Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

On Saturday (May 21), Birmingham’s newly-reconstructed Alexander Stadium, imminent centrepiece of this summer's Commonwealth Games, has its grand opening.

The venue, which was knocked down and redeveloped in December 2019 at a cost of £72.4million ($97.9 million/€80.3 million), staged a test event last month in the UK Midlands Army Athletics Championships and now stands ready to stage the second Diamond League meeting of the season.

Among those billed to set foot on the new blue track and field event runways are Canada’s Olympic 200 metres champion Andre De Grasse, Jamaican Olympic 110m hurdles champion Hansle Parchment, joint Olympic high jump champion Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy and South Korea’s world indoor high jump champion Woo Sang-hyeok.

The main focus in the women’s events will fall on a 100m that includes Jamaica’s double Olympic 100 and 200m champion Elaine Thompson-Herah and Britain’s world 200m champion Dina Asher-Smith, while home fans will also be following closely the fortunes of Laura Muir and Keely Hodgkinson, respective Tokyo 2020 silver medallists in the 1500m and 800m.

With the Commonwealth Games athletics events due to take place from August 2 to 7 - during which time temporary seating will bring the spectator capacity up to 30,000 before it reverts to 18,000 - this special sporting area of Perry Barr is about to experience what promise to be unprecedented levels of excitement.

That said there have been many dramatic and arresting track and field moments at an arena originally built in 1975 as the new home for Birchfield Harriers Athletics Club.

While visiting the revamped arena - the Alexander II stadium? - Iwan Thomas, who won Commonwealth and European 400m titles for Wales and Britain in his annus mirabilis of 1998, opined that it could become "the future home for our sport".

Thomas added: "My mind is blown by how brilliant this place looks. I wish this was around in my era 20-odd years ago as the stadium looks fantastic, the track looks quick.

"It is state of the art and what you would expect so fair play to Birmingham for making this. It is awesome."

Iwan Thomas won the AAA Championships 400 metres at Birmingham's Alexander Stadium in 44.36sec, which still stands as the British record ©Getty Images
Iwan Thomas won the AAA Championships 400 metres at Birmingham's Alexander Stadium in 44.36sec, which still stands as the British record ©Getty Images

"For me, the Alexander Stadium has always been the home of athletics," Thomas continued.

"People in the past argue that it is Crystal Place but for me this has always been where the AAAs were held and where I ran my fastest time ever so it will always be a place that is dear to my heart.

"Looking at the stadium now, this could be the future home for our sport.”

Thomas’s fastest time of 44.36sec, set at the 1997 Amateur Athletic Association (AAA) Championships that incorporated the trials for that year’s World Championships in Athens, still stands as the British record - a statistic either impressive or unimpressive depending on which way you look at it.

The AAA Championships, last held in 2006, dated back to 1880. Birmingham hosted them three times in the first decade, at Aston Lower Grounds. When, more than a century later, the event returned to the city it was to the Alexander Stadium, in 1984, and 1986, and then from 1988 through to 2003 with the exception of the 1994 staging.

These were the years when this arena was truly at the heart of British athletics - a position that now seems open to it again given the lamentable abandonment of Crystal Palace and the realpolitik that forced the sport out of its increasingly tenuous share of the London 2012 Olympic stadium now occupied by Premier League football team West Ham United.

The record run by Thomas took one hundredth of a second off the mark of 1996 Atlanta Olympic silver medallist Roger Black, who was unable to defend his title on that day because of a viral complaint.

For many years, the deal was when the AAA Championships incorporated trials that the first two home would be selected and there would be a third discretionary place. On this occasion that place went to the third man home on the day behind Thomas and Mark Richardson, namely Jamie Baulch. Black had to settle for a place in the 4x400m relay team. Britain won silver behind the United States, but that became gold in 2009 when the US quartet were disqualified when Antonio Pettigrew admitted to using human growth hormone and erythropoietin (EPO) between 1997 and 2003.

