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Leading A Global Sports Event During COVID

Sir John Crabtree explains……

by Keerat

Sir John Crabtree OBE – former President of Birmingham Chamber of Commerce & current Lord Lieutenant of the West Midlands


It had been raining all day and we met at the Commonwealth games headquarters – three months ( May 22) before over a million people and 6500 athletes would descend onto the City of Birmingham to get immersed in the world of athletics for the 2022 Commonwealth games.

Of course, it is easy to forget but the country was only now gradually coming out of covid and as Chair of the 2022 Commonwealth Games Organising Committee, the journey for John Crabtree had been a ‘topsy turvy’ one. Appointed in 2018 as Chair, the Committee and John only had 4 years to build and plan for the biggest event to come to the city in its history. Typically, the planning horizon is normally 8 years.

Johns’ CV is an impressive and extensive one – he joined one of Birmingham’s largest law firms in 1971 and remained until 2003 by which stage, he had become senior partner. He had been voted as UK lawyer of the year in the same year and his considerable achievements include an OBE and a past presidential role at the greater Chambers of Commerce.



As Lord Lieutenant and various other roles including chair of various businesses including the Hippodrome Theatre, how could he have the capacity of take on this considerable and important role?

‘I knew the enormity of the role and its importance to the region and so I was honoured to be asked. What nobody knew then was that 2020 would be hit by a global pandemic and all of its implications, including the downsizing of the Tokyo Games, in terms of how they delayed their games by a year and even then, without spectators’.


How did he and team cope with this ?

‘Lockdown was a shock but there was not enough time to reflect. We moved onto teams, zooms and all the various tools to get things down.

Yes, we knew that we might suffer the same fate as Tokyo with capital projects particularly under threat. Thankfully, our contractors to whom we are indebted, worked through the period to make sure that all the projects were concluded.

The athlete’s village clearly was now a problem as we knew that we could not finish it in time because of covid, so we set about negotiating with partners including local universities and the NEC ( The National Exhibition Centre) to find alternative solutions.

What you have to remember was that we were effectively a start-up – we were still recruiting during a pandemic. It was not easy.’


I reminded him that leadership is truly tested in times of crisis and how did it affect him personally?

‘It’s all about decisions and the timely fashion that you make those calls. Whilst we were dealing with a lot of stakeholders, previous business experience of dealing with crisis did not make it that difficult because as a team you learn to make the right decisions at the right time.

We were fortunate that the region and its stakeholders really worked well together – it really was a case of fantastic collaboration – which is something historical as this region is not known for partnership working. There was no desire from anyone to ‘landgrab’ – this was both unique and very helpful.’


With such a short deadline to complete the games and the fact that the Tokyo Games took place in empty stadiums – how much of a problem was it to attract sponsors?

‘It was difficult and remember we were spending money on COVID planning ( which for obvious reasons had not been anticipated when granted the right to host the events) as we were not sure whether we would have to have the games without any spectators. The sponsorship came in late, but we attracted more sponsorship than any previous games.’

We spoke at length about his leadership style, and he appeared very relaxed despite the fact that there was going to be a rail strike on the opening day of the Games. It would be disappointing if it did happen. The strikes did take place and continue to prevail even at the time of writing in January 23.

But sitting in January, we can reflect on the huge success of the Games. Record number of tickets sold, a fantastic and diverse attendance and lauded by all as being the most inclusive of all the games to date.

Despite the huge success of the Games – the big question remains especially as a recent report ( House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (Jan 23)) castigated the London Olympic Games ( 2012) of having had no impact in terms of sport participation even as a result of a spend of £8 billion.


What legacy can we expect from the Commonwealth Games?

‘The Secretary of State at the time referred to the Games putting Birmingham “on the map”.  I would not have put it that way,’ responds John.

‘We’re a great City and we’ve been on the map for well over a century and of course longer than that as the birth of the Industrial Revolution.  But the Games certainly presented Birmingham and the region as the truly international and global centre that we are.  More than anything, for me, it demonstrated the wonderful warmth, energy, and sense of unity of our people.  They did us proud!



On a practical level – there has been a phenomenal level of interest when it comes to the pipeline for Foreign Direct Investment in Birmingham and the wider West Midlands. The world class aquatic swimming centre in Smethwick ( Black Country) is extraordinary for the residents and the much-improved Alexander Stadium has already secured the World Athletics Championship.’

John has always championed the city and recalls how a bustling city known for its manufacturing prowess had seen its decline of GVA ( Gross Value added) from 38% to single figures. And of course, this 40-year decline was then followed by a period of austerity immediately after the financial crisis – a chance to put the City and the West Midlands on the map. Yet another reason to answer the call to Chair the Commonwealth Organising Committee to act as a catalyst to get communities together.

Other elements include ensuring that school children are encouraged to get fitter and healthier by taking an interest in sport. ‘We plan to include over 1 million children across the region.

By encouraging procurement for local businesses, we hope to increase sustainability of businesses whilst increasing employability for up to 6000 young people.



I also know in my capacity at Lord Lieutenant where we oversee citizens from the round the world becoming British citizens. These games allowed them and other communities to become fully immersed in the games and appreciate their place in the city and region.’

Ultimately, the Games were a huge success and to what extent were his dealings as a chair with the executives instrumental in getting things done especially in the middle of a health crisis with most people working remotely.

‘You have to the right team in place, so recruitment is important and then you have to trust them to get on with it. Our CEO – Ian Reid was superb in keeping everybody in line and my role is to take the strategy to bed with me every night. You have to keep the goalposts moving.’


And how important is self-awareness and goal setting I ask?

‘ I have never believed in goal setting – it’s all about building blocks – never settle – look to do your best – always try to add value and good things will come to you.

It’s the New Year’s Day and John Crabtree is now Sir John Crabtree (King Charles first honours list) a fitting recognition for his wonderful and sterling work with various charities and of course reflects the fantastic success of the Commonwealth Games.

I, of course emailed John with my congratulations to which he replied promptly in his usual modest manner – ‘thank you’ – self-effacing as always.

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