Are the Commonwealth Games a joyful extravaganza – or anachronistic, offensive and a waste of time? | Kieran Pender

The legacy of colonialism looms large – isn’t a history of empire and exploitation, slavery and subjugation to be condemned, not celebrated?

Next Tuesday marks the 92nd anniversary of the inaugural edition of the Commonwealth Games – known at the time as the British Empire Games. The idea, dreamed up by a Canadian sportswriter, was simple enough. If the world had the Olympics, why shouldn’t the colonies of the British empire have their own multisport extravaganza?

Spurred on by apparent grievances between the Canadian team and their American counterparts at the 1928 Olympics, the Canadian journalist Bobby Robinson set about establishing the imperial games – first hosted by his home town Hamilton in 1930. A small Australian team competed in those inaugural Games, bringing home three golds, four silvers and one bronze medal. Women were only permitted to compete in aquatic events and the Australian team was male-only.

Viewed from a distance, almost a century later, the first Games seem remarkably anachronistic. This feeling is compounded when considering what happened next: the Australian team’s travel home was delayed after their ship, the RMS Tahiti, sank. A local newspaper reported the Australians were “perturbed” by this development, worried about losing their jobs back home as a result of the delay.

And yet 92 years later, the Commonwealth Games endure, with the curtain falling on the 22nd edition on Monday. Is there a future for what was once a thinly veiled celebration of colonialism? Are the Games a worthwhile exercise or an outdated waste of time?

Watching on from Australia, these questions feel particularly acute. The Australian team has just dominated another Games, topping the medal tally for the 14th time and surpassing the 1,000 gold medal mark (ending the event with 1,001 golds thanks to hockey glory on the final day). With such unstoppable dominance, is the nation simply a flat-track bully at a second-tier competition?

With Australia confirmed to host the next Games in 2026 across regional Victoria, the state’s taxpayers are about to fork out for an event once described by Usain Bolt as “a little bit shit”. Will it be worth it? Birmingham is estimated to have spent about A$1.4bn; the 2018 Games, on the Gold Coast, cost A$1.6bn.

Let’s start with the positives. Birmingham 2022 was immensely popular among locals – 1.3m tickets were sold. Hundreds of millions of viewers tuned in online or on television. The Games were embraced by spectators, who by all accounts had a good time, cheering on the winners and cheering even louder for the losers.

The Games are also, despite their origins, perhaps the most inclusive international multisport event. In 2018, there was, for the first time, parity among the number of medal events for men and women. In Birmingham, there were more medals on offer for women than men. The Games are similarly seeking to appeal to younger generations, with an inaugural esports championship included as an exhibition event in 2022.

The Commonwealth Games stand apart from the Olympics by including para-athlete events within the competition, rather than as a standalone Paralympics. This has been the case since 2002 – a development that at the time made the Games the first integrated international multi-sport event. That said, para-athletes are only offered a fraction of the events across different disciplines. In swimming, for example, able-bodied male and female athletes had 19 chances at gold each, plus two mixed events, while para-swimmers were offered only 12 events in total (six each for men and women).

Yet the legacy of colonialism looms large. A history of empire and exploitation, slavery and subjugation, is a past to be condemned, not celebrated. The Games have sought to grapple with this, particularly since the 2010 edition in India, where Britain’s negative historical impact is keenly felt. The Commonwealth Games Foundation’s latest strategic plan acknowledged its “challenging history linked to colonial roots”, arguing that it was shifting focus “from the hegemony of the British empire to one of global peace”.

But as long as the event remains named after the Commonwealth, and is contested by countries colonised – largely violently – by the British, its origins will be hard to shake. The Games’ heritage will no doubt come into sharp focus again in four years’ time, given ongoing Australian conversations around recognition and reconciliation with First Nations people and a renewed focus on republicanism.

This engagement with history has not been welcomed by all; a right-wing British news website labelled Birmingham 2022 the “Commonwoke Games”. But while the Olympics have sought to restrict political expression by athletes, the Commonwealth Games have actively encouraged athletes to express themselves – even on the podium.

At a sporting level, the Games offer inconsistency. Without global sporting powerhouses China, Russia and the US, the level of competition can be hit-and-miss. Take swimming. In the women’s backstroke, Birmingham 2022 was an Olympic rematch between Australia’s Kaylee McKeown and Canada’s Kylie Masse. Their duels in the 50m, 100m and 200m events were every bit as thrilling as the rivals’ encounters in Tokyo. In the women’s 400m freestyle, on the other hand, Ariarne Titmus was untouchable (despite the hype surrounding Canadian youngster Summer McIntosh). Absent her Tokyo rival, American Katie Ledecky, the event felt anticlimactic.

In some sports, the Games are at least on par with their respective world championships; lawn bowls and netball fall into this camp. In other disciplines, the Games are well down the pecking order. That, of course, significantly affects the level of talent.

Fear of fading towards irrelevance hangs over the Commonwealth Games. This may have prompted it to be more forward-thinking than other major sporting events. In the absence of other willing hosts for the 2026 Games, Victoria was effectively able to negotiate terms – hence a four-city regional Games. Given the enormous sums wasted on Olympic infrastructure and the resulting white elephants, combined with increasing debt and deficit across the globe, a smaller, more nimble Commonwealth Games might aid its longevity.

Questions over inclusion and legacy, the past and the future of the Games, are important. Sport is a potent political tool and can hold a mirror to the best and worst of society. We shouldn’t shy away from those important conversations.

But there is also a simpler question to ask. Did the athletes, the fans and the spectators enjoy themselves at the latest Commonwealth Games? So long as the answer remains in the affirmative, the Games have a reason to endure.


Kieran Pender

The GuardianTramp

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