On the Gold Coast of Queensland, Australia, the 21st edition of the Commonwealth Games, one of the largest sporting events in the world, drew to a close on April 15. Yet, much like the Commonwealth of nations that the games bring together, the event is a bit of curiosity to nonparticipants. I must admit, like most Americans, I don't really think about the Commonwealth a whole lot; but unlike most Americans, I do pay some attention to the Commonwealth Games. In the past, the games have provided entertainment in non-Olympic years and a healthy dose of trivia in trying to figure out how and when the 71 participating countries and territories were linked to the British Empire (trivia that became more confusing when the Commonwealth admitted Rwanda and Mozambique, which have zero historic ties to Britain).
Like the Olympic Games they were modeled after, the Commonwealth Games have seldom been just about the contested sports. However, unlike Olympic claims that politics have no place in sports, the Commonwealth Games — often called the "Friendly Games" — have always been bundled with the optimistic sociopolitical aims of fostering understanding and cooperation among member states, although some iterations have been less-than-friendly occasions for protest and boycott. While flipping through some livestreams last week, I found myself thinking about these legacies when it occurred to me that these Commonwealth Games are the first to be held since the United Kingdom made the decision to depart the European Union. The impending Brexit and its associated impacts on business and politics mean that the sidelines of these games were likely a locus for the kind of handshake dealmaking and diplomacy that big time sports events can foster, especially as Britain seeks to make up for the looming hit on trade that life after the European Union will bring. While we'll have to wait on these outcomes, this does seem like a perfect opportunity to reflect on this somewhat obscure, yet absolutely massive sports event.
How the Commonwealth Games Came to Be
As far back as the 1890s, English aristocratic sportsmen had called for an intraempire festival of amicable sporting competition. The arrival of the modern Olympics in 1896 mostly quelled these voices, although an event called the Inter-Empire Championships was held during the 1911 Festival of Empire in London. It featured athletes from Australia, Canada, South Africa and the United Kingdom. The quadrennial competitions that evolved into the contemporary Commonwealth Games began in 1930, with the debut of the British Empire Games in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Held a year before the Statute of Westminster granted legislative independence to the self-governing dominions of the empire, these first games celebrated a decidedly aristocratic, old-world notion of amateur sport and were organized by an especially pro-British contingent of the Canadian upper class.
The Hamilton debut was followed by games in London (1934) and Sydney (1938). World War II marked a 12-year period without the competition; the 1950 event in Auckland marked the return of the games and was also the final time the "British Empire Games" moniker was used. Reflecting the changing geopolitical landscape, the rebranded British Empire and Commonwealth games made their debut in Vancouver in 1954, an edition of the games made particularly memorable by the performances of runners Roger Bannister (England) and John Landy (Australia), who both clocked sub-4 minute miles in a globally televised race. As the sun set on the colonial era, the term "Empire" was dropped by 1970 and "British" was scrubbed by the end of the decade, when the streamlined Commonwealth Games were held in Edmonton.
The Edmonton edition also marked a stretch of increased politicization of the Commonwealth Games, with boycotts of the event by Nigeria and Uganda. The Nigerians stayed home in protest of New Zealand's sporting relationship with apartheid South Africa; the Ugandans were protesting Canadian hostility toward Idi Amin's regime. This actually wasn't the first time that South Africa had caused tension in the games' apparatus, nor would it be the last. The 1934 London Games had originally been slated for Johannesburg, but concerns about the safety of Asian and black athletes led to a relocation; last year, Durban was stripped of the 2022 games because of financial problems. The apartheid issue would come to a head during the 1986 games in Edinburgh, when more than half of the nations eligible to participate boycotted them. The predominantly African, Asian and Caribbean bloc refused to participate because the government of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher continued to have a sporting relationship with South Africa, considered a violation of the spirit of the 1977 Gleneagles Agreement to discourage sport-based interactions with the apartheid government. The boycott compounded problems of financial and operational mismanagement by the Edinburgh organizers, leading to a shoestring affair, with mostly white participants. Since then, that competition has been cynically referred to as the "Unfriendly Games." The global sports system appears to have moved on from the large-scale boycott, but Edinburgh 1986 remains a fascinating case study in the geopolitics of sports and deserves to be remembered alongside the better-known Olympic boycotts of 1980 and 1984.
Apartheid and boycotts are matters of the past, but the complex entanglements of empire still resound.
The Current Offering
While the Commonwealth Games are a step down in international prestige from the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup, they are hardly a quaint affair. The global television audience for this year's competitions was estimated at over 1.5 billion viewers. From a pure sports perspective, these games have some notable features. First, the slate of competitions varies from one event to the next, mixing a batch of required sports with optional sports settled on by the hosts. Of the required sports, this is arguably the biggest stage for sports such as the basketball-like netball and lawn bowls, which don't appear in the Olympics. This year's Commonwealth Games have notably reached gender equity in terms of medaling opportunities for men and women, another difference from the Olympics experience that Commonwealth organizers are quick to point out. Finally, the games also feature a broad offering of adaptive/parasport contests that take place concurrently with able-bodied competitions, which strikes me as a great way to increase the visibility of these sports.
While the sport offerings remain interesting, it's hard to quantify how geopolitically relevant the Commonwealth Games are today. Apartheid and boycotts are matters of the past, but the complex entanglements of empire still resound. This year's opening ceremony was marked by a small protest of indigenous activists decrying colonial legacies, while the official opening ceremony elaborately celebrated indigenous culture. From an outsider's perspective, the whole affair has always seemed a little off, at least on the surface: Why would you voluntarily come together to play in the spirit of the nation whose control you fought to shed? More generally, why keep this old-world event alive?
But these simplistic critiques deny three key factors of the modern Commonwealth Games. First, the sporting event need not be a top-down vestige of colonial oppression; it can often become a site of both real and symbolic resistance. The nature of this resistance has changed as relationships among the Commonwealth nations have certainly shifted, but history does not simply disappear, and the games remain a proving ground for national identities. Second, the Commonwealth itself has always been a soft-power association. For those willing to accept the viability of soft power, sports have proved to be a consistent vehicle, and it shouldn't be a surprise that the games are one of only two regular events on the Commonwealth calendar (the meeting of the heads of its states is the other). Finally, at the risk of sounding like an imperial apologist, the sustained success of the games confirms that — for better or worse — much of the world remains linked by vestiges of a not-too-distant colonial past. To not seek progress and understanding through these common cultural bonds solely because of an ugly past seems both foolish and shortsighted.