to moments like this at international tournaments. It gives people an excuse to sit back and actually get behind the country and I’m hoping this one will do the same.”
Though the Games have birthed numerous superstars over the years, this summer will feature a number of athletes, who are already among the biggest names in sport.
British sprinter Dina Asher-Smith is someone that fits that category. The 26-year-old is a former world champion in the 200m and narrowly missed out on a medal in the 100m in Oregon recently.
This will only fuel her at this year’s Games, according to Akinwolere –– who believes the Brit has the star power to attract fans on her own.
“We’re very lucky with her [Asher-Smith] because we’ve got someone who surpasses the sport. I think since the Usain Bolt’s of this world have retired, especially from a female perspective, athletics needs another big superstar.
“There’s a couple from Jamaica and a couple from America for sure, but Asher-Smith has definitely got that star quality. We’ve actually got a superstar on our hands and that will only help fill stadiums.”
As ever, athletics will be the centre of attention in Birmingham, yet there will also be the opportunity to watch some sports that are featuring for the first time at the Commonwealth Games.
Akinwolere is particularly excited about 3×3 basketball –– a sport that does not necessarily come naturally to him but has the potential to provide thrilling entertainment.
“I’m very bad because I’m five foot nine, so I’m not going to be dunking anytime soon,” he admits. “But I used to play street ball in Sheffield and it’s just quite nice to have something so action-packed and I think basketball is one of these sports. Hopefully, they keep some of that sort of streetball element to it because it is super, super exciting.
“It’s very much known as an American thing but people actually forget that across Europe, it’s thriving as well. And in this country, it’s really struggling to find the same plateau as it does in Italy, Israel, Germany, Spain and France.
“So, I think with something like three on three, you’ve got a nice sort of starting block for a lot of people that might be sceptical.”
By this point, my allocated time with Akinwolere is dangerously close to elapsing, but there is still time for him to sum up why everyone should tune in to the BBC’s coverage this summer.
“It’s a really good opportunity to potentially see sports you’ve never seen before, get a glimpse of stars of the future and some of the greatest stars operating at the moment in time.”
The Games start on Thursday, July 28th and run until Monday, August 8th. Birmingham has finally got its turn to be the home of some sporting history and as its most loyal supporter, Akinwolere will be there to guide you through all the twists and turns.