Glasgow 2014: The Politics Of The Commonwealth Games

And so the ‘friendly games’ begin. An opening ceremony filled with humour, tartan and an inexplicable amount of John Barrowman marked the start of the twentieth Commonwealth Games, a postcolonial curiosity has managed to endure almost a century of drastic political change.

Naturally a home games will always attract more attention in the UK, but Glasgow 2014 feels like a big deal. The enthusiasm of the host city is a marked change from the disinterest that greeted Delhi four years ago and despite injury and one or two exceptions, the Commonwealth’s biggest athletes are mostly here – including Usain Bolt.

This is Scotland’s chance to build on the momentum generated by London 2012 and the Rugby League World Cup last year and continue it onto the Rugby World Cup in 2015, as the UK’s ‘Golden Decade’ of sport continues.

But there’s an unavoidable elephant in the room – the issue of Scottish independence. Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has promised he won’t politicise the games, but many will be waiting to see what kind of impact, if any, the games have on the referendum in September.

Commonwealth Origins

It’s the latest development in the political role of what started in 1930 in Hamilton, Canada as the British Empire Games. The first iteration was intended to strengthen Britain’s cultural ties with its colonies at a time when its formal control was weakening.

Sport, along with the English language, is arguably Britain’s greatest gift to the world and it spread first to the colonies, meaning many sports are played only by members of the Commonwealth. The greatest achievement in lawn bowls, netball and squash, which are not in the Olympics, is Commonwealth gold and the games offer a chance for these athletes to compete at a global multi-sport event.

But as the twentieth century progressed, the relationship between the UK and its former lands became Anglo-centric and the Commonwealth’s focus turned to culture and land rather than trade and defence. It also became a forum in which smaller nations could make their voices heard, rather than the United Nations and International Olympic Committee, where debate was dominated by issues like the Cold War.

1986 Commonwealth Games © Glasgow 2014

Political dimension

The New Zealand rugby team’s tour of apartheid South Africa in 1976 prompted a boycott of the Olympics in Montreal later that year by 25 African nations, but the statement was overshadowed by the ‘Two Chinas debate.

The threat of a similar boycott of the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton had much more impact. Canada, keen to maintain the appeal of its competition, helped broker the Gleneagles Agreement, which allowed for the expulsion of members from the Commonwealth.

Attentions eventually turned to the UK’s own stance on apartheid, with 32 nations boycotting Edinburgh 1986 over Britain’s unwillingness to impose tougher sanctions on South Africa. Ironically, what had been created as a vehicle to maintain Britain’s informal dominance over its colonies was now being used to criticise it by newly-independent nations.

The modern games

GlasgowFast forward 28 years and the Games are very different. The pageantry is still there – the Queen’s Baton Relay is just one of a number of such traditions – but the event is much more modern and has a sense of commercial awareness. The political element remains, but it has evolved, and the issue of Scottish independence is the latest evolution.

The values of the Commonwealth as an organisation can be debated, but the existence of the games that bear its name can be justified. For non-Olympic sports it provides a global showcase, while it also gives British athletes the chance to compete for England, Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales, creating a unique competitive environment.

Scotland is never likely to host an Olympic Games in the future, so Glasgow 2014 is a major opportunity to showcase the country and the city to the world. Along with the advent of lottery funding, Manchester 2002 acted as a catalyst for Britain’s sporting renaissance over the past decade, generating momentum, creating world class training facilities and ultimately leading to a successful Olympic bid.

If nothing else, Glasgow will create a lasting legacy for future Scottish athletes, whether they compete for Great Britain or an independent Scotland.

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