The following year there was a selection row that left Black out in the cold again, a row that reverberated to the point where it made one of the main items on the BBC TV news.

Black, 32, who had battled back to fitness after illness and injury, had been so set on seeking a third European 400m title in Budapest that year that he had postponed his marriage.

He delivered a convincing time, 44.71, but that was only enough for fourth as Thomas won in 44.50, Richardson clocked 44.62 and maverick sprinter Solomon Wariso, best known as a 200m runner, produced a startling flourish to take third place in 44.68 despite falling heavily over the line.

Wariso was reported to have told Black the day before the race that he wanted to run the 200 rather than 400m in Budapest and had only entered the 400m in Birmingham to get a place in the relay squad.

Solomon Wariso,
Solomon Wariso, "an absolute Space Cadet" and the man who displaced Roger Black from a 400m place at the 1998 European Championships after an inspired performance at the Birmingham trials ©Getty Images

After the race Wariso said: "I wouldn’t mind being left out of the 400 if they gave me a place in the 200m. I would understand. Because Roger’s the boy, isn’t he? He’s a national icon.”

Wariso got the discretionary place. Black described himself as "devastated and mystified" in announcing his retirement 12 years after bursting onto the scene by winning Commonwealth and European titles.

Meanwhile the amiable Wariso - described by Thomas as "an absolute space cadet" - announced he was postponing his wedding in order to concentrate on Budapest…

Ten years earlier the main run of Alexander Stadium AAA Championships got off to another selection row that reverberated internationally rather than nationally after Sebastian Coe, seeking to pursue a third successive Olympic 1500m title at the Seoul 1988 Games later that summer, failed to progress from the heats.

Peter Elliott, who would win silver in Seoul, and Steve Crabb took the two places on the day. And Coe's chances of getting the discretionary place were effectively done for by the fact that Britain’s 1500m world record-holder Steve Cram had chosen to run the 800m at the trials, winning majestically from Tom McKean.

The selectors wanted to give Coe the third discretionary place in the 800m, but the British Amateur Athletic Board Council overturned their recommendation by 11 votes to 10 and the place went to Elliott.

Coe’s father and coach, Peter, told John Rodda of The Guardian: "It appears to be a political decision. I believe they have stripped him of his dignity by this decision. Seb has paid a very high price for being vice-chairman of the Sports Council."

He added: "There are a lot of people gunning for him on the council [the British Amateur Athletic Board Council]. He is still the best British middle-distance runner in Britain and they should have picked him to defend his 1500 metres title. But there were scores to settle. He upset a lot of people when the committee he chaired to look at finding financial support for all the Olympic sports came up with over £5 million ($6.1 million/€5.9 million), but none of it went to athletics."

The first British meeting of longtime rivals Sebastian Coe, left, and Steve Ovett took place in Birmingham in 1989 - and ended in intrigue and controversy ©Getty Images
The first British meeting of longtime rivals Sebastian Coe, left, and Steve Ovett took place in Birmingham in 1989 - and ended in intrigue and controversy ©Getty Images

Such was the impact of the story that the Daily Mirror ran a campaign to get Coe to the Games - cruelly, crassly and inaccurately portraying Coe as a thoroughbred to Elliott the carthorse. There were serious international waves too as the President of the International Olympic Committee, Juan Antonio Samaranch, tried unsuccessfully to manufacture a wildcard place for the double gold medallist, and India indicated it was willing to include him in its national team given his mother's Indian heritage.

Those Championships also marked the end of the Olympic road for the Moscow 1980 800m gold medallist Steve Ovett, who could only manage fourth place in the 1500m.

A year on, however, the Alexander Stadium was the scene of further intrigue as the two runners whose rivalry had electrified an era, Coe and Ovett, met - incredibly - for the first time on a British track.

Those were the first AAA Championships I covered, and the day before the 1500m final I was in the lobby of the Holiday Inn hotel with my press colleagues Neil Wilson, then of The Independent, and Colin Hart of The Sun. These two then made a rather mysterious exit. It turned out they had a rendezvous arranged with Ovett, who claimed to have been offered a subvention, or payment, to race, and that Coe had not. Good story.

