Brian Oliver ©ITG

If there was supposed to be an "end of empire" feel about the 1970 British Commonwealth Games, nobody told the newsreel announcer for British Movietone.

For the first time since the Games started in 1930, the word "Empire" was dropped, along with imperial measurements that had been used throughout the British Empire and beyond for 150 years.

While the six miles became the 10,000 metres and the high jump was won by eight centimetres rather than three and a quarter inches, the Movietone man was not having it.

Speaking English like a 1950s army officer or golf club captain – the sort of voice guaranteed to rile pretty much anybody from Scotland or Wales – he clearly did not agree with these new-fangled measurements.

Mary Peters of Northern Ireland, referred to merely as "Peters", won the shot put with 52 feet, three inches, he announced, and "Brill of Canada" – 16-year-old Debbie Brill – took the high jump with a leap of five feet, 10 inches.

If only the commentator had known about what Brill got up to in Edinburgh, more of which later, he might have had a breakdown.

There was an indication of his views about women and their place in the world in another comment about that shot put contest: "Ladies who heave a lump of metal this far can be downright dangerous with a rolling pin."

The entire seven-minute newsreel report failed to capture the mood of the athletes and spectators in Edinburgh as talk of "the friendly Games" first started, before it took a stronger hold at the next edition in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1974.

Nor did it dwell on the good fortune of Edinburgh 1970 in avoiding a potentially disastrous boycott only weeks before the Opening Ceremony.

The Games might have been remembered as the worst ever hosted rather than, at the time, the best.

The Edinburgh 1970 Games took place successfully after fighting off a political storm ©Getty Images
The Edinburgh 1970 Games took place successfully after fighting off a political storm ©Getty Images

Thirteen African nations announced their intent to withdraw, and many more from Asia and the Caribbean would join them, unless a planned tour of England by South Africa's whites-only cricket team was cancelled.

The cricketers were due to be playing while the Commonwealth Games were going on; feelings were so strong that Uganda, Pakistan and Zambia officially withdrew while negotiations continued.

Opposition to South Africa was well organised politically, via the Supreme Council of Sport in Africa at the negotiating table, and on-the-ground, thanks to the efforts of anti-apartheid protesters.

Peter Hain, a white South African who had been jailed and exiled before his teenage years were over, was chair of the Stop the Seventy Tour campaign, whose aim was to force the cancellation of the cricket tour.

The Supreme Council had given notice of the African nations' intent to boycott Edinburgh, while protesters suggested that the Commonwealth Games, with or without African participation, would be targeted in the quest to raise awareness of apartheid.

There had been a public outcry in Britain less than two years earlier when England withdrew from a cricket tour to South Africa because the host nation effectively tried to exclude Basil D'Oliveria from England's team on grounds of race.

When the Springboks, South Africa's whites-only rugby team, toured the British Isles in the winter of 1969-1970 there was ceaseless disruption of matches by protesters who also gave the touring team endless grief on their stopovers and travels.

The Springboks' tour was "all but ruined", Hain said.

Something similar might have happened to the Commonwealth Games but less than eight weeks before the Opening Ceremony the Edinburgh 1970 Organising Committee, for whom a boycott would be a disaster, had the news they wanted.

On May 16, the International Olympic Committee expelled South Africa.

Cricket, like rugby, was not an Olympic sport but within a week strong pressure from Britain's Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, led to the cricket tour being cancelled.

Uganda, Pakistan and Zambia were back in, and all three did well in the medals table in Edinburgh.

Throughout all the talk of a boycott Sir Herbert Brechin, chair of the Edinburgh Organising Committee, had angered some of his fellow Board members by talking of "blackmail" by the African nations.

Brechin survived a vote of confidence and would be proved right in his assertion that "this city will host the finest Commonwealth Games yet".

For some athletes, the fun started before the Opening Ceremony when they travelled north to compete in the Highland Games at Kinlochleven and Inverness in the week before the Commonwealth Games started.

Lachie Stewart wins the 10,000 metres at Edinburgh 1970 ©Getty Images
Lachie Stewart wins the 10,000 metres at Edinburgh 1970 ©Getty Images

A team of 11 from Jamaica, Canada, New Zealand and Scotland competed in Inverness on the track and in the throwing events – on grass – while Australia sent a team of field athletes to Kinlochleven.

The Inverness team was managed by Herb McKenley, the Jamaican who won a relay gold medal at the 1952 Olympic Games.

