Can sweeping changes restore the weakened prestige of the Commonwealth Games? | Commonwealth Games 2022
IIt all started with a line. When a 20-year-old from Vancouver, Percy Williams, won the Olympic 100m final in Amsterdam in 1928, it was such an unlikely result that he had to wait for his medal while the organizers tried to find a Canadian flag to raise the pole.
The one they found was so small that Canadian officials complained to the International Olympic Committee. That wasn’t all they were unhappy about. The Canadians were offended that the band didn’t seem to know their anthem either and, by the way, the American team was allowed to practice on the track when no one else was.
They also thought they were on the wrong side of a judge’s decision in the women’s 100m, when the race was awarded to American Betty Robinson ahead of their own Bobbie Rosenfeld.
For the manager of the Canadian team, Melville Marks Robinson, it was too much. “We know the Canadians are getting bamboozled here,” Robinson told the IOC, “and we don’t like that.”
Robinson decided that the Olympics had become too heavy, too adversarial, too chauvinistic and, yes, too American. It was his idea to launch a new sports competition, “devoid of petty jealousies and sectoral prejudices”. It would be like the Olympics but “more joyful and less severe”, a “celebration of the glorious traditions of British sportsmanship”. So Robinson organized the British Empire Games, which were launched in Hamilton two years later.
The title didn’t last, but the competition did. It was renamed once the British Empire and Commonwealth Games, then again the British Commonwealth Games and finally, once the British gave up their name, the Commonwealth Games.
“The Games”, Brian Oliver wrote in his history of the competition, “has gone on regardless of the political and cultural transformation of the British Empire and all the changes that have swept the world of sport”.
The 22nd edition begins, like a party you forgot your partner threw, in Birmingham on Thursday, and will be all over the BBC for 12 days.
In Birmingham, they have a great host city that feels ready for its moment, much the same as Manchester in 2002 and Glasgow in 2014. They chose well, even if it took them twice to do it . The Games were supposed to be held in Durban, which was chosen to host in 2015. It would have been the first time the Games were held in Africa. But the Commonwealth Games Federation withdrew them two years later when the South African government refused to increase the budget by £500million.
What numbers, since £500m really does seem like a lot of money to spend on an own-brand Olympics that exist, in John Oliver’s memorable phrase, as ‘the historic display of a once mighty nation bringing together the countries lost and find a way to lose to them again.
The UK government, however, was only too eager to step in as it sought to reorient itself after the Brexit referendum, again spending more than half. We’re in for at least £778m. Tangible returns are the new Sandwell Aquatic Centre, redeveloped Alexander Stadium and the regeneration of Perry Barr, although much of the latter plan has been shelved due to cost overruns.
He also paid for any brochures with nebulous promises of increased tourism revenue and long-term growth in local people’s sports participation, which may or may not be worth the glossy paper they were printed on.
The Games have gone through what Commonwealth Games Federation President Dame Louise Martin has described as a period of “introspection” in recent years, as you would expect for an organization whose main focus during much of the 20th century was sports washing. the reputation of the British Empire.
As the CGF explains on its website: “There is no easy way to say that the Commonwealth has a difficult history linked to colonial roots” (credit to them, in writing, that they seem to have found a way to do it). Apparently, “work has already begun to shift the focus from British Empire hegemony to one of world peace, shared sustainability and prosperity.”
The CGF attempted to reinvent the Commonwealth Games as a celebration of shared values rather than shared history. As former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind said in 2011: “The Commonwealth faces a very important problem. It is not a problem of hostility or antagonism, rather it is a problem of indifference. Its purpose is being questioned, its relevance is being questioned, in part because its commitment to upholding the values it represents is becoming ambiguous in the eyes of many member states.
Nearly half of these states still have anti-LGBTQ+ laws. And the host country itself recently had to apologize for detaining and deporting members of the Windrush generation.
Still, the CGF made sweeping changes to the Games in an effort to shake everyone up. The Birmingham edition will have the largest para-sport program to date, be the first major multi-sport event to have more medals for women than men and will, apparently, be the first to also be entirely carbon neutral.
And, contrary to the IOC’s policy of banning political gestures during the Olympics, the CGF introduced rules supporting the right of athletes to protest on social issues. Its new guidelines state that the CGF “supports the expression of and trusts, respects and understands that athletes may want to make positive expressions of their values.” A Pride Network has launched to help its LGBTQ+ athletes do just that.
When Robinson launched the Games, historian Katharine Moore wrote, “The empire needed the Games to reconfirm and redefine its unity. They could be seen as a step towards restoring his declining prestige.
This is also true for the Commonwealth now too.