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Is the Commonwealth Games worth the bother any more?

The 19th Commonwealth Games concluded yesterday, with its long-term future being questioned by many after an event which received overwhelmingly negative coverage at the hands of the media of many of its major participating nations. Some of it was undoubtedly deserved; some not. The question is: was it all worth it?

I’m not going to focus on the pros and cons in great detail, but here are my top-of-mind thoughts.

The good

Firstly, there are definite positives. A Commonwealth Games provides a focal point for infrastructure development which has certainly left legacy benefits in previous host cities such as Kuala Lumpur (1998) and Manchester (2002). Delhi should be no different.

The Games have also provided a platform for new, up-and-coming names to gain experience of international competition, albeit not always at the highest level. Who knows how many of these English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh athletes might be genuine medal contenders for Great Britain by the time London 2012 rolls around?

And finally, the fervent support of the Indian crowds for their own competitors provided some fantastically atmospheric moments. Watching Tintu Luka lead a high-quality field for three-quarters of the women’s 800m final (before eventually fading to finish sixth), I was convinced the roar from the crowd might be enough to lift the roof off the stadium.

The bad and the ugly

However, the downside has been that we were also treated to images of half-full venues and pin drop-quiet atmospheres on a regular basis. Too often it was too difficult or expensive for genuine fans to attend the events. Too many tickets were allocated to corporate sponsors and left unused.

Suresh Kalmadi, the chairman of the Games Organising Committee, was booed by Indian spectators during the opening ceremony, subsequently thanked Princess Diana for attending, and did not help his credibility any further by making wildly optimistic pronouncements about how well things were going when media evidence so often revealed the contrary. He even stated that the main stadium would be ready in time for the start of the track and field competition – fully three days after the opening ceremony – and claimed there were no problems despite pictures showing a small army of workers still frantically laying the track the evening before the competition started. In the end, everything went ahead with only minor glitches, but it was a close-run thing.

There were plenty of controversies which directly affected competitors – crowds making noise when they shouldn’t, dodgy disqualifications and a smattering of positive drug tests – but then there are at any major championships.

And, of course, there were all the infrastructure problems. Collapsing bridges. Blocked-up toilets in the athletes village. Dengue fever and food poisoning. The scale of the chaos was undoubtedly overstated – and a number of athletes did make comments to this effect – but there was far too much playing on convenient but outdated stereotypes for my liking (“Oh look! Delhi belly, snigger snigger”) and too much evident glee at organisational cock-ups. It made certain sections of the British media look terribly snobbish, a complaint also raised by the organisers of this year’s Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

I haven’t even mentioned the alleged problems with corruption, the spiralling costs which took investment away from other needed areas, the forced relocation of 400,000 people from Delhi slums to accommodate construction projects, or the use of child labour, among other controversies. I have now.

A lot of the above is a matter of editorial interpretation. Some things went wrong – things always go wrong in an exercise of this scale – but I suspect that much of the bad was exaggerated and much of the good was quietly glossed over.

What was far less debatable, though, was the absence of world-class competition in many of the events.

Missing in action

Okay, the nature and composition of the Commonwealth – no USA, China or Russia for starters – means that many of the world’s sporting superpowers are naturally missing from a Commonwealth Games. Of the top 12 nations in the Beijing Olympics medals table only two Commonwealth countries, Great Britain (fourth overall) and Australia (sixth) were represented. Combined, the pair would have accumulated just one more gold than the USA – enough to claim a theoretical second spot, but still some distance behind the hosts China. As a whole, although there are pockets of dominance – cycling, yachting and middle and long-distance running, for instance – the Commonwealth as a whole is generally competitive at best, and also-rans in many cases.

Now compare the Olympic medal table to the final tally from Delhi where Australia and England, along with the hosts India, won 149 out of a total of 272 golds. That’s more than the other 68 nations put together: 55% of Commonwealth golds concentrated in just three countries. It illustrates just how little strength in depth there is behind Australia and the British nations. Take out Canada, South Africa and Kenya, and the field thins out dramatically quickly.

Obviously, a Games missing the collective might of the Americans, Russians and Chinese is always going to be lacking marquee stars in most events. But when you also factor in the considerable number of big name absentees from Commonwealth countries – many of whom opted not to compete because the Games was such a low priority for them – it was hard not to feel a massive sense of deflation.

Without turning this into an event-by-event who’s who, here are a handful of examples which illustrate the resultant lack of both depth and top-level quality which permeated so many events at the Commonwealth Games:

  • Commonwealth athletes missing from the track and field competition included Usain Bolt (world record holder in the 100m and 200m), Asafa Powell (former 100m WR holder) and David Rudisha (800m WR holder).
  • British current or former world champions absent from the track and field competition included triple jumper Phillips Idowu, heptathlete Jessica Ennis and 400m runner Christine Ohuruogu.
  • Louise Hazel won the heptathlon for England in Ennis’s absence with a lifetime best score which would have seen her finish just tenth in last year’s World Championships
  • Australia turned the track cycling competition into an extended version of their national championships, winning 12 out of 14 golds in track cycling. (They also added two out of four in the road events.) Missing from the England and Scotland teams were Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins, Victoria Pendleton and Rebecca Romero – winners of seven gold medals between them in Beijing.

Who’s in the Commonwealth, anyway?

Finally, there is the somewhat woolly definition of eligibility for the Commonwealth Games. As it currently stands, you do not – as I had always assumed – have to have been a member of the British Empire to be eligible to compete at the Games. You need merely agree to abide by certain basic principles (the Harare Declaration) such as being a fully sovereign state, recognising the Queen as the head of the Commonwealth and the adoption of Kylie Minogue as a national treasure. (It’s possible I may have made up one of these statements.)

Mozambique, for instance, was actually a Portuguese colony rather than a British one, yet has competed at the Commonwealth Games since 1998. (Presumably they were feeling a bit left out because so many of their neighbours were already invited to the party.)

Basically, the rules for Commonwealth membership have changed so often that hardly anyone knows what they are any more. As selection criteria go, it’s rather random.

Anyway, to return to my original question: was it all worth it?

The sad thing is, I couldn’t really tell you, simply because I didn’t watch very much of it. Sure, I saw quite a lot of the cycling, some of the track and field, and a little bit here and there of other events. But there were also whole days where I couldn’t have named a single medallist.

Contrast that to a football World Cup or European Championships, or an Olympic Games, where I will watch and read as much I possibly can. The same goes for a World Athletics Championships or the Tour de France, where I wrote in excess of 50,000 words’ worth of blog posts in the space of four weeks. Indeed, barely a week before the start of the Commonwealth Games I was going out of my way to ensure I at least caught the closing stages of every race at cycling’s Road World Championships, despite the time zone issues created by their being held in Australia.

But the Commonwealths? My attendance was strictly optional. A bit like many of the potential competitors, really. And that, I think, says it all. When there is a general sense of ennui about a major sporting event and it falls into the category of ‘nice to do’ rather than ‘must do’, then the point of the undertaking must surely come into question. Which leaves me wondering whether the Commonwealth Games, like the British Empire which spawned it, is now an anachronism which has long since had its day.

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