Commonwealth Games: Can the Games survive?

By Lydia Anderson

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Valerie Adams, the New Zealand Flag bearer leads the New Zealand Commonwealth Games Team. Photo / Greg Bowker
Valerie Adams, the New Zealand Flag bearer leads the New Zealand Commonwealth Games Team. Photo / Greg Bowker

Beneath the excitement and triumphs of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, important questions linger. When the last crowds have dispersed and the athletes have packed up their medals, attention will once again turn to the future viability of the Games. Lydia Anderson reports.

The Commonwealth Games doesn't have the spectator grandeur of the Olympics or the fever of the Football World Cup and for the past few years commentators have questioned its significance in the modern sporting world.

While it continues to be a proud and well-loved tradition of Commonwealth camaraderie, it struggles to attract top athletes and competes for public attention against many other, potentially more thrilling, sporting events. There's the huge cost involved in hosting the Games, as well as the cost to each country to send their sportsmen and women to what for some is their only chance to perform on a world stage.

The Delhi Games of 2010 were a public relations disaster, with empty stadiums, construction delays, filthy athlete accommodation, and corruption scandals turning the world's public off the event.

The Commonwealth Games Federation has been determined to put that fiasco behind them but Glasgow has had its fair share of pre-Games problems, such as a ticketing system meltdown, and an outbreak of norovirus in the athletes' village a week before the opening ceremony.

However, Glasgow's Games have steamed ahead, with 17 different sports, 261 different events, and 71 competing countries.

New Zealand has sent 232 athletes to Glasgow, putting forward some of its best, such as track-and-field star Valerie Adams, swimmer Lauren Boyle, and runner Nick Willis.

As of yesterday, we were 7th on the medal table with three golds, three silvers and eight bronzes.

But even the day before the opening ceremony last week, the federation was being called on to defend the relevance of the Games, announcing at the end of a two-day meeting it would review the number of sports included at future Games.

Relevance of the Games

For the athletes involved, the Games undoubtedly represent a chance to compete at a high level. High Performance Sport New Zealand chief executive Alex Baumann says some of New Zealand's greatest sporting heroes have made their mark at the Commonwealth Games. "It's an important event. "In other parts of the world there are the Asian Games or the Pan-American Games.

"Competing at the Commonwealth Games is one of the few times that New Zealand athletes get to compete at a big multi-nation, multi-sport event, where the athletes live in a village with all the distractions. Being in an environment like that brings, but without the added pressure of an Olympic or Paralympic Games.

"Some of our Commonwealth Games medallists have then gone on to become Olympic medallists, and have used that experience at a Commonwealth Games to help in their preparations for the Olympics."

In a New Zealand Herald online sports poll earlier this year titled "How interested are you in the Commonwealth Games?", 25 per cent of more than 750 voters ticked "extremely, this is a great showcase of NZ's athletic prowess".

Forty-nine per cent shrugged their shoulders with "mildly, wake me up when they start and I might watch a few events", while 26 per cent dismissed them by responding "not at all, the Commonwealth Games are an expensive anachronism that has no relevance in the modern sporting environment".

University of Canterbury Associate Professor of Sport Ian Culpan questions whether the Games have lost their way, caught up in the need to focus solely on sporting performance.

It is this problematic approach that is responsible for the Games' failing popularity, he says.

Professor Culpan is a member of the FutureSport trust, which has submitted a proposal to the Commonwealth Games Federation arguing the Games needs to change direction to focus on developing Commonwealth nations through sport.

"That means shifting the thinking from 'this is a sports event' to 'this is a development event' - the development of the Commonwealth."

In essence this means developing health, education, leadership, and inclusive communities, culminating every four years in a competitive sporting event that promotes development at Games ceremonies, in the media, and throughout the athletes' village.

"What the Commonwealth Games has become is a restricted international sporting event.

"The Commonwealth stands for a set of values that people don't talk about . . . respect for diversity, education, democracy, good governance, rule of law, human rights, shared prosperity."

Changing the Games' focus would help it keep its relevance by turning them into a movement for development and solidarity, much like the Olympic movement for peace and understanding.

New Zealand riders Thomas Scully and Aaron Gate celebrate with gold and bronze medals. Photo / Greg Bowker
New Zealand riders Thomas Scully and Aaron Gate celebrate with gold and bronze medals. Photo / Greg Bowker

What's a Commonwealth medal worth?
With so many global sporting events battling for athlete attention, it's little wonder it struggles to attract some superstars.

Professor Culpan says the standing of Commonwealth Games medals compared with other events is decreasing, hence the need for a change in direction.

Alex Baumann, himself an Olympic and Commonwealth medallist, says all athletes who have been selected for the New Zealand team have worked incredibly hard to get there, and will be driven to produce the best performance they can and hopefully win medals for their country.

"They'll be testing themselves against the best in the Commonwealth.

"For some sports, this is their pinnacle event.

"For others, the Commonwealth Games could be a stepping stone to the Olympic or Paralympic Games."

Athletes competing at the Commonwealth Games have to put aside all the distractions of competing in a highly-charged atmosphere and perform on demand, he says.

"The difference between standing on the podium or not comes down to the tiniest of margins.

"For some sports, where their toughest competitors are other Commonwealth countries, that front end of the race at the Commonwealth Games won't be much different to what they'd face at a world championships or Olympic Games."

The future of the Games

The New Zealand Olympic Committee believes firmly in the future success of the Games.

Secretary General Kereyn Smith says when the Commonwealth Games Federation meets in Auckland next year there will be "a lot of issues on the radar for the CGF and some will culminate in decision-making forums".

Among those issues will be the vote to decide which of only two candidates, Durban or Edmonton, will get to host the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

Mr Baumann says he would like to see New Zealand athletes continue to compete at future Commonwealth Games.

"We're looking forward to the Games being on the Gold Coast in 2018 as this will be like a home games environment."

Professor Culpan says while the Games still hold significant meaning for New Zealand athletes, they're rapidly losing meaning to the public.

The past few governments have put a lot of money into highperformance sport, he says.

"The New Zealand public are starting to think well, we've got child poverty in New Zealand, we've got domestic violence, we've got homeless people ... we're putting all this money into sport, which is really at the end of the day only relevant to 1 per cent of the population.

"If you can provide the Commonwealth Games with social and educational meaning, then people buy into it."

New Zealand and the Games

• New Zealand has competed in all 20 Commonwealth Games since their inception in 1930 when it started out as the British Empire Games in Hamilton, Canada.

• NZ athletes have won 564 medals in the past 19 Games, 130 of those gold, 189 silver and 245 bronze.

• NZ has played host to the Games three times - in 1950, 1974 and 1990.

• The Games have set the scene for some of our proudest sporting moments, such as runner Dick Tayler's elated victory in the 10,000m at the 1974 Games in Christchurch.

• NZ ranks 11th out of the 71 competing countries - something NZ athletes will be aiming to surpass this year.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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