This debate did not start yesterday, or the day before. The question of the relevance of the Commonwealth Games has engaged the minds of sports enthusiasts, administrators, journalists, historians, independent observers and researchers for quite some time now, leading to heated debates, particularly after the dawn of the current millennium.
Little wonder then that the scepticism about the multi-discipline quadrennial event has grown in recent weeks, with Gold Coast, Australia, all set to host the 21st edition of the Commonwealth Games from April 4 to 15.
What started as a platform to counter the growing hegemony of the United States in sport and provide the athletes of the Commonwealth nations — who had either accidentally or by design come under the yoke of the British rule — the opportunity to excel, the Games, which began in 1930, have indeed stood the test of time despite its trials and tribulations.
A relic of a bygone era
However, the suggestion that the Commonwealth Games is a relic of the bygone era has some merit. That the concept of the Commonwealth is now an anachronism is an established fact. Most of the one-time British colonies, after gaining independence, have become republics, electing their own heads of states instead of recognising the British monarchy as its sovereign head. While this has, politically, triggered the questions on the relevance of the Commonwealth in today’s fast-moving world, one of the more compelling issues — in terms of sports — that has raised doubts about the relevance of the Commonwealth Games in recent years has been the event’s failure to attract the top stars in different disciplines.
A number of star athletes have given the Games a go-by in the past, and the story in Gold Coast is not going to be any different. It has been confirmed that a bevy of top athletes will not be making the trip Down Under, leading to quite an uproar and disenchantment among the fans in the host city and elsewhere.
As in any event of the magnitude of the Commonwealth Games, athletics is the prime discipline. The Gold Coast Games has already been dealt a big blow with the South African superstar, Wayde van Niekerk, opting out. The sprinter, seen as the legitimate heir to the throne vacated by Jamaican Usain Bolt last year, is nursing a knee injury he suffered while figuring in a celebrity rugby match.
Among the other prominent athletes who have decided to give the Games a miss are Olympic and World champion high hurdler Omar McLeod of Jamaica, high profile marathon runner Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda, long jumper Greg Rutherford, Kenyan stars Faith Kipyeon, David Rudisha and Asbel Kiprop, and the swimming sensation from Singapore, Joseph Schooling.
Nevertheless, the 12-day Games will have close to 6000 athletes from 71 countries, and new champions are bound to emerge in Gold Coast. But to the hardcore fans of the Games, who were expecting to see the top stars in action, this can never be a compensation.
The relevance of the Games
It is not that the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF), though often helpless on this count, turns a blind eye to such incidents, or the growing criticism against its most valuable brand (Commonwealth Games is the fourth biggest sports congregation, after the Olympics, the Asian Games and the Pan-American Games). The CGF’s defence has always been simple: that unlike the Olympics or such similar events, the Commonwealth Games is the most inclusive of all sports competitions in the world.
One still remembers the efforts of the former CGF president, Mike Hooper, to explain the relevance of the Commonwealth Games, in Glasgow four years ago, when the obvious question was put to him. “We are in no way a rival to the Olympic Games,which is the ultimate of all sport. But tell me one Olympic Games in which all the top stars were present. In sport, athletes are forced to withdraw owing to varying reasons, and this is the reality of life. It would have made us happier had every athlete worth his name been present here, but given the schedule of competitions in each and every sport nowadays, it was never going to happen.
“You may question the relevance of the Commonwealth Games, but to all of us in the CGF, and the world at large, these Games are unique in the sense that they are representative of all the continents and oceans, underlining our core values — Humanity, Equality and Destiny. Not for nothing is the fact that these Games are often referred to as the Friendly Games, one which provides the opportunity for every athlete to perform at his best and gain world-wide recognition,” Hooper had said then.
Beyond such stout defence, the CGF, it has to be admitted, has been constantly attempting to uphold its vision, mission, values and strategic priorities in the conduct of the Games, and making it more beneficial to the cities that come forward to host it. The Transformation Plan, unveiled in 2015, which will run until 2022, is emphatic about the actions to be taken by the whole movement to preserve the ideals promoted by the founding fathers of the Games.
Any narrative on the Commonwealth Games will not be complete without the mention of India and its athletes, who through the years have made a definite mark in this event. Though the track record of the Indian athletes was quite dismal after the nation had joined the movement in 1934, the upswing in their fortunes can be traced to 2002, before the historic second position finish in the medals tally at home in 2010. In Glasgow 2014, the Indian contingent, with a haul of 15 gold, 30 silver and 19 bronze medals, had finished fifth.
Indian athletes have had many heroic wins at these Games, and as such much is expected of the 225-member contingent that will make the trip to Gold Coast. That the Indian athletes were not unduly bothered about the talk of the relevance of the Commonwealth Games came through loud and clear, as a majority of them were only pleased with the opportunity to represent the country in the international arena. The sports administrators from India, too, were equivocal in their support of the Games. “I see all this talk on the Commonwealth Games, when it is on the verge of happening every four years, as just a fashion statement,” said one top-ranking official, while another condemned the Government for poor funding and the media for its failure to provide consistent support to the Olympic disciplines.
What the Games means to Indians
In a country where a sportsperson is provided monetary support to the tune of a meagre 3 paisa a day — according to an admission by the Union Sports Minister, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, himself in the Parliament — it is events such as the Commonwealth Games that provide him the platform to prove his potential and earn some laurels.
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An athlete, speaking on the promise of anonymity, cited the example of Dipa Karmakar, who had won the bronze medal in Glasgow. “She was winning at the National level consistently over the years, but hardly anyone took notice. But all this was to change for the better with the bronze medal she won in Glasgow, and suddenly she was treated like a star. And when she won a berth for the Rio Olympics, the nation was euphoric. Ditto, when she missed out on an Olympic medal by the narrowest of margins,” the athlete said.
“This only shows the importance of the Commonwealth Games to India. Furthermore, all of us treat our performances in Rio as a flop show. But without realising that our highest tally of six medals in the 2012 London Olympics was the result of the huge financial support provided by the Government in the run-up to the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.
“With the scars (allegations of financial irregularities and corruption by the central government) of the 2010 Commonwealth Games haunting the country, and the economic slowdown thereafter, the budgets were slashed and never restored until recently. The suffocation that our sportspersons suffered in the interim was terrible, and this led to the poor showing in Rio,” the he added.
Dipa, unfortunately, is not part of the Indian squad for Gold Coast owing to an injury. However, the India contingent comprises several talented youngsters, all eager to do their country proud in the Australian city.
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