Commonwealth Games: colonial relic or valid sporting event?

As the dust settles on the Commonwealth Games, Sports editor Seoras Lyall offers some reflection on what has proven to be a controversial event.

credits- Gabriella Wolf

The Commonwealth Games is perhaps one of the more bizarre sporting events in the calendar. Generally speaking, the members of the Commonwealth participate in their equivalent of the Olympics every four years. The Commonwealth is essentially an intergovernmental organisation that consists of countries that have ties to the former British Empire. Although, there are some exceptions; Rwanda and Mozambique are also members despite not having been part of the Empire for the most part. Similarly, not every country that was part of the Empire is a member of the Commonwealth nor participates in the games. Myanmar and the Republic of Ireland are prime examples, as are other nations which Britain had a mandate over such as Iraq. This year the Games was hosted by Australia in the city of Gold Coast which is just south of Brisbane in the east of the country. The usual events were on display for all to see such as athletics, along with some more niche ones such as race walk. Rugby 7s was also played, while basketball was reintroduced, and beach volleyball made its debut.

As is perhaps already apparent, the Commonwealth Games has a reputation for becoming inherently political. The Commonwealth is often critiqued as being the last bastion of imperialism and the Games is often thrown into that argument. At times therefore, it can be difficult to focus on the sport. This is not aided by the fact that sometimes the athletes choose to use the event as an opportunity to make a political statement. This year, Tom Daley made an impassioned plea for Commonwealth countries to decriminalise homosexuality, as is currently the case in 70 per cent of them. The apparent desertion of several athletes from Cameroon was also disconcerting, although their motives are as yet unknown.

Despite these politics, there was some actual sport that took place. As was inevitable, Australia absolutely dominated the medals table. They had nearly double the amount of golds as second placed England with 80 and finished with nearly 200 in total. Little wonder then that they are the most successful nation at the Commonwealth Games of all time. However, they did not have it all their way. England’s netball team caused a sensation by scoring a lastminute winner to claim gold in front of a huge crowd.

Yet it wasn’t just in the netball that there was some success for the home nations. Perhaps the most surprising story was the Scottish men’s basketball team. For context, the Great British team are 40th in the world, let alone Scotland alone. In the group stages they just about saw off 62nd placed India and 65th placed Cameroon, but this was after they stunned the auld enemy, England, by 78-65. This included a remarkable fourth-quarter performance that saw them turn a one-point lead into 13. In the qualifying round they then stunned inform Nigeria (ranked 32nd) to reach the semi-finals. Unfortunately, the fairy-tale ended there for Scotland, who then lost to hosts Australia and then missed out on a bronze medal to New Zealand. Yet given their lack of budget and how rarely the team is able to play together on a regular basis, it was a massive achievement and one of the underdog stories of the games. It was certainly a highlight of what has been a stellar campaign for Scotland. They were never expected to perform on the same levels at they did at Glasgow. While in 2014 they won 53 medals, 19 of them gold, in Australia it was 44 and nine.  Yet these were an exceptional Games for the Scots. They exceeded their target by 14 medals and this was their most successful Games away from home.

England however did not quite perform to their high expectations. You would imagine that after winning 136 medals there would be a degree of satisfaction but no. In terms of percentage of medals won, this was England’s second worst ever Games. Their star performers, Adam Peaty, Jonny Brownlee, and Max Whitlock all failed to deliver. Meanwhile Wales had their most successful ever Commonwealth Games, while Northern Ireland equalled their medal tally from Glasgow. So overall it was a mixed bag for the home nations.

Some people have asked if the Commonwealth Games is fit for purpose. Is it merely a relic of the past that seeks only to accentuate and perpetuate a legacy of colonialism and imperialism. It has been branded an act of soft power in an effort to maintain Britain’s image as a significant player on the world stage, able to maintain cultural and historical ties with nations across the globe. Despite all this and the issues raised by figures such as Daley, the Games go on. Personally, watching Scotland competing as its own nation at a Games is a perplexing and novel thing which would not be possible anywhere else. Ultimately, anything that allows me to watch race walking at one in the morning on a Saturday night I am for.


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