24 Jul 2014

Why the ‘friendly games’ are special

What’s the measure of a sport event’s significance? Do the Commonwealth Games “matter”? There’s been much cogitation and chin scratching – as there always is – whenever this quadrennial competition wends its way round.

“The Americans aren’t there!” screech some. “But the Jamaicans are!” retort others.

Events like the Commonwealth Games reach beyond who is and isn’t competing.

It is to some extent both enlivened and cursed by their moniker – “the friendly games”. Surely the athletes can’t be at the top of their game if they are only turning up for a laugh? Well, that’s not borne out by the level of talent on show in many of the disciplines – middle-distance running to name but one example.

Members of Australia's team enter the stadium during the opening ceremony for the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow

Australian team members during the 2014 Commonwealth Games opening ceremony

The Olympics are clearly the gold standard in terms of profile – as far as both the public and the athletes are concerned.  But what then of world championships? The most famous world record of them all, the men’s 100m, famously run in a mesmerising 9.58 seconds by one Usain St. Leo Bolt, was set not at the Beijing or London Olympics, but the world champs in Berlin in 2010. That event, too, is clearly top notch.

So the Commonwealth Games?

Well, that “friendly” means something quite special. A big set piece like this requires an army of tens of thousands to make it run smoothly. From the volunteers to the physios to the bus drivers and, of course, the media.

I fondly remember arriving with a group of Nigerian journalists for the Manchester games in 2002. As we set up our laptops and the like in the media centre, a temporary power outage cut the lights. We were plunged into momentary darkness.

There is a joke in Nigeria that the initials of the state power company NEPA stand for “never electric power always”.

“Harrumph,” quipped one of their journos. “We can’t escape! NEPA has followed us all the way to Manchester!”

They then had a high old time explaining to the rather bemused gaggle of fellow hacks from every corner of the world why they were rolling about in the aisles at their own joke. But it was, of course, conducted all in English. For everyone in the room shared more than a love of sport, but a cultural heritage – call it colonial, call it imperial – but a history, nonetheless. And it spans the globe.

That power cut set the scene rather nicely for a fortnight that was surprisingly inclusive.

The Commonwealth Games have long scheduled elite disability sport events alongside non disabled competition. I remember watching my first ever visually impaired sprint – Manchester 2002. The gasps of astonishment and incredulity from the crowd as the athletes hared down the track with their guides was quite something.

This was a full decade before the London Paralympics gave disability sport the visibility it has now. The Paralympics have always prized themselves on their independence and parity – but integrating disability sport with existing events has its merits too.

So do the Commonwealth Games matter? Yes, they do. Whether Usain Bolt runs another world record or not.

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