Ovett threatened to withdraw because he felt it was unfair but was persuaded to take part.

He ran poorly in a race won by Coe, failing to earn a top-three place, but it was his post-race performance that earned the headlines as he repeated his comments during a tearful interview on national television.

''I regret running badly against Seb,'' he said. "I wanted to do myself justice, but that wasn't the real Steve Ovett out there. I was fighting for my integrity.

''Sometimes the sport has got to be taught a lesson. Some people are using it for their own ends, and they have got to be stopped.''

Tony Morrell's apparent fisticuffs during the 1990 AAA Championships 1500m final in Birmingham came as the result of a mistaken surmise ©Getty Images
Tony Morrell's apparent fisticuffs during the 1990 AAA Championships 1500m final in Birmingham came as the result of a mistaken surmise ©Getty Images

The British Amateur Athletics Board's promotions officer and official paymaster for the sport, former police officer Andy Norman, insisted: ''No athlete at these championships received a direct subvention. No money was offered to Steve Ovett or Sebastian Coe by myself or any other official of the AAA to my knowledge.''

Happy days. The following year the AAA Championships - serving as trials for the 1990 European Championships in Split - produced slapstick rather than high drama as attention in the men’s 1500m was diverted from the clear winner, Neil Horsfield to a confrontation on the back straight as Tony Morrell, the European indoor bronze medallist, and Steven Halliday, both out of the running after a collision, were involved in a heated exchange before Morrell appeared to lose his rag and clout the Yorkshireman round the head.

Morrell, a born-again Christian, was guided, seething, towards the stand, convinced that Halliday had barged him onto the infield. But the authorities took a different view as they disqualified second-place finisher Mark Rowland, the 3,000m steeplechase bronze medallist at the Seoul 1988 Olympics, for barging Halliday, who then appeared to cannon into Morrell.

Halliday, however, said he was not aware of Rowland and that Morrell had simply tugged him back in panic. Morrell claimed he had merely put his hand towards Halliday’s head and said: "Why don’t you use this?" Halliday had turned away instinctively. "I thought he was going to hit me but he didn’t make contact."

Morrell didn’t make contact with Split either, despite hinting darkly that he would retire if he wasn’t picked. Oh happy days.

Two years on, the fisticuffs for an event which served as trials for the Barcelona 1992 Olympics were all verbal. After Jack Buckner, the 1986 European 5,000m champion, had returned from injury to win in Birmingham - thus claiming what was effectively the third place behind two men already pretty certain of selection in Rob Denmark and Ian Hamer - there was criticism from the Universiade champion John Mayock over the presence in the race of Kenyan pacemaker Anthony Kiprono.

"Jack ran very well, but it spoilt things for me," Mayock said. "I don’t think it’s fair to have a pacemaker in a championship event."

Buckner responded, a little waspishly: "I don’t think it makes any difference whether there is a pacemaker or not if you stick in laps of 61, 62 and 63 seconds in the middle of it like I did."

Tessa Sanderson, the 1984 Olympic javelin champion, was less than thrilled by her billing at the 1992 AAA Championships and Barcelona Olympic trials at the Alexander Stadium ©Getty Images
Tessa Sanderson, the 1984 Olympic javelin champion, was less than thrilled by her billing at the 1992 AAA Championships and Barcelona Olympic trials at the Alexander Stadium ©Getty Images

Meanwhile Tessa Sanderson had a cloud on her horizon despite a women’s javelin victory that had earned her a fifth successive Olympic appearance. The 34-year-old, who had won gold at the Los Angeles 1984 Games, was angry that her final had taken place in a virtually empty arena at 11:30 in the morning.

She then hurled a verbal spear at the meeting director Norman, then engaged to be married to her former javelin rival and bête noire Fatima Whitbread.

