Do the Commonwealth Games still matter in 2022?
Birmingham is hosting the 22nd edition of an event that harks back to the heyday of the British Empire.
The first Commonwealth Games, known initially as the British Empire Games, were held in Hamilton, Canada, in 1930.
Since then, the Games have been held in many of the major Commonwealth countries. Canada held them again in Vancouver in 1954, Edmonton in 1978 and Victoria in 1994. Australia has also held the Games on four occasions: Sydney in 1938, Perth in 1962, Brisbane in 1982 and Melbourne in 2006.
In 1998, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia was the first Asian country to play host. In 2010, the Games returned to Asia when they were held in Delhi. The next iteration is in Birmingham in the UK, starting this week.
Staging another event in a seemingly overpacked sporting calendar raises questions about the Commonwealth Games’ relevance, especially given its colonial roots.
“In recent times, our federation has done a lot of soul-searching to look at our impact and meaning,” Dame Louise Martin, Commonwealth Games Federation president, said in 2018.
“The Commonwealth Sport Movement reached a challenging chapter in its existence — when the very word and purpose of the ‘Commonwealth’ was questioned and the negative impacts of a Games [such as cost] on a host community were highlighted.”
Countries that are part of the Commonwealth of Nations take part in the Commonwealth Games. These are generally countries that are former territories of the British Empire.
The Games, however, have attempted to move away from their foundation and promote independence and self-reliance.
“We’re inspired by the diversity and dynamism of the Commonwealth itself — a voluntary association of 72 nations and territories — and its enduring commitment to human rights, democracy and the rule of law,” it says on the Commonwealth Games Federation website.
“Today, the Commonwealth Games Federation is far more than the curator of a great Games. As a cornerstone of the Commonwealth itself, our dynamic sporting movement … has a key role to play in an energised, engaged and active Commonwealth of Nations and Territories.”
Despite this, 14 Commonwealth realms still exist outside the UK today. A Commonwealth realm is a country that has Queen Elizabeth II as its monarch. All these countries will participate in this year’s Birmingham Games.
South Africa will send a wide array of athletes to the Games, which start on 28 July, from the uncommon, such as judo, lawn bowls and wheelchair basketball, to the more mainstream, such as athletics, swimming and cycling.
Meanwhile, there will be the introduction of 20-over women’s cricket and women’s rugby sevens will make its second appearance, with South Africa sending squads to compete in both disciplines.
Most of these sporting codes have another quadrennial event at which athletes compete for gold, the Olympic Games.
Nevertheless, the smaller pool of athletes participating at the Commonwealth Games increases the chances of a podium finish for younger athletes from smaller nations, giving them a global audience for the display of their skills.
Although the likes of cricket and rugby have their own World Cups, the Commonwealth Games allows for athletes in these sports to be part of Team SA and join compatriots in the Commonwealth Village, where they will have an opportunity to share knowledge and expertise.
A unique characteristic of the Commonwealth Games — because all the participating countries are former British territories — is that all the athletes can converse with one another in a common language, English. This is the reason the Games have often been dubbed the “Friendly Games”.
This year’s Commonwealth Games are a lot more progressive than ever before, being the first major multisport event to have more women’s medal events than men’s. There will also be the largest para-sports programme in the Games’ history, with eight items on the programme.
However, the plan is to downsize considerably after Birmingham 2022.
The number of sports will be cut to 15, and only two, athletics and swimming, will be mandatory. The others will be drawn from a long list of core sports, or be local events selected because of their popularity in the host nation. E-sports and mass participation events have both been mentioned as potential new events.
“We can’t stay as we are — it’s not sustainable. We have to move on, we have to modernise. In my opinion, Birmingham will be the last one of this size,” Martin told Inside The Games last year.
“The plan is for the Games to be smaller, easier and less costly to host, and to change them in a way that will appeal to a younger audience,” she added.
In future, the federation will encourage co-hosting, across cities, regions and countries (whether they’re in the Commonwealth or not), and will drop the requirement for cities to build new venues and accommodations for the Games.
Some of these changes are sensible and long overdue for a “mega-event” that seems as though it’s struggling to live up to the description.
Other changes, such as the introduction of e-sports, have an air of despair about the future of the Commonwealth Games, which increasingly feel as though their time has passed. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.