The Thursday sky over Birmingham is grey, almost stereotypically so. The wind has bite, the heatwave that swept the country a week ago long gone. The city centre has a quiet hum about it; there are boats on the canal and cars on the road and people hustling about everywhere, as people tend to in city centres. The architecture is grey and brown and a grey-ish blue as far as the eye can see. The water in the canals are a deep, dark, hue.
In between all this, though, there are splashes of colour. A dash of yellow here, a splash of pink there. Then you stumble upon little statues of a bull on two feet, coloured in a mosaic - yellow, blue, orange, violet, pink, green, all of them bright. His name is Perry, he's the mascot and he's here to make you smile; the 2022 Commonwealth Games are in town and Perry's around to make sure you don't miss it.
Not that you'd miss it at the airport - there is a designated lane for athletes and anyone else who are in the city for the Games. There are banners across the place, and at the train station next door. The Games were supposed to be hosted in Durban this year, but economic issues saw Birmingham step up. There are economic issues here too - the day before the opening ceremony, the trains have gone on strike, workers demanding a fair wage.
It's a reasonable demand, and you have to make it when the world is watching, so without complaint I pile into a cab. Zulfiqar, the driver, is intrigued by the Games - and not just in terms of improved revenue opportunities. He's from Pakistan and is excited about any potential India-Pakistan clash in hockey. When he learns I'm from the media, though, he lets out a nervous laugh and an "Oooo, dangerous fellow!" I tell him I just cover sports and there's relief at the other end - "writing about a Babar Azam cover drive just makes the world a better place, eh." He's got a point there.
Meanwhile, Dorothy, the receptionist at my hotel, couldn't really care less about the Games itself. She is originally from Poland but has been a Brummie for decades now and is just keen to let you know how best you can explore and enjoy her city. She speaks about the multiculturalism of the place with great pride and is glad the wider world will get to see it, even if only in glimpses.
The Commonwealth Games in itself are at first glance an anachronism, a throwback to a dark past of oppression and discrimination. Now the one thing connecting the nations that compete in these Games may be that the sun finally set on the Empire that once plundered them, but this isn't about those times. The Games are a reminder that sport can open bridges where once none seemed probable. It's about togetherness, and friendly competition, and joy.
Most of all, though, it's about the athletes themselves.
In a world where sports like athletics and table tennis and even hockey struggle to find the kind of regular headline attention that cricket and football do, this means something very special. It was special when Neeraj Chopra hurled his way to gold the last time around in Gold Coast, Australia, a first major foundation stone on the path to greatness. When Saina Nehwal dug deep to remind the watching world of the champion she once was. When Manu Bhaker, all of 16 then, announced herself to the nation. When Manika Batra and co. introduced table tennis to mainstream conversation. And it's always special when Mary Kom proves her GOATness. This is about them.
In 2022, Indians are the ones to beat in some events (hello, Ms. Sindhu, Ms. Chanu), and in others they face an impossible challenge (in the swimming pool, for instance). There's even women's cricket, another sport that strangely gets sidelined at times. Harmanpreet Kaur will take centre-stage again.
It's about them, people who have dedicated their lives to sport and just need a stage to showcase it. The Games are that stage.
The Indian athletics team were on the same flight as I was. They looked impossibly superior to everyone else on the flight as pure physical specimens: a reminder that all professional athletes are elite in a way, whatever their medal prospects. Come tomorrow they, and around 200 of their compatriots, and just over 5,000 of their peers will be giving it their all. On the track, in the field, at the courts and the tables and the... lawns. It will be unmissable action. I'll be watching, and hopefully so will you.
For now, though, Birmingham's very own Duran Duran awaits in a few hours. This is planet Earth, you're looking at planet Earth.