Edinburgh 1986: The Unfriendly Games

Liz Lynch celebrating at the 1986 Commonwealth Games
Liz Lynch - now McColgan - won gold at the 1986 Commonwealth Games

Thirty years ago, the Commonwealth Games came to Edinburgh, providing many great sporting memories against a backdrop of political drama, controversy, financial turmoil and tales of heartache.

Highlights included an effortless 800m and 1500m double for Steve Cram and Tessa Sanderson's javelin battle with Fatima Whitbread.

Steve Redgrave won three rowing golds, Steve Ovett breezed his way to 5000m victory, Lennox Lewis was crowned heavyweight champion in the boxing ring and the bristly Daley Thompson performed Herculean feats in the decathlon.

On the final day, a Scots heroine emerged when Liz Lynch - McColgan as she later became - won the first-ever women's Commonwealth 10,000m, one of three gold medals for the host nation.

But it was an event marred by politics.

Liz McColgan was the star of the 1986 Games for Scotland
Liz McColgan - then known as Liz Lynch - was the star of the 1986 Games for Scotland

Months earlier, the Games were threatened with outright cancellation when a succession of nations - mostly from the African continent - refused to attend due to UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher's intransigence regarding economic sanctions against South Africa's apartheid regime.

One by one, the dominoes toppled and 32 of the 59 eligible nations eventually boycotted, crippling the advertising revenue and minimising the significance of the event as a sporting contest.

Finances were looking so bleak in the weeks leading up to the opening ceremony that organisers desperately turned to Robert Maxwell, the flamboyant and controversial owner of the Daily Record and Daily Mirror newspapers, who promptly installed himself as chairman of the organising committee without ever putting his hand in his pocket.

It was a shambles. Maxwell held court with the media on a daily basis, blurting out malapropisms and recruiting a suspected war criminal to help him as the event teetered on the brink of total collapse.

Somehow the Games limped on and Edinburgh City Council spent decades paying for them.

Annette Cowley was banned from competing at the Games only hours before she was due to race
Annette Cowley was banned from competing at the Games only hours before she was due to race

There were feeble attempts from the Commonwealth Games Association to lure back boycotting nations.

South African-born duo Zola Budd and Annette Cowley were banned from competing for England on residency grounds.

Cowley, who was then the British 100m freestyle champion, was dramatically expelled from the Games on the eve of her race following a court battle to retain her place.

"It was a pretty unique situation and watching my race was very hard," Cowley told BBC Scotland in 2014.

"Especially because I knew I could have won and the time that I did at the trials was actually faster than the girl who won the race from Canada.

"There were cameramen tripping over each other because everyone wanted the front-page pic and the story - and I just remember thinking 'all I want to do is swim a race, you know?'

"It really was very, very tough and very disappointing."

Cowley's loss would be South Africa's gain; the boycott helped focus international attention on the country's regime and, by the time of the next games in Auckland, Nelson Mandela was a free man.

Edinburgh delivered many great sporting highlights but will be best remembered as a Games that helped changed the fate of a nation.

'Boycotts and Broken Dreams: The Story of The 1986 Commonwealth Games' will be shown on BBC TWO Scotland at 2240 BST on Sunday 31 July and will be available on iPlayer for 30 days afterwards.