Does the Commonwealth Games have a future?
The Commonwealth Games could hardly have been held in a more idyllic setting.
Australia’s Gold Coast, a city of never-ending golden beaches and sunshine has welcomed visitors from all over the world. This was a multi-sport event in Queensland, a state whose mantra is: beautiful one day, perfect the next.
Big sporting events such as these are never perfect and Gold Coast 2018 concluded on a sour note, with organizers criticized for not using the athletes as the center piece of the closing ceremony.
Many on social media were aghast that broadcasters did not show the athletes entering the stadium, as is often the custom at such ceremonies.
Australians in particular were irked that they did not get to watch celebrated wheelchair racer Kurt Fearnley, winner of the T54 marathon gold that morning, carry the flag, while athletes were seen leaving Carara Stadium early.
Presenters on Channel Seven, Australia’s host broadcaster, addressed the viewers at the end of the two-and-a-half-hour finale to share their disappointment.
“I’m furious,” said host Johanna Griggs, telling viewers it was not Channel Seven’s decision not to show the athletes enter the stadium.
It will be an ongoing furore.
During the 11-day event there were also complaints from restauranteurs about a downturn in profits, while taxi drivers also talked of a reduction in income. As the Commonwealth flew into the city, the natives appeared to flock out.
But has the Gold Coast Games made an often-criticized international event more relevant?
‘A Games with a social conscience’
The Games are regarded by some as an enduring reminder of British imperialism. After all, it is a competition comprising of 71 nations and territories which once formed part of the British Empire.
Aware that perceptions must change if this event, which is in its ninth decade, is to thrive, the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) has used Gold Coast 2018 — held on a floodplain which was once home to various Indigenous families — to promote social change.
“We’ve gone through a journey in the past several years,” David Grevemberg, CGF chief executive.
“We’ve been soul searching about our narrative — who are we and what do we want to be.”
The Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games was one of the low points in the history of the event. Engulfed by controversy, there were criticisms about spending millions on a sporting event in a country with extreme poverty. There were also construction delays, infrastructure problems and poor ticket sales.
“Post-Delhi a lot of soul searching was done, in terms of the relevance of the Commonwealths and the Games,” Grevemberg says.
For Grevemberg the future of the Games lies in talking about the Commonwealth’s colonial past.
“What we’ve tried to do is use the platform of a major Games to create a safe place for courageous conversations and bold action,” says the Louisiana native who lives in Scotland and works in London.
“The platform of the Games, on the Gold Coast, on the land of Indigenous people, with the whole public discourse of reconciliation in Australia — why would we take the opportunity to miss the opportunity, particularly knowing where the Commonwealth has come from. It’s like walking into a room full of elephants and pretending they’re not there.
“We have to be bigger than that, be better than that, if we truly want to have the impact we want.
“We all have this history, it’s what we do with it.
“By attacking some of these issues straight on, by creating a willingness to listen to people, we really can change the dial. If you haven’t created a strong granite foundation for all people, it’ll always be a fragile base.”
Protests, confronting the past
The Games’ opening ceremony focused much on Australia’s Indigenous culture. It was a reminder that the host nation’s past did not begin some 200 years ago with colonial rule.
There was backlash — mainly from those complaining about too much Indigenous content — but Grevemberg has since said he would not change a thing.
Though there was little controversy surrounding these Games leading up to the closing ceremony, there were nevertheless protests.
An Aboriginal group set up camp on the Gold Coast, a continuation of demonstrations from the Melbourne Commonwealth Games in 2006 and the rallies of the 1982 Games in Brisbane.
There were demonstrations during the Queen’s Baton relay and before the opening ceremony, with protestors wanting to draw international attention to Australia’s colonial history and the social injustices its First Nations peoples still experience.
On basic standards of living, from health to education and employment, Australia’s Indigenous population is being left behind. Life expectancy is lower, while infant mortality rates and maternal mortality is far higher than that of the general population.
