Wales is a sports mad country. Rugby may be the national sport, and football is, of course, immensely popular too, but Wales has also produced great cyclists, Olympians and cricketers, for example. Wales also loves a sports occasion, and the country (well, Cardiff at least), has been blessed in being able to host a range of major sporting events over the years, especially since the creation of the Millennium Stadium in 1999.
Over the last 21 years, an array of massive sporting events have come to Cardiff, especially in terms of Rugby World Cup matches in three different years, and English FA Cup and League Cup finals early in the 21st century. It hasn't all been about rugby and football however, as Wales has also hosts major a event in Speedway every year. In cricket, the Ashes have come to Cardiff in 2009 and 2015, and the World Half Marathon Championships were held in Cardiff in 2016 as well, for example.
Cardiff has got itself a reputation as a sporting event city at this stage (as well as a stag party city) due to the number of events that take place regularly either around the city or in what is now the Principality Stadium. The national stadium is potentially the most recognisable rugby stadium in the world, it is the biggest stadium in Europe with a retractable roof and is arguably the most well known building internationally of any kind in the country. Flocking to the Welsh capital for sport is now a given, and not just by people within Wales, but from around the UK.
The range of international sporting occasions that the small country of Wales has hosted is unbelievable. Some of the biggest sporting events in the world have now been held here, so with that in mind, here are just five of the biggest, most international, most spectacular and most watched sporting events that have ever taken place in Wales historically.
The 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games
The first major international sporting event, and perhaps still the biggest, to be hosted in Wales were the Empire Games in 1958. The Games were the forerunner to what we now consider to be the Commonwealth Games. It was the sixth iteration of the event, albeit hosted 12 years later by Cardiff than originally planned due to the Second World War, and Wales remains the smallest country to have hosted either the Empire or Commonwealth Games today.
The Games took place between 18-26 July 1958. Thirty-five nations sent a total of 1,122 athletes and 228 officials to the Cardiff Games. Across 94 events, 23 countries and dependencies won medals, including for the first time, Singapore, Ghana, Kenya and the Isle of Man. Australia and England dominated the medal table, so some things never change in that regard. Only nine sports were featured in the Cardiff Games, compared to 31 today, which were Athletics, Boxing, Cycling, Fencing, Lawn Bowls, Rowing, Swimming and Diving, Weightlifting and Wrestling.
The British Empire and Commonwealth Games, including the opening and closing ceremonies, were held at the Cardiff Arms Park in the centre of Cardiff. A new Wales Empire Pool was constructed for the event, on Wood St next to the Arms Park. The Sophia Gardens Pavilion was used for the boxing and wrestling events, and Maindy Stadium was used for cycling. Rowing took place a little further away, on Llyn Padarn in Llanberis, and cycling took place over a loop at Ogmore-by-Sea.
Additionally, the athletes' village was at RAF St. Athan, which is also a regularly haunt of Doctor Who incidentally. Unsurprisingly, accommodation was fairly basic. Overall, 178,000 tickets were eventually sold during the Games.
It was also notable for being South Africa’s last appearance at the Empire/Commonwealth Games until 1994. At Cardiff Arms Park, an anti-apartheid crowd protested at the all-white South African team; games organisers responded that non-white South Africans were ineligible as their associations were not affiliated to the international federations. South Africa left the Commonwealth in 1961 and next appeared at the Games in 1994.
For a long time, the Empire Games of 1958 remained by far the biggest sporting spectacle to take place in the country.
Rugby World Cup 1999
Perhaps the most memorable sporting event to be held in Wales, to the people of the country as least, was the Rugby World Cup of 1999. It combined Wales’ favourite sport with a brand-spanking, shiny, new, world class sporting facility in the Millennium Stadium, which was created for the event.
1999 was an interesting time for rugby as a whole. The previous World Cup in 1995 was an overwhelming success in South Africa, bringing a sense of colour and glamour to the sport, not to mention a positive narrative, that captured international audiences beyond rugby fans. Professionalism was only four years old for Rugby Union as well, and this would be the first World Cup in the northern hemisphere since the old amateur days. Also, arguably the biggest star that the sport has ever had was at the peak of his powers in 1999, Jonah Lomu of New Zealand. Even Wales was feeling a little more optimistic than usual having beaten England in the Five Nations earlier in the year, as well as South Africa at the first international held at the new stadium.
The opening ceremony was a day that those present would never forget. In a sea of colour and emotion, Dame Shirley Bassey (in a Wales flag dress), Sir Bryn Terfel and Max Boyce sang and the Prince of Wales welcomed the world to Wales on October 1st.
Wales opened the tournament with a win over Argentina before losing in a memorable thriller with Somoa. A comfortable win over Japan followed but Wales were rather forgettably knocked-out by eventual world champions Australia, who beat France in the final in Cardiff.
Matches were also played at the Racecourse Ground in Wrexham and Stradey Park in Llanelli during the group stages, and while the tournament was also held in England, Scotland, Ireland and France, it was very much Wales’ World Cup.
Rugby World Cup matches have been held in Wales again since 1999, with memorable games being played in Cardiff in 2007 and 2015 as well, as France and England hosted the tournament respectively. In 2007, one of the best rugby matches played this century, and perhaps the best game to have been played at the Millennium Stadium, saw France perform a massive upset by beating New Zealand 20-18 in the World Cup quarter final.
2010 Ryder Cup
Perhaps the biggest international sporting event to take place in Wales since the Empire Games of 1958 was the Ryder Cup, at Celtic Manor Resort, in 2010.
