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The Commonwealth Games: searching for relevancy, a host and a reason to exist

Andy Bull

Next year’s Games in Birmingham will likely be the last on such a grand scale and some changes to safeguard the event’s future smack of desperation

The England netball player Layla Guscoth with the Commonwealth Games baton, alongside Perry the official mascot for the Birmingham 2022 Games.
The England netball player Layla Guscoth with the Commonwealth Games baton, alongside Perry the official mascot for the Birmingham 2022 Games. Photograph: Jacob King/PA
The England netball player Layla Guscoth with the Commonwealth Games baton, alongside Perry the official mascot for the Birmingham 2022 Games. Photograph: Jacob King/PA

Last modified on Wed 13 Oct 2021 21.26 BST

It’s nine months until the start of the XXII Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, which also means it’s four years and nine months till the start of the XXIII Commonwealth Games in, well, nobody knows. The Commonwealth Games Federation was due to announce the host city for 2026 in September 2019, but the decision was postponed until 2020, and then again to 2021, and has just been pushed back again until 2022. The CGF says it expects to make an announcement in March. At the moment there’s not a single confirmed bid.

The CGF president, Dame Louise Martin, says the organisation is working closely with “a number of potential host countries, who have asked to keep our discussions confidential”, which makes it sound like throwing a surprise party rather than a multisport mega-event.

It’s almost as if no one wants to publicly commit to stumping up millions to host a Games memorably described by comedian John Oliver as an “off Broadway Olympics” and “the historic display of a once-mighty nation gathering together the countries it lost and finding a way to lose to them once more”.

It was supposed to be held in Hamilton, Canada, but that bid faltered when it became clear the best part of $150m (£110m) in public money was needed. A petition sprung up, the local government withdrew support and the team behind it is now planning to try again, with private financing, in 2030.

Kuala Lumpur, Cardiff, Calgary, Edmonton and Adelaide also pulled out from proposed bids because they were concerned about cost. All this after Durban, which was supposed to host the 2022 Games, had them taken away again because they couldn’t afford it. According to bid documents Durban’s legacy was all about “youth empowerment”. They’ve ended up with a debt and a dead hashtag, #ReadyToInspire.

The last time the Commonwealth Games went through a similar sort of crisis, when the funding for the Edinburgh Games collapsed in 1986, they were bailed out by the late Robert Maxwell and his friend Ryoichi Sasakawa, who was later described, in an obituary after his death in 1995, as “the last of Japan’s A-class war criminals”. This time, the Games were saved by the British government, which, in a timely bit of post‑Brexit boosterism, decided to stump up £594m to bring the Games here. Birmingham will cover the remaining £200m-odd of costs itself.

The problem goes beyond finding someone who would do likewise in four years’ time. Martin has said herself that the Commonwealth Games have been in an existential crisis for the last decade. “In recent times, our Federation has done a lot of soul-searching to look at our impact and meaning,” she 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 on a host community were highlighted.”

Construction at the Sandwell Aquatics Centre in Smethwick, Birmingham, which is being built for the 2022 Commonwealth Games
Construction at the Sandwell Aquatics Centre in Smethwick, Birmingham, which is being built for the 2022 Commonwealth Games. Photograph: Nick Maslen/Alamy

A pithier quote was attributed to Usain Bolt while he was caught standing in the rain in a car park outside the athletes village at Glasgow in 2014. Bolt is supposed to have said the Games were “a bit shit” (he has always denied it).

There is a section on the Federation’s own website called “Our Relevance”, which has the unintended effect of making you wonder why they feel the need to explain it. It talks about the “unique connections and friendships”, the “transformative and connecting power of sport”, the “enduring commitment to human rights”, and “shared values” of “Humanity, Equality, and Destiny”. They are known as the “Friendly Games”, after all. The website doesn’t mention the fact that homosexuality is currently a criminal offence in 36 of the member countries, a situation which, like the Games themselves, is in the large part the legacy of British colonial rule.

There are reasons to love the Commonwealth Games, even beyond a fondness for watching elite lawn bowls, like the way they provide young athletes with exposure to championship competition before the Olympics. Whether that’s worth the best part of a billion pounds is another question. For that much money the success of the Games depends less on who’s winning how many medals than it does on the nebulous question of whether they have a transformative effect on the infrastructure and economy of the host city itself. Either way, it seems that Birmingham will likely be the last Games on anything like that scale.

Martin has already said as much and that the Games have to “move on and modernise”, and this week the CGF announced a “roadmap” showing how it is going to go about it. It is a genuinely radical plan, which speaks, in itself, to the severity of the problem.

The number of sports included in the Games will be cut to 15, and only two of them, 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.

In the future, the federation will encourage co-hosting, across cities, regions and countries (whether they’re in the Commonwealth or not), and bin the requirement for cities to build new venues and accommodations.

Some of these are sensible changes, long overdue for a “mega-event” that feels, these days, like it’s struggling to live up to the description. Others smack of genuine desperation about the future of a Games that increasingly feels as though its time has passed.