NOTNext Tuesday marks the 92nd anniversary of the first Commonwealth Games – known at the time as the British Empire Games. The idea, dreamed up by a Canadian sports journalist, was quite simple. If the world had the Olympics, why wouldn’t the colonies of the British Empire have their own multi-sport extravaganza?
Spurred by apparent grievances between the Canadian team and their American counterparts at the 1928 Olympics, Canadian journalist Bobby Robinson set out to establish the Imperial Games – first hosted by his hometown of Hamilton in 1930. A small Australian team competed in those inaugural Games, winning three gold, four silver and one bronze. Women were only allowed to compete in the aquatic events and the Australian team was all-male.
Seen from afar, almost a century later, the first Games seem remarkably anachronistic. This feeling is compounded when you consider what happened next: the Australian team’s return trip was delayed after their ship, the RMS Tahiti, sank. A local newspaper reported that Australians were “disturbed” by the development, fearing they would lose their jobs back home due to the delay.
And yet, 92 years later, the Commonwealth Games live on, 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 Are the Games a valid exercise or an outdated waste of time?
Looking from Australia, these questions seem particularly acute. Team Australia has just dominated another Games, topping the medal tally for the 14th time and topping the 1,000 gold mark (ending the event with 1,001 gold thanks to hockey glory on last day). With such unstoppable dominance, is the nation simply a bully on a flat track in second-tier competition?
As Australia has confirmed it will host the next Games in 2026 in regional Victoria, state taxpayers are about to shell out for an event once described by Usain Bolt as “a bit of crap”. Will it be worth it? Birmingham is estimated to have spent around A$1.4 billion; the 2018 Games, on the Gold Coast, cost 1.6 billion Australian dollars.
Let’s start with the positives. Birmingham 2022 has been immensely popular among locals – 1.3 million tickets have been sold. Hundreds of millions of viewers tuned in online or on TV. The Games were greeted by spectators who all agreed had a good time, cheering for the winners and cheering even louder for the losers.
The Games are also, despite their origins, perhaps the most inclusive international multi-sport event. In 2018, there was, for the first time, parity between the number of medal events for men and women. In Birmingham, there were more medals offered to women than to men. The Games are also looking to appeal to younger generations, with an inaugural esports championship included as an exhibition event in 2022.
The Commonwealth Games are distinguished from the Olympics by including para-athlete events in the competition, rather than as stand-alone Paralympic Games. This has been the case since 2002, a development that made the Games the first integrated international multi-sport event at the time. That said, para-athletes are only offered a fraction of the events in different disciplines. In swimming, for example, able-bodied male and female athletes were given 19 chances to win gold each, plus two mixed events, while para-swimmers were only offered 12 events in total (six for men and women).
Yet the legacy of colonialism weighs heavily. A history of empire and exploitation, slavery and subjugation, is a past to be condemned, not celebrated. The Games have sought to combat 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 “difficult history linked to colonial roots”, arguing that it focused “from the hegemony of the British empire to that of world peace”.
But as long as the event remains named after the Commonwealth, and is contested by countries colonized – largely violently – by the British, its origins will be hard to shake. The legacy of the Games will no doubt return to the fore four years from now, given ongoing Australian conversations about recognition and reconciliation with First Nations peoples and a renewed focus on republicanism.
This engagement with history was not welcomed by all; a right-wing British news site called Birmingham 2022 the “Commonwoke Games”. But whereas the Olympics sought to restrict athletes’ political expression, the Commonwealth Games actively encouraged athletes to speak out – even on the podium.
At the sporting level, the Games offer inconsistency. Without the global sports powerhouses of China, Russia and the United States, the level of competition can be hit or miss. Take swimming. In the women’s backstroke, Birmingham 2022 was an Olympic rematch between Australian Kaylee McKeown and Canadian Kylie Masse. Their duels in the 50m, 100m and 200m events were just as thrilling as the encounters between their rivals in Tokyo. In the women’s 400m freestyle, however, Ariarne Titmus was untouchable (despite the hype around young Canadian Summer McIntosh). In the absence of her Tokyo rival, American Katie Ledecky, the event proved disappointing.
In some sports, the Games are at least on par with their respective world championships; lawn bowling and netball are part of this camp. In the other disciplines, the Games are far down the pecking order. This, of course, greatly affects the skill level.
The fear of fading into insignificance hangs over the Commonwealth Games. This may have prompted it to be more forward-thinking than other major sporting events. With no other willing hosts for the 2026 Games, Victoria was effectively able to negotiate the terms – hence a four-city regional Games. Given the huge sums wasted on Olympic infrastructure and the resulting white elephants, combined with rising debt and deficit across the globe, a smaller, nimble Commonwealth Games could help its longevity.
Questions about inclusion and legacy, the past and future of the Games, are important. Sport is a powerful political tool and can reflect the best and the worst in society. We should not shy away from these important conversations.
But there is also a simpler question to ask. Did the athletes, fans and spectators have fun at the last Commonwealth Games? As long as the answer remains affirmative, the Games have a reason to continue.