It’s the perennial question: Are the Commonwealth Games still relevant?.
It’s rolled out every four years for debate and dissection.
Typically, in the lead-up to the Commonwealth Games many claim they’ve become out-dated, anachronistic and unnecessary.
But as the “Friendly Games” unfold, we soon forget their potential irrelevance and catch the Games bug. Captivated by their inevitable magic, we become mesmerised by sports we rarely see, in thrall to the capability of the human body.
Normally we wouldn’t be due another spin around the Commonwealth Games merry-go-round until 2026. But the stunning news that Victoria has reneged on hosting the next Games makes us pause and ponder the legitimacy of the quadrennial event.
Could the entire future of the Commonwealth Games be in jeopardy?
For the state of Victoria, the runaway costs of hosting the 2026 event have apparently become an insurmountable hurdle. The financial viability of holding a Commonwealth Games has certainly been a recurring problem for decades.
Yet, notwithstanding the massive cost challenges, compelling reasons still remain for keeping the Commonwealth Games in our sporting calendar.
Not least to the athletes themselves. By giving competitors the opportunity to adjust to the ‘shock and awe’ of a massive, multi-sport event, the Commonwealth Games are an Olympics-lite of sorts, an invaluable mid-point in a four-year Olympic campaign.
It’s not uncommon for high performance athletes to confess they needed a first Olympics experience in order to excel at subsequent Games.
In the same way, the Commonwealth Games can prepare athletes for the enormous challenge of taking part in an Olympics. Being familiar with the distractions inherent in a Games village environment, for example, can help athletes develop realistic future Games plans, and stick to them.
Then there are the often-cited arguments by Commonwealth Games critics that the best athletes in the world aren’t necessarily competing. When I won a Commonwealth Games gold medal in gymnastics in 1990, some were quick to point out the absence of gymnasts from countries that win Olympic medals.
Surely, however, if only global events were considered worthy, there would never be an Asian Games, an Oceania competition, or a European Championships. The legitimacy of continental championships have never been in doubt. Nor should the Commonwealth Games – an event that brings together one third of the world’s population.
And there’s another, more personal, reason why I’m so passionate about the Commonwealth Games: the shared values that exist between Commonwealth countries. My own Games experience showed me the importance of this.
Before competing at the 1990 Games in Auckland the best I’d ever managed to place at a major international competition was 30th. Why was I able to prevail at Commonwealth level, but not crack the world’s top 30?
The simple answer: it was near impossible to compete against gymnasts from authoritarian regimes – from countries like Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, amongst numerous others.
Their gymnasts had been handpicked at around four years-of-age, the product of a systematic talent identification programme. For more than a decade, they’d trained up to eight hours a day, their education not deemed a priority. Many of their leading gymnasts had been mistreated and half-starved. Unsurprisingly, most took no pleasure in doing the sport. But, without doubt, they were incredible gymnasts – barely out of childhood – yet the very best in the world.
For me, the Commonwealth Games provided more of a level playing field. After seven years of competing internationally, it was the first time I could pit myself solely against gymnasts who had, like me, gone to school and university, largely funded their own sporting endeavours, and always been free to choose whether or not they trained for hours each day.
Admittedly, my experiences were decades ago, near the end of the Cold War, when the world was divided along ideological lines.
Since then, the world has changed greatly. Sport has changed too. Now it’s not just authoritarian regimes where athletes are at risk of not being treated appropriately. But in countries like ours, when harm is done we find it completely unacceptable. We recognise we have strayed from our values.
There have been numerous reviews conducted within New Zealand sport – investigations into cycling, gymnastics, rugby, hockey, canoe racing, football and others. These reviews have shone a spotlight on the harm that can occur in an unregulated, win-at-all cost environment. Ultimately they provide findings that lead to positive change.
The new Sport Integrity Commission is currently developing a ‘rulebook’ for sport. High Performance Sport New Zealand now has a comprehensive wellbeing strategy that aims for performance and wellbeing to co-exist without compromise.
Similar strategic resets have recently taken place in countries such as Australia and the United Kingdom.
This is what Commonwealth countries strive to do.
The values we share are best expressed by the Commonwealth Charter – a document which expresses its members’ commitment to the development of free and democratic societies and the promotion of peace and prosperity. Core beliefs include human rights, tolerance, respect, freedom of expression, rule of law and protection of the environment.
Of course, it’s not possible to contemplate Commonwealth values without considering its chequered history and links to colonialism. But in grappling with a challenging past, the Commonwealth Games Federation is working to ensure it is fit-for-purpose in the 21st-century. It actively promotes non-discrimination and inclusion and has become a sporting trailblazer, leading in a number of ways.
Unlike other multi-sport events, Para sport events are seamlessly integrated into the Commonwealth Games programme. At Birmingham 2022, more medals were open to women than men for the first time in the history of major sports events.
Anyone who has experienced a Commonwealth Games, as an athlete, coach, volunteer or spectator, has had the privilege of meeting people from up to 72 highly diverse countries and territories of the world. They have almost certainly come away enriched by the experience.
Yes – there is further work to be done if we are to live up to our ideals and grapple with the wrongs of the past. At a time when the world needs ways to pull together more than ever, the Commonwealth Games extends the opportunity to refine and recommit to our values. And find new ways to genuinely reckon with yet to be reconciled histories.
In 2026 and beyond, if the Friendly Games can find a way for Commonwealth nations to once again gather in the name of sport, our shared values can shine, and a more enlightened future can evolve at an event that has the potential to be much more than a game.