Maybe it’s because I’m no great sports fan – a bad start to a column about sport, but just run with me a moment – that I could never understand the point of the Commonwealth Games.
They regularly and neatly fill the gaps in the cycle between the Olympic Games and, as such, they’re a bit like eating between meals. The Commonwealth Games are the sarnie you might have between lunch and dinner, just to keep you going, but you could easily live without. A bit of an indulgence, if you will.
The obvious flaw is that – unlike the Olympics, the World Athletics Championships, the World Cup and various other global events – these are international events, but with most of the world randomly excluded. There will be superb Kenyan long-distance runners, but not Somalis. There will be fine Australian swimmers, but not Americans. There will be British rowers – but no Chinese – going for gold in the women’s fours.
It’s a wonderful feeling to win any kind of medal in a major intentional championship (I imagine) but it must be odd that you can’t quite claim to be the best, second best or third best in the world because there’s a Czech or a Korean gymnast who you know would have beaten you easily, had their nation once happened to be a British colony.
And it’s a strange bunch of nations, not even defined by geography like the Asian Games or African Cup of Nations. No one ever criticises the Commonwealth Games, though, because “the friendly Games” do often have a nice fuzzy feel about them, and this time around they are cuddling up with the effortlessly unaffected bonhomie Sir Lenny Henry, who’s a kind of human hot water bottle. Everyone loves Lenny.
And I’m not going to be rude about Birmingham or Dudley, for that matter. People from Leicester are in no position to sneer at Midlands towns, and it’s snobby anyhow. Whenever I’ve been to Brum, I’ve found the folk unusually warm and kind – nothing like those Peaky Blinders types (though it has to be said, I think the people of Birmingham deserved better town planners over the decades of constant change in their built environment. It gives Brum the restless feel of a perpetual building site, as if it’s never been quite happy with its endowment of magnificent Victorian architecture).
But still, great venue as Birmingham is, the truth is that these Games are an anachronism. They began as the British Empire Games in the days when much of the map of the world was coloured an imperial pink – and bizarre as it seems now, there really was such a thing as “Global Britain”, even if most of the people who were part of that mission weren’t exactly willing participants.
British statesmen once believed that the empire – including the entire Indian sub-continent, and great swathes of Africa from the Cape to Cairo – could be welded into one huge supranational political, defence and economic unit with internal free trade and common customs rules for the rest of the world, much like the European Union, with the whole thing directed by London.
It would be a challenge to the growing power of the United States and the empires of Europe. The Empire and Commonwealth Games – like the pound sterling, the Royal Navy, and the monarchy – were designed to help unify this disparate group of peoples and territories into an invincible global power. It was an idea, funnily enough, pioneered by the greatest statesman to emerge from bustling “Brummagem”: Joe Chamberlain.
Well, it’s all gone now of course and, as Sir Lenny points out, some of the Commonwealth folk came to Britain to make better lives for themselves. As for the great imperial concept, we’ve just got some track and field events left, really. The Commonwealth itself is an archaism, and as such the Games are also a quaint leftover.
The Commonwealth just carries on as a kind of consolation prize for the British and, in particular, the House of Windsor, who could thus continue to pretend to have a world role when their realms and possessions behind the seas decided to be independent (and, increasingly, republics).
Such is the domineering success of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative in recruiting Britain’s former colonies that the Commonwealth should probably be renamed the Chinese Commonwealth.
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All the stuff to do with the Commonwealth – the heads of government meeting, the cultural links, the parliamentary union, the Games – is harmless enough, and so well-meaning and collegiate it’s hard to have a go at it: it would be like ranting at someone’s pet cat. Liz Truss wants a “new Commonwealth deal”, which I take to be yet another way for Britain to exert some influence in the world outside the EU and with a sickly economy.
It’s futile. The British always seem to want a big geopolitical role – Empire, Commonwealth, Europe, post-Brexit “Global Britain” – but are never happy with being themselves: a medium-sized, Ruritanian European state being overtaken by the likes of Mexico and Korea in GDP, one which no one else needs to take much notice of, and that’s fine.
I’m just gently pointing out that Birmingham, like Britain, doesn’t need to show off to the world, as if attention-seeking. If the Commonwealth and its friendly Games didn’t exist, we wouldn’t think of inventing it, and its main purpose is to please the Queen. Beyond that, though, what?