The Scottish Distance Running History website details another example of the "unspoiled and spontaneous attitudes" of the competitors, and a famous coach, at the Highland Games.

On a rest day for athletics, Monday July 20, a number of England tracksuits could be seen in the crowd at the Burntisland Highland Games in Fife.

The coach Tom McNab, a Scot, persuaded them to enjoy a day out, and ended up running as a late entry in the 200m handicap.

"He had what looked like a generous handicap ahead of the field, but after the gun went off, he was overtaken, one by one, by all the other sprinters to the jeers of the English team," reported spectator Graham MacDonald.

"Then Tony Wadhams, one of their triple jumpers, decided he would have a go at the caber which was lying just inside the track. He couldn't get it off the ground – to much cheering from the spectators."

Everybody played their part in making the athletics at Edinburgh 1970 the finest track and field meeting ever held in Scotland, with superlative performances from a host of past and future world record holders and Olympic medallists.

The purpose-built Meadowbank Stadium – now on the way to becoming a housing development – was packed with 30,000 spectators on the opening night when, remarkably, local favourite Lachie Stewart beat the world record holder Ron Clarke of Australia into second place over 10,000m, with Kenya's Olympic champion Naftali Temu well adrift at the back of the field.

Between that race and the famous Scottish 1-2 for Ian Stewart and Ian McCafferty in the 5,000m on the final day, there were so many high-quality contests.

Kenya's Olympic champion Kip Keino won the 1,500m and received his medal from The Queen, who was making her first visit to the Games in her role as head of the Commonwealth.

Former Olympic champion Lynn Davies took the long jump, and in the sprints there were triple golds at 100m, 200m and the 4x100m relay for Jamaica's Don Quarrie and Australia's Raelene Boyle.

Ron Hill's battered old car conked out on the way to Edinburgh but it did not stop him running one of the races of his life in his famous string vest to beat a world-class marathon field, becoming only the second man to break 2 hours 10min.

Other big-name winners were David Hemery in the 110m hurdles, Mary Peters in the shot and pentathlon, and her Northern Ireland team-mate Mike Bull in the pole vault.

There was an illustrious roll-call of medallists in other sports too.

Australia's Michael Wenden, a double Olympic gold medallist two years earlier, was the star in the swimming pool, where a 16-year-old David Wilkie won his first international medal for Scotland.

Multiple champions David Bryant, on the bowls green, and Precious McKenzie, on the weightlifting platform, won for England.

 John Conteh, left, boxes Titus Simba in Edinburgh ©Getty Images
John Conteh, left, boxes Titus Simba in Edinburgh ©Getty Images

Australia won four weightlifting golds under the first-time leadership of manager-coach Sam Coffa, a future President of Australia's Commonwealth Games Association.

In cycling, English and Australian gold medallists Ian Hallam and John Nicholson would both be on the podium at the Munich 1972 Olympic Games.

The biggest name in the boxing ring, though not everybody knew it at the time, was 20-year-old John Conteh, who won middleweight gold for England against Titus Simba of Tanzania.

By 1974 Conteh was world light-heavyweight champion and, to some, he remains Britain's greatest-ever boxer.

If there was a gold medal for having a good time at Edinburgh 1970, Brill would surely have won it.

The Canadian high jumper, who made a remarkable return to the top of the Commonwealth Games podium 12 years later in Brisbane after a career interrupted by family tragedy, a spell living as a hippie in the woods, and motherhood, took recreational drugs in her youth and loved a party.

Brill was famed for her over-the-bar-backwards style, known as the "Brill bend" and often compared to the contemporaneous "Fosbury flop" made famous by the 1968 Olympic champion Dick Fosbury.

She enjoyed the Commonwealth Games far more than the Olympic Games – perhaps a little too much on her first international trip as a 16-year-old.

At the Queen's reception at Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh Brill was so drunk she could not stand up. 

Looking back on a wonderful stay in Scotland, she said: "It was incredibly easy to drink too much, and I did.

"I didn't make a spectacle of myself, though."

Brill, who set the current Canadian record way back in 1984, extended her international career so she could compete in Edinburgh a second time.

The Commonwealth Games – having dropped "British" from the title – returned to the Scottish capital in 1986, when Brill finished fifth on her farewell.

By then sport had fundamentally changed, most notably in the move away from amateurism.

Brill's take on Edinburgh 1970 and the years that followed says it all for those who find modern sport too commercialised, too managed, too serious. 