“There’s a lot of work to be done. I know Australia has a lot of discussion right now and a broader debate on racism,” says Grevemberg of the protests.
‘There’s a lot of work to be done. People who have felt trauma and anger from the past, to give people the opportunity to express themselves in a peaceful manner is very reflective of the modern Commonwealth.”
Will the Commonwealth Games continue to make a difference on the Gold Coast once the grandstands have been dismantled and the focused switched to Birmingham in 2022?
“In 2015, 71 territories unanimously agreed to a new vision of the organization, put it on the line that we want to build peaceful, sustainable, and prosperous communities globally, not just the Commonwealth,” says Grevemberg.
“We want to be a trailblazer that can influence other countries and nations worldwide.
“There’s various degrees of discourse and turbulence out there, but we want to be the consistent beacon for these types of conversations and, more importantly, action.”
The CGF has yet to provide CNN with requested details of how many members of the Indigenous population have worked at the Games.
“We will be taking the lessons learned from here and instigating a number of initiatives with Indigenous communities across the Commonwealth in terms of discourse and discussion in how we establish a declaration in Indigenous reconciliation through sport,” added Grevemberg.
“One of the things we’ve already done in our host city contract, for 2022 and beyond, is that if you do host the Commonwealth Games there’s a requirement that you promote and respect Indigenous people. It’s obligatory. That’s putting our money where our mouth is, so to speak.”
Too costly to host?
The question many ask, however is: who can afford to host the Games?
Come 2022, five of the last six Games will have been hosted in either the UK or Australia, two of the world’s most affluent nations.
Durban — which was set to become the first African city to host an event which was first held in 1930 — was stripped of its right to hold the Games in four years’ time as the South African city did not meet the criteria set by the CGF.
Few rushed to replace Durban as hosts, with the English city of Birmingham eventually winning the bid.
Hosting the Games will not come cheaply for England’s second most populous city, with the projected overall cost of the Games running to a reported $1 billion.
“Ten of the top 20 emerging cities are in the Commonwealth so there’ s huge opportunities there,” said Grevemberg of potential future hosts.
“We’re no longer the men and women of Del Monte coming to inspect the fruit and acting as auditor general.
“We’re now actually partners with cities and working in tandem with them to reduce costs and make the Games more affordable and amplify the value of the event.
“We brought Glasgow 2014 in £37m [$53.7m] below budget and that wasn’t by accident.”
Cities wanting to host a Games which has a social conscience — transgender weightlifter Lauren Hubbard was supported by the Federation, while Gold Coast 2018 was the first multi-discipline sport event to award an equal number of medals to men and women — will also be obliged to uphold the United Nation’s guiding principles on human rights.
This week England’s diver Tom Daley made a plea for 37 competing nations that sill criminalize homosexuality to relax their anti-gay laws. Cities will not be prevented from bidding, but they may be required to adapt and change if their bids are to succeed.
There is also the issue of whether the world’s biggest stars regard the Commonwealth Games as a priority in an increasingly crammed sporting calendar.
Canada’s Andre de Grasse, 200m silver and 100m bronze Olympic medalist, widely regarded as Usain Bolt’s heir apparent, was missing as he wanted to “be ready for a strong and full outdoor season.”
Kenya’s 800m world record holder David Rudisha and two-time 1500m Olympic champion Asbel Kiprop were also absent, as were their country’s elite marathon runners.
Injury prevented cycling great Mark Cavendish, Australian favorite Sally Pearson and Olympic 400m champion Wayde van Niekerk from competing.
“Because of the timing of this event in the southern hemisphere — it’s the start of the season in the northern hemisphere — there is difficulty, but you’ve got the top netball teams, Rugby Sevens teams,” says Grevemberg.
“It’s the beginning of the season and that’s something, as we move forward, we need to take that into account to optimize the timing.
“Do we run it in October, September to synchronize better with the athletes’ scheduling?
“I’m very happy with the number of athletes. I’m really confident that what we’ve started here is something that can continue to manifest into our youth games and into Birmingham 2022.”