It is easy to dismiss the Commonwealth Games as an example of the British delusion that they managed to shed their imperial status better than any other colonial power. But such a dismissive view of the second biggest sporting event after the Olympics ignores the role the Commonwealth Games have played in innovating and shaping sporting and even social attitudes.

This is all the more remarkable given that the original impetus for the Empire Games, as they were called until well into the Fifties, was to use sport to emphasise the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race. Despite this, from the very beginning there was a willingness to defy the prevailing political ethos. So in 1934 the second Empire Games were moved from Johannesburg to London because South African racism did not allow black athletes to compete.

The first Games in 1930 in Hamilton, Canada, had featured a prominent black athlete from British Guyana, the distance runner Phil Edwards. The land of his birth did not have an Olympic team so he represented Canada in the Olympics, winning a bronze at the 1936 Berlin Games. But, having triumphed in front of the Nazis, he was refused entry on returning from Germany to a London hotel, prompting the rest of the Canadian team to leave in sympathy.

In the years since, the Games have often provided an alternative outlet for athletes from countries which find the Olympics stage a bit too daunting. This has been particularly true for India which, cricket apart, has been an under-performing sporting nation. In the 1958 Cardiff Games, Milkha Singh won gold in the 400 metres, the only Indian male ever to win a track and field gold at the Commonwealth Games. Fifty-six years later, with India having won only one Olympic track and field medal, Singh’s feat remains a beacon of hope for Indian athletes.

Glasgow could provide another such moment for Kiribati, the Pacific island with a population of 100,000, should its weightlifter, David Katoatau, fulfil expectations and win gold.

It is true that the choice of venues for the Friendly Games, as they are nicknamed, have not been very adventurous. All but three of the 20 Games have been staged in the comfort zone of the old white Commonwealth: Britain, Canada, Australia or New Zealand. Even so, the Games have been ahead of other international sports, with Jamaica the venue for the 1966 Games, 44 years before the World Cup went to Africa. And, in taking the Games to Kuala Lumpur in 1998 and Delhi in 2010, the Commonwealth Games have gone to parts of the world which have yet to see the Olympics.

International sports events are ultimately judged by the quality of the participating athletes and Glasgow can claim the Games are again showcasing the best. After recent years when many high-profile athletes have stayed away, Glasgow will see both the fastest man in the world, Usain Bolt, and the 800m world record holder David Rudisha. Even our own Mo Farah may participate in an English team not far short of the one at London 2012.

The Games will never match the Olympics but they have been far more successful than the French equivalent, the Francophone Games, and are much more than a meaningless sporting jamboree designed to make the British feel good about their Empire.


Share |



Latest Tweets

Follow me on twitter

Home | About | Books | History | BroadcastingJournalismPublic Speaking | Contact | Website development by Pedalo