What can we learn from the success of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, in July, 2014? At a time when many Commonwealth bodies in Britain have closed – like the Commonwealth Business Council, or the modern club facilities of the Royal Commonwealth Society – and only half of the Commonwealth leaders turned out for the controversial summit in Sri Lanka in 2013, this was a genuine triumph. While the last Scottish Games of 1986 in Edinburgh were boycotted and ended in financial disaster, and the Delhi Games of 2010 were overshadowed by corruption and poor attendances, athletes and spectators alike have hailed the Glasgow Games as a joyful carnival.
The Commonwealth Games are a festival of youth, but they are a little eccentric. Participants include dependent territories like the Cook Islands and Falklands, Jersey and the Isle of Man, which is why there are 18 more teams than sovereign states in the Commonwealth. While world records are always broken the competitors know they don’t have to withstand world-beating athletes from the United States, Russia or Germany, and the top of the medal table sees a quadrennial battle between England and Australia.
But the key elements in the Commonwealth Games are the sense of ownership, so that small countries can walk tall and the regional news around Britain can celebrate local winners, and a recognition that this is something different from the Olympics or a global event for a single sport. It provides a chance for younger sports people, and for those from countries squashed out of international contests by lack of resources. A single language for communication also helps.
The official Commonwealth may look weak, but underlying people-to-people links remain strong. The Glasgow organisers showed what can be done in the Commonwealth’s name when you bring together proper professionalism, with enough sponsorship, media and civic support, and a winning volunteer ethos. It is for governments and all those interested in revaluing what is a powerful living resource to replicate this at the next Heads of Government meeting in Malta, next year. Effective commitment to development, and to the right to a full life for all Commonwealth citizens, should be the aims in Valletta.
Written by Richard Bourne