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What are the Commonwealth Games and Why should we care about them?

The Commonwealth Games began in Birmingham, England this morning (Aussie time, yesterday UK time)!

In the past, as someone who loves any kind of support (to watch not play – I am a very gifted supporter but not so gifted in the playing part), I always got behind the Commonwealth Games but as I realised the latest instalment was about to begin, I wondered who actually cares about the Commonwealth Games?

As a very strong sporting nation Australia has (in my lifetime) always dominated the games to the extent that it really seemed like Australia v. the other 70-odd nations competing.

The "Commonwealth Sport" logo

In fact, of the 21 incarnations of the games Australia has only not been at the top of the medal table on 8 occasions. Of these 8 occasions, all bar one saw England finish as the top dog. The one time neither Australia nor England topped the table was in 1978 when Canada reigned supreme. It should be noted that on this occasion Canada was the host nation.

You can technically argue that this was Canada’s second win as in 1911 they topped the medals at the Inter-Empire Championships that were held in London to celebrate the coronation of King George V.

While these are considered the pre-curser to the modern games, they are not usually included in the historical records for the Commonwealth Games for a number of reasons, notably as the UK competed as one team (not separate like in the Commonwealth Games) as did Australia and New Zealand as Australasia while the only other teams came from South Africa and Canada. There was also a very limited event schedule with just athletics, boxing, wrestling and two swimming events held.

Since 1990, Australia has only once not topped the table and that was in 2014 when the games were held in Glasgow. As a nation who expects to always win this was a blow for us Aussies and one of the reasons why we likely lost interest.

Athletes enter the British Empire Games held in Sydney, Australia in 1938. The would be the last games held until 1950 due to World War Two (Source: The Commonwealth Games Foundation)

But what are the Commonwealth Games?

The program of the first "Commonwealth" Games in 1930

Put simply they are the Olympics for only those nations who are members of the Commonwealth, held every four years.

Are you still not sure what they actually are?

What if I told you they were originally called the British Empire Games?

Got it now?

Basically, the games involve all of the nations who at one point were part of the British Empire and are now a member of the Commonwealth of nations (of which the Queen is the head).

The games debuted in 1930 and (in my opinion) were a way to maintain relations and links to the British Empire which at this time was fast falling apart. This is an interesting concept as sport has always been a way that Britain “Empire Builds”. I could say a lot about this as I wrote an entire thesis back in my history honours years at university on how Britain used sport as a tool for establishing and then maintaining empire.

I never realised it until I wrote this just now, but back when Australia voted in a referendum about leaving the Commonwealth and becoming independent when I was just a child, I remember that in our class at school we held a mini-mock debate about the pros and cons of leaving or staying in the Commonwealth. The main point that I remember putting forward as a reason to stay was that we always win the Commonwealth Games and if we were to leave, we couldn’t attend the games!

Places that no longer attend the games, as they are no longer members of the Commonwealth, include Hong Kong, Ireland (the Republic), South Arabia (today part of Yemen) and Zimbabwe. As you can see this is just a very short list!

Nations can remove the Queen as head of state and become a Republic but choose to remain a member of the Commonwealth. For example, this is what Barbados did last year. In fact, just 15 nations (including the UK) recognise the Queen as head of state.

A unique feature of the Commonwealth Games is that the dependent territories of the UK are able to compete under their own flag. This means that while there are just 54 member nations of the Commonwealth over 70 teams compete in the games. Interestingly, just three of these dependencies also compete at the Olympics under their own flag – these are the British Virgin Islands, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.

Members of the Commonwealth shown in dark blue while light blue are dependencies and overseas territories and orange are former members.

The sports contested at the Commonwealth Games are considered to be more popular within the Commonwealth than around the wider world. This is why some “odd” sports seem to be selected for competition while other seemingly more popular ones are omitted.

Lawn Bowls contested by the Australian team (Source: Birmingham 2022)

The sports that are currently included for these games are athletics, badminton, cycling, diving, hockey, gymnastics (including rhythmic), lawn bowls (yep!), netball, rugby sevens, squash, swimming, table tennis, triathlon, beach volleyball, weightlifting and wrestling. These 2022 games will also see cricket make a comeback and 3x3 basketball debut.

While many sports have debuted and never been seen again there have been several that were common place for a number of years but are no longer contested. These sports include synchronized swimming (1986-2010), fencing (1950-1970) and rowing (1930, 1938-1962). An interesting one-off sports to have been competed was ten-pin bowling (1998)!

After the 2018 games there were 14 Commonwealth members to have attended the Games across its history without winning a medal. The member who wins the “turning up” medal is Gibraltar who has attended 16 games without a medal. They are followed by Sierra Leone who has attended 12 games without a medal while Antigua & Barbuda, Belize and the Falkland Islands have all attended 10 games without a medal. Maybe this will be their games!

Like the Olympic Games, the Commonwealth Games today are inclusive of athletes with a disability but this wasn't always the case. In 1962 the Commonwealth Paraplegic Games debuted in Perth, Australia and were held three more times in 1966 (Kingston, Jamaica), 1970 (Edinburgh, Scotland) and 1974 (Dunedin, New Zealand).

Until 1994 there was no platform for athletes with a disability to compete at a Commonwealth level. At the 1994 games in Victoria, Canada sports for athletes with a disability were include in the exhibition sports but they were just that - exhibition sports not permanently included events. This changed in 2002 when athletes with a disability were included in a countries main team with para-sports included as part of the event program. This integrated program continues today.

Australian Clare Dennis pictured returning from the 1932 Summer Olympics (Source: Fairfax Archives)

When it comes to inclusion of women, unlike the Olympics, the Commonwealth Games have had women's events on all occasions. Though women have always been included in the Commonwealth Games program, at the first games in 1930 the only discipline women could enter was aquatics (diving and swimming events). Canada and South Africa dominated the women’s diving events while ladies from England, Scotland, Wales and Canada gained all the medals in the swimming events.

Australian women didn’t medal (and possibly were not featured) until the second instalment of the games in 1934. At this event two women took home medals for Australia; Clare Dennis won gold in the women’s 200 yard breaststroke while Lesley Thompson won silver in both the women’s springboard and platform diving events.

At the 1934 games women were also permitted to enter athletics events but their inclusion in many of the other sports would take considerable time. Today, in 2022 women have the greatest number of events in which to compete at Commonwealth level in the history of the games.

So why should we care about the Commonwealth Games? The word being tossed round is " friendly games". It seems that organisers are aware of this ongoing question about why the games exist. For this reason the games are explained as a way to bring to the Commonwealth together and embrace friendly competition. This is depicted by the games mascot which is a very bright and eclectic bull!

Yes it is a bull whose patchwork skin is said to represent the coming together of the diverse Commonwealth. It doesn't just represent everyone coming together but the nature of the patches, which are all equal, represent everyone coming together in equal partnership.

Why a bull? The Birmingham area (where the games are being held) has a long association with the bull and this was also reflected through the opening ceremony which also paid homage to the cities industrial history.

Not convinced that the Commonwealth Games are worth it?

Let's see what happens over the course of the 2022 games to see what the future holds for the "friendly games". After all the body that manages the games has had its own rebrand from The Commonwealth Games to Commonwealth Sport with the tag line - "sport is only the beginning", alluding to the fact that it is more than just sport. It will be interesting to see how this re-brand evolves.


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