"In 1970 the Commonwealth Games were a well-grounded event, had high standing, and it was a big deal to be there," she said.

"By 1986 that was not so much the case. It was not as carefree, not as lively, it was a time when track and field was moving from an amateur sport to becoming a lot more about money.

"When money is involved, people are so much more willing to abide by the rules. There was an innocence in 1970 that was not there in 1986."

Debbie Brill enjoyed herself at the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, both on and off the field of play ©Getty Images
Debbie Brill enjoyed herself at the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, both on and off the field of play ©Getty Images

Brill had two targets at Edinburgh 1970 – to win gold and to come out of her shell and have a good time. She achieved both.

Brill felt "unbeatable… a wonderful rush of confidence" under coach Lionel Pugh, a Welshman who had moved to Vancouver.

"I was going to do whatever I wanted," she said.

This included chopping up the official team uniform, getting drunk at the Queen's reception and repeatedly breaking curfew at the Athletes' Village.

There were several good athletes from the Vancouver area in the team – they all had a great time. Brill's best friend among them was the sprinter, Patty Loverock.

"We were all into rock n' roll, short skirts, that sort of thing," she said. "We had been issued with a team uniform that our group didn't like and we decided to shorten the skirts.

"I took a pair of shears to mine and so did a friend, and the skirt now came only to the same depth as our jackets. It looked at the parade as though we were taking part with jackets on and no skirts, and that caused a bit of a sensation."

Myrtle Cook, the women's team chaperone, was constantly on the lookout for misbehaviour. At night she could be found "prowling the corridors of the dorms in search of decadence".

Cook had been a gold medallist for Canada when women's athletics first featured in the Olympics, in 1928, and Brill never once saw her wearing anything but the official uniform – "even her pyjamas, white with red maples on".

Cook's patrols made it difficult to get out, but Brill and Loverock were undeterred.

"Edinburgh was small enough that you could wander around the city, and one night I sneaked out with Patty and we walked up to the top of Arthur's Seat in the middle of the night," she said.

"When we came back Myrtle was there, and she said we'd have to go and see the head coach and Chef de Mission, and have a serious discussion about this inappropriate behaviour.

"But the head coach was Lionel Pugh, my own coach, and although I said 'I won't do it again', I was thinking ''Inappropriate? This is exactly what we're supposed to do!'

"I knew they wouldn't send me back, because I was going to win a gold medal. And despite any telling off, I could tell that they liked me."

This was the summer of the Isle of Wight rock festival, the biggest ever staged, and the year when British teenagers were given the vote.

"It was ebullient, 1970 was full of a sense of the world opening up," said Brill, who met her first boyfriend in Edinburgh and enjoyed "great drinking parties in the dorms", as well as the Holyroodhouse incident at the Queen's reception.

"I remember it was the first time I had too much to drink. It was wonderful. Drinking wasn't considered so terrible for an athlete back then, nothing like nowadays."

Those 1970 Games were the last time when Brill really felt she was "competing for the sheer joy of it, and interacting with people from all parts of the world".

Had she taken the shears to her uniform in Edinburgh a second time "there would have been no leeway, it would have been a serious matter and we would have had new uniforms made".

Queen Elizabeth II gets the ribbon entangled in the hair of Debbie Brill as she presents her with the high jump gold medal at Edinburgh 1970. Brill had earlier been drunk at The Queen's reception ©Getty Images
Queen Elizabeth II gets the ribbon entangled in the hair of Debbie Brill as she presents her with the high jump gold medal at Edinburgh 1970. Brill had earlier been drunk at The Queen's reception ©Getty Images

Sport had changed by 1986 and even the Commonwealth Games had "tightened up", said Brill.

The Commonwealth itself was creaking, too – more than half its countries boycotted the 1986 Games for political reasons.

Brill always preferred the Commonwealth Games to the Olympics. "They are generally not so much about rampant nationalism as the Olympics, and that makes a big difference," she said.

"There's a sense of all-inclusiveness that's so different to other Games. There's a much friendlier sense about it.

"Take out the money and the nationalism, and it becomes much more about the athletes and the competition itself, not about commercialism. People are more willing to loosen up.

"There's a really horrible feel, or was for me, in the Olympic Village – thousands of people all really up-tight."

Her comments bring to mind the words of the Canadians who created the Games in 1930.

"The event will be designed on an Olympic model, but these Games will be very different. They should be merrier and less stern, and will substitute the stimulus of a novel adventure for the pressure of international rivalry."