Are the Commonwealth Games still gold standard?

Alistair Brownlee leads the England team out during the Games' opening ceremony this week. (PA).
Alistair Brownlee leads the England team out during the Games' opening ceremony this week. (PA).
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This year’s Commonwealth Games are up and running on the Gold Coast. But do they still matter to people, or are they a symbol of a bygone age? Chris Bond reports.

IN the run-up to the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow four years ago there was a wave of despondency amid concerns that attendances would be poor, Scotland wouldn’t do very well and the weather would be miserable.

The men's gymnastics team won England's first gold medal of the Games. (PA).

The men's gymnastics team won England's first gold medal of the Games. (PA).

As it turned out these fears were all misplaced – there was even a mini heatwave with temperatures soaring to 27C in a city more accustomed to leaden skies and drizzle.

The competition saw several world records broken and led to Glasgow 2014 being labelled the “best Commonwealth Games ever.”

The event was seven years in the planning and produced plenty of memorable moments, while in many people’s eyes the big winner was Glasgow itself which received fulsome praise for its “gallus and glittering” hosting.

Organisers, too, hailed the Games and its legacy which they said had driven up participation in sport in Scotland in the space of just 12 months.

Mick Hill, seen here competing in 1998, represented his country at numerous major championships and believes the Commonwealth Games are important. (PA).

Mick Hill, seen here competing in 1998, represented his country at numerous major championships and believes the Commonwealth Games are important. (PA).

But even though it was seen as a triumph of organisation and public enthusiasm, questions remain over the long-term future of the Commonwealth Games.

Durban had been awarded the event in 2022 – and was due to be the first African city to host the Commonwealth Games – but the decision was reversed amid issues over a series of missed deadlines and financial problems. Birmingham has since stepped in but the situation over Durban highlights the daunting burdens facing cities that host major sporting events like this.

There are questions, too, about whether the Games themselves are relevant in this day and age. Echoes of colonialism still surround the event which started life in 1930 as the British Empire Games and didn’t drop the word “empire” until 1966.

However, its supporters believe the modern incarnation of what’s been dubbed the ‘Friendly Games’ has evolved into something that’s not only about sporting prowess but is also a celebration of shared values.

This year the spotlight has fallen on Australia’s Gold Coast with more than 6,600 athletes and team officials from 71 nations and territories competing across 18 sports and seven para-sports.

It’s the largest sporting event Australia has hosted for a decade – and the biggest one ever to come to the Gold Coast – plus it gives sports fans Down Under the chance to take their minds off the cricket.

England topped the medal table four years ago ahead of arch rivals Australia and will be hoping to repeat that success – they’ve certainly made a good start, picking up six gold medals on the first day (despite neither of the Brownlee brothers making the podium in the triathlon).

Some critics argue that it’s time to put the Games to bed, but with a global TV audience of more than a billion it appears that for all the concerns about the Games’ relevance in the 21st century there’s still an appetite for top quality sport between nations.

Former world number two javelin thrower Mick Hill, now a senior coach at Leeds Beckett University, has two Commonwealth Games medals to his name and believes the event does still matter. “I was lucky enough to go to four Commonwealth Games and of the twenty major championships I went to they were very significant for me. And when the guy carrying the English flag at the opening ceremony is Alistair Brownlee, a double Olympic champion and multiple world champion, you see it obviously matters to him.”

But while the Olympics is unquestionably box office gold, the same can’t necessarily be said of the Commonwealth Games. Four years ago the fastest man on earth brought a touch of stardust to proceedings and the home crowd roared as Usain Bolt led Jamaica to gold in the 4x100 metres relay.

The Olympic track hero has since hung up his running shoes, leaving the Commonwealth Games, not to mention athletics itself, pondering the question, how do you solve a problem like Usain?

Not since Mohammed Ali was in his pomp has a sport star attracted such universal adoration and acclaim as Usain Bolt. But with the talismanic figure now retired he has left behind a superstar-sized hole that isn’t likely to be filled any time soon.

“It’s sad that he’s not there but you can’t go on forever,” says Hill. “The sport existed before Usain and it’s going to have to exist without him, but someone might come out and do something incredible and they may be the next superstar.”

As he points out, the Games are an opportunity for new talent to emerge on the international stage. “For those aspiring to reach the pinnacle of their sport it’s a fantastic stepping stone and it’s an opportunity to find out how good they are. There are people who have gone out there for their first major championships that no one will have heard of and are trying to make a name for themselves in a multi-sport event.

“Suddenly you’re rubbing shoulders with netball players, gymnasts and hockey players, sports you wouldn’t normally come into contact with. It’s like a smaller, much friendlier, version of the Olympics.”

Hill will be keeping a close eye on those with links to the university, including race walkers Bethan Davies and Callum Wilkinson, as well as former student Laura Weightman who will be running in the 5,000 metres for the first time in a major championship.

It’s been said that for some athletes the Commonwealth Games aren’t top of their priorities, but when you look at the beaming faces of England’s gymnastics team – including double Olympic champion Max Whitlock and Leeds’s Olympic bronze medallist Nile Wilson – as they celebrated winning the men’s team event yesterday, then it’s hard to argue that they don’t matter.

“Some people might be aiming 
for bigger and better things in the summer and this is part of their preparations. But we have Olympic champions competing and giving the Games kudos. So it clearly does matter to a lot of people, but perhaps not everyone, and I guess that’s always been the case.”

The other argument is that the standard of competition isn’t as high as it is at an Olympics or a world championships, where the very best in each field are going for gold.

“In some events you could say it’s weaker, but it gives people a chance to get into a final and hopefully win a medal and if you win one medal in your career and it’s a Commonwealth Games one, I’m pretty sure it will take pride of place on the mantelpiece and something you’ll look back on in years to come with a lot of pride, because you can’t beat representing your country in a major games.”

And is there still enough public support for the Games?

“The viewing figures will tell the story,” says Hill. “It’s on in the middle of the night over here so I’m not expecting them to be through the roof like they were for the Olympics in London.

“But if you’re a sports fan and you’ve got a bit of insomnia then there’s some awesome stuff to watch.

Commonwealth of nations

The event was first held in Hamilton, Canada in 1930, when 11 countries sent a total of 400 athletes to compete.

Fast-forward to Glasgow 2014 and more than 4,500 athletes from 71 nations took part in 17 sports over 11 days.

Since they started, the Games have taken place every four years except for 1942 and 1946, due to the Second World War.

Australia has won the most Commonwealth medals in the Games’ history – 852 in total – though England topped the medal table in Glasgow four years ago.

Almost 15,000 people are working as volunteers at this year’s Games on the Gold Coast, and an estimated 1.5 billion people will be watching around the world.