Commonwealth Games: Relic of a lost empire

Once every four years, Britain’s erstwhile territories assemble for one of the world’s largest sporting events.

A prestigious affair: The Indian athletic team marches during the opening ceremony of the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, Wales, on July 18, 1958. For the first time, the number of participants crossed the thousand mark – 1,122 athletes from 35 countries. India won its first medal since the 1934 Games – Milkha Singh (athletics) and Lila Ram (wrestling) won medals for India.

A prestigious affair: The Indian athletic team marches during the opening ceremony of the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, Wales, on July 18, 1958. For the first time, the number of participants crossed the thousand mark – 1,122 athletes from 35 countries. India won its first medal since the 1934 Games – Milkha Singh (athletics) and Lila Ram (wrestling) won medals for India. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Once every four years, Britain’s erstwhile territories assemble for one of the world’s largest sporting events.

The British take their royalty seriously. The way the platinum jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II was celebrated recently showed how much the royalty still means to the British public.

Wimbledon is an annual reminder of the importance of British royalty to the rest of the world. That the current royal patron of the world’s most famous tennis tournament is Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, helps; she is a keen tennis fan. She was seen talking to the Wimbledon men’s singles champion Novak Djokovic for several minutes after his triumph earlier this month.

The sun may have long set on the British empire, but once every four years, its erstwhile territories assemble for one of the world’s largest sporting events. The 22nd edition of the Commonwealth Games opens at Birmingham on July 28.

The first one was staged in 1930 at Hamilton. An idea of such a games was suggested nearly four decades before that, though. Through a letter to the editor of  The Times, published on October 30, 1891, John Astley Cooper, an Adelaide-born English clergyman, had proposed “a Pan-Britannic-Pan-Anglican Contest and Festival every four years as a means of increasing goodwill and good understanding of the British Empire.”

Growing in stature

Cooper passed away in the year of the inaugural games. It wasn’t called the Commonwealth Games, though. It was called the British Empire Games, till 1950. From 1954 to 1966 it was known as the British Empire and Commonwealth Games. The 1970 and 1974 editions were called the British Commonwealth Games. From 1978 onwards it has been simply the Commonwealth Games. It is not just the nomenclature that has changed for the games over the last nine decades. It has grown in size and stature too.

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In the first edition of the Games held at Hamilton, a Canadian port city, only 400 athletes from 11 countries took part and contests were held in just athletics, swimming, boxing, wrestling and lawn balls. Swimming was the only competition open to women. England finished on top of the medals table with 25 gold and 61 overall. Host Canada was second with 20 gold, while South Africa was third with six.

The second edition was allotted to Johannesburg but because of the South African government’s apartheid policy, it was moved to London, where 17 countries fielded 500 athletes. The 1934 Games also saw women being allowed to compete in athletics. Host England retained its top spot in the medals tally, with 29 gold and 73 overall, way ahead of second-placed Canada, which won 17 gold; Australia was third, with eight. India took part for the first time and won a solitary medal, through wrestler Rashid Anwar.

The Games moved Down Under in 1938 as 15 countries assembled in Sydney with 464 athletes.

Prosperous Proteas: The South African cricket team celebrates after winning the gold medal in the Commonwealth Games in 1998. It was the first time cricket, a popular sport in the Commonwealth, was made a part of the Games. Australia won silver. India did not field a full-strength squad and failed to qualify from the group stage.

Prosperous Proteas: The South African cricket team celebrates after winning the gold medal in the Commonwealth Games in 1998. It was the first time cricket, a popular sport in the Commonwealth, was made a part of the Games. Australia won silver. India did not field a full-strength squad and failed to qualify from the group stage. | Photo Credit: GETTY IMAGES

The third edition witnessed for the first time England being displaced at the top of the medals table. Host Australia won 25 gold and 66 medals overall, England had to be content with the second place with 15 gold, while Canada came third with 13. Decima Norman was the star of the games, winning five gold in athletics for the host.

Miracle mile

The next Games would only be held in 1950, after the Second World War. Auckland played host to the fourth edition, with 590 athletes from 12 countries. Australia with 34 gold medals retained the top position in the medals tally, followed by England (19) and host New Zealand (10). The Games’ sixth edition held at Vancouver in 1954 proved the biggest yet with the presence of 24 countries and 662 athletes. It is remembered more for what many consider the greatest-ever mile contest. The Miracle Mile featured stunning shows from England’s Roger Bannister and Australia’s John Landy. Both the men clocked sub-four; it was for the first time that two runners did it in the same race. It was 1-2 for England and Australia in the medals tally too, as they claimed 23 and 20 gold, respectively; South Africa was third with 16.

Australian swimming legend Dawn Fraser and her compatriot Herb Elliott, who would go on to win the gold in the 1960 Rome Olympics in the men’s 1500m, lit up the seventh edition of the Games at Cardiff in 1958. For the first time, the number of participants crossed the thousand mark – 1,122 athletes from 35 countries. The Welsh capital also saw India climbing the podium for the first time since the 1934 Games. Milkha Singh (men’s 440 yards in athletics) and Lila Ram (men’s freestyle wrestling 100kg class) won the gold and there was silver for Lakhshmi Kant Pandey (men’s freestyle wrestling 73kg class).

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The Games returned to Australia in 1962, with Perth playing the host. Then it moved to the Jamaican capital Kingston in the West Indies in 1966, Edinburgh in 1970 and Christchurch in 1974 before it reached Edmonton in Canada in 1978 for the 11th edition, the first to be called the Commonwealth Games.

Colour and jazz: White whale Migaloo floats above the Carrara Stadium in Gold Coast during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Commonwealth Games. More than 4,000 athletes from 71 countries participated in the 21st edition of the Games.

Colour and jazz: White whale Migaloo floats above the Carrara Stadium in Gold Coast during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Commonwealth Games. More than 4,000 athletes from 71 countries participated in the 21st edition of the Games. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Twenty years later in Kuala Lumpur, the Games began to resemble what it is now with the introduction of team sports, among which was cricket, a game popular in many British Commonwealth nations. South Africa won the gold, beating Australia by four wickets (the competition, only for men, was held in the ODI format). India, which did not field a full-strength squad because the Games clashed with the Sahara Cup ODI series against Pakistan in Canada, failed to qualify from the group stage.

Cricket, however, disappeared from the Commonwealth Games schedule after that. It would make a return at Birmingham with the women’s T20.

When the last edition – the 21st – was held at Gold Coast in Australia, there were 4,426 athletes, from 71 countries, vying for 275 golds in 18 disciplines. It has been a long and rewarding journey for the Commonwealth Games from Hamilton.

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