Golf’s premier team event was held on the purpose built Twenty Ten golf course, just outside Newport, in October 2010. This is the only event on this list not to be (primarily) held in Cardiff, although it didn’t stop school children in Cardiff getting a day off on Friday October 1st anyway in order to defuse potential traffic congestion from the city's hotels and airport.
It turned out to be one of the most unique stagings of the biennial matches between Europe and the US as it had to be extended to four days for the first time in its history due to severe weather conditions. If anything that added to the drama of the occasion, which came down to its last singles match between Graeme McDowell and Hunter Mahon, with the Northern Irishman beating his American counterpart in the unseasonable sunshine and regaining the Ryder Cup for the European Team. That made the event its closest and most competitive staging since 1999 as well.
Sir Terry Matthews was instrumental in bringing the event to Wales in the first place. The Welsh billionaire is also the owner of Celtic Manor, and pumped millions into the facility to bring it up to international standard, along with the Welsh Government. The event has even managed to leave a legacy, with Wales seeing a surge in golf-related visitors in the years immediately following 2010, the NATO Summit of 2014 coming to Celtic Manor, and the creation of the International Convention Centre next to Celtic Manor has been bringing more international conferences and events to the country since it opened last year.
Olympic Games 2012
The Olympic Games came to Cardiff in 2012. But weren’t they held in London we hear you say. Yes indeed, but the football tournament was held across Great Britain, with games in England, Scotland and in Wales. As a result, 11 Olympic football matches were played at the Millennium Stadium across July and August 2012, including games of the Great Britain men’s and women’s teams.
In fact, the Olympic Games started in Cardiff that year, even before the infamous opening ceremony at the Olympic Stadium in London, as the football tournament started before all of the other sports. The opening game saw the Great Britain Women beat New Zealand, followed immediately by another women’s match between Brazil and Cameroon.
In the men’s tournament, the three biggest names, Great Britain, Brazil and eventual winners Mexico, all played in Cardiff. Team GB played two games at the Millennium Stadium, beating Uruguay in the group stage before losing to South Korea on penalties in the quarter-final. 70,000 people attended the latter match, as was the case for the women’s team’s group stage game with Brazil.
Regarding any actual Welsh involvement on the playing side, there were no Welsh players selected for the women’s team, but the men’s squad included five Welsh players, namely Neil Taylor, Joe Allen, Aaron Ramsey, Craig Bellamy and captain Ryan Giggs. No Scottish players were included as their FA refused to participate, although there were Scottish players included in the Women’s team.
The city of Cardiff definitely got in to the Olympic spirit in the summer of 2012, there were sporting games and big screens set up on The Hayes in the middle of the city centre, Olympic banners lining the lamp posts of Mary St, the Olympic rings stood in front of the Prince of Wales’ Fountain outside City Hall, and attendances were higher than expected overall, as Wales made the most of this rare opportunity to host some Olympic sport.
Champions League Final 2017
The biggest club football match in the world came to Cardiff in June 2017, as Real Madrid played Juventus in the Champions League Final at the Millennium Stadium. Wales became the smallest country to ever host the final, and Cardiff became the smallest city to host the final since Bari, in Italy, did so in 1991.
Real Madrid ultimately beat the Italian champions 4-1 in the final, pulling away comfortably in the second half. Coincidentally, Welsh superstar Gareth Bale played in the final for the Spanish club and won the third of his four European Cups in his home city.
Hosting the Champions League Final is big business these days. As a result, the majority of Cardiff city centre was closed down to traffic across June 3rd 2017, including Westgate St, Castle St, Wood St and Kingsway. There was a fan park in Bute Park, a football pitch on the water in Cardiff Bay, and the walls of Cardiff Castle were lined with banners representing each of the clubs that had contested that year's tournament. There were an estimated 170,000 people in the city that day, with not just visitors coming from Spain and Italy, but from across the UK in order to experience the atmosphere. For an average Six Nations game, there would be in the region of 80-100,000 people in the city. Add to all of that that the London Bridge terrorist attack took place in London the night before the final, and the Manchester bombing took place a few weeks earlier as well, and therefore security in the city was extremely tight across the weekend. For security reasons it had already been decided that the stadium’s retractable roof would be closed for the match, making it the only European Cup final to be played under a closed roof.
The match is also noteworthy as it marked the first time the trophy had been retained since it became the Champions League in the 1992-93 season. Additionally, by this stage the stadium was widely known at the Principality Stadium, but as the building society is not a Uefa sponsor it was still known as the Millennium, or otherwise the National Stadium of Wales, for the occasion.
Getting the final in the first place was a major coup for the city, as the game is believed to be aired in more than 200 countries with an estimated global audience of more than 165 million. However, it was not an easy decision to bring the final to Wales. While the stadium is more than adequate for the event, it will come as no surprise to hear that Cardiff lacks hotel rooms (Uefa alone needed 5,000 rooms), space in the city centre for corporate hospitality, and the airport is quite small by capital city standards. However, having missed out on hosting games in Euro 2020, as Dublin, Glasgow and London were all chosen from this area of Europe, Cardiff and the FAW set about overcoming the odds, working with the likes of Celtic Manor and Bristol Airport, and bringing football’s biggest club game to the Welsh capital.
That is just five of the many, many major sporting events to have taken place in Wales over the years, especially this century. We didn't even mention the Cricket World Cup in 2019, or any of the Six Nations Grand Slam deciders that draw hundreds of thousands of people into Cardiff, but perhaps that will have an article of its own in the near future.
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