Commonwealth Games still thinking big with Birmingham 2022 a frontrunner for change
very four years, questions are posed over the relevance of the Commonwealth Games, their purpose and their future.
British comedian John Oliver took it a step further by asking, “what the f*** are the Commonwealth Games?” in a sideways glance at the multi-sport event.
And yet, 92 years on from their inception (originally as the Empire Games), Birmingham prepares to play host to the 22nd edition.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson described the event as the city’s “time to shine” — and the same could be said about the Games as a whole.
Sure, they have their quirks — Oliver called them as an “off-Broadway Olympics” — but the Games have also acted as the springboard to some of the bigger names in British and global sport.
It was at the Commonwealth Games where Chris Froome was first discovered, riding for Kenya, by then British Cycling chief Sir Dave Brailsford. They were the backdrop for Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe to win a first major title, so too Olympic 400metre champions Cathy Freeman and Christine Ohuruogu.
Birmingham 2022 will no doubt be the conduit for a fresh raft of stars, but the Games are more than merely an opening platform for future sporting greatness.
The so-called Friendly Games are not afraid to play with the traditional format. This is the first time in history at a multi-sport event where more medals will be awarded to women than men, while there are more Parasport medals than ever before.
Cricket makes a Games return in the T20 format but for women only, while esports debuts as a demonstration event outside the official Games programme but with a view to its permanent inclusion in the future. If successful, there are suggestions the International Olympic Committee might include esports into their programme as early as 2028.
The IOC were adamant at the Tokyo Olympics last summer and again in Beijing at the Winter Games that athlete protests would not be permitted. In stark contrast, the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) have said they will welcome such protests with open arms in Birmingham.
With athletes increasingly finding their collective voice around such issues as Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+, it will send a powerful message. At the last Games, in Australia’s Gold Coast, Tom Daley spoke eloquently about how half of the nations competing at the Games still have anti-LGBTQ+ laws.
He said: “You want to feel comfortable in who you are when you are standing on that diving board, and for 37 Commonwealth countries that are here participating, that is not the case. I feel with the Commonwealth we can really help push some of the other nations to relax their laws on anti-gay stuff.”
There is also the wider question of the future of the Commonwealth. On the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s tour of the Caribbean earlier this year there were very vocal protests throughout the islands and a call for reparations, with Prince William forced to apologise for “abhorrent slavery”. Such noises, one suspects, will only get louder in future years.
His father, the Prince of Wales, will open the Games for the 30,000 fans inside Alexander Stadium tonight, as 6,500 athletes congregate in Birmingham from 72 Commonwealth nations to compete over 11 days.
More than one million tickets have been sold, but there are plenty available, and there is an absence of some of the stardust that might have been there, in part due to scheduling, with the World Athletics Championships and European Championships either side of it. The most recent notable absentee is Dina Asher-Smith, revealing yesterday that a hamstring strain picked up in Eugene last week would prevent her participation. Daley is missing, so too Max Whitlock, taking time out from their respective sports.
And yet there are still British star turns aplenty, from Adam Peaty in the pool to six-time Olympic track cycling gold medallist Laura Kenny. Internationally, there is swimmer Emma McKeon, who won seven medals and four golds at the Tokyo Olympics, plus fellow Australian, cricketing superstar Ellyse Perry (left).
The Games will continue to be forward thinking. A hope of a first event in Africa fell by the wayside when original host Durban was replaced by Birmingham, with £778m spent in four years on making the Games a reality.
And the Games’ future is assured for a while hence, with Victoria acting as host next time and Hamilton lined up 100 years on from the inaugural event there in 1930. With the BBC again televising the Games, expect them to come to the forefront of the public consciousness once more when the action officially gets under way tomorrow.