"Andy Norman knows that this event was never on so early when Fatima Whitbread was competing," she said. "I’m sick to death of being victimised in my event. As one of our medal-contending events it should have had a lot more respect." Norman remained relatively diplomatically silent.

The next day’s programme witnessed one of the all-time uplifting AAA victories as 20-year-old medical student Curtis Robb, from Liverpool, moved from seventh to first in the space of the final lap of the 800m to win in 1min 46.20sec, a personal best by a second and a half.

"The first lap was so fast that I couldn’t keep up," he said. "But I had to go at 300 metres. I didn’t want to watch the Olympics on television."

He looked like the future of British middle-distance running - and had it not been for a cruel run of injuries, and, perhaps, the demands of his off-track career, he might have been. As it was he finished sixth in that summer’s Olympic final, and missed a medal by one place at the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart.

The 1995 Championships were marked by a strange aberration on the part of both Linford Christie, then Olympic, world, European and Commonwealth 100m champion, and the British Athletics Federation (BAF) President Peter Radford.

On the opening Friday, Christie - who with fellow star performers Colin Jackson and John Regis was involved in an acrimonious pay row with the BAF - eased off too early in his heat, failing to claim the sole automatic qualifying place, and running too slowly to progress as a fastest loser.

Jackson, meanwhile, prompted some local outrage by choosing to compete - it was assumed for money - at a meeting in Padua rather than taking part in Birmingham.

World and joint Olympic high jump champion Mutaz Barshim of Qatar has performed at the heights in Birmingham, clearing 2.38m in 2014 and, in 2017, 2.40m ©Getty Images
World and joint Olympic high jump champion Mutaz Barshim of Qatar has performed at the heights in Birmingham, clearing 2.38m in 2014 and, in 2017, 2.40m ©Getty Images

Christie’s demise was unfortunate and surprising. But not, ultimately, costly as the BAF accorded him a privilege accorded to no other athlete in the Championships’ 115-year history by allowing him to compete in Saturday’s final as a guest, with a ninth lane allowing for his addition.

Radford said the exception had been made "because of the status of the competitor". The status was not in question; but the precedent was.

Christie, unsurprisingly, won, although the title went to second-placed Darren Braithwaite. "I couldn’t do anything about it," Braithwaite said. "It was politics."

In 2004 the AAA Championships and trials shifted to Manchester’s Sportcity, which had served as the warm-up track during the 2002 Commonwealth Games. But the Alexander Stadium was still staging top-class athletics, and in 2004 it witnessed a world record as Russia’s Yelena Isinbayeva improved her mark to 4.89 metres in an international meeting on July 25.

Since 2011 - with the exception of pandemic year 2020 and 2021, when Gateshead took up the baton during Alexander Stadium rebuilding - Birmingham has hosted a British Grand Prix meeting which has frequently doubled as a Diamond League meeting, as it will on Saturday.

The first Diamond League incorporation offered two high-profile performances as Jamaica's Asafa Powell won the men’s 100m in 9.91sec, while in the 100m hurdles Australia’s Sally Pearson, who would go on to win that year’s world title, set an area record of 12.84.

In 2014, Mutaz Barshim of Qatar earned the first of what would be a series of high jump victories in Birmingham, clearing 2.38 metres. Three years later the man who now holds the world title and shares the Olympic title returned to clear 2.40m.

That year of 2017 the newly installed Olympic women’s 100 and 200m champion Thompson-Herah won over the shorter distance in 10.97sec, and Dutch runner Sifan Hassan set a national 3,000 metres record of 8min 28.90sec.

Other highlights include the British 3,000m record of 7:32.62 run by Mo Farah in 2016, a year when Cuba’s Yarisley Silva set a women’s pole vault Diamond League record of 4.84 metres. In 2015, the top performer on the day had been Kenyan javelin thrower Julius Yego, whose final effort of 91.39m, an area record, was initially disallowed after being deemed to have finished outside the landing area but then declared valid after officials had extended the line of the sector to make certain.

Another Alexander Stadium discussion point. What will be next?