Last week saw the start of the 19th Commonwealth Games in Delhi, India. Delhi is playing host to seventy-one nations from across the globe, competing in sports from hockey to discus to archery. All competing nations have, at one time or another, been members of The British Empire and are now members of the Commonwealth.
The build-up to the latest edition of this quadrennial event has been marred by a number of problems. Security is always a major consideration at multi-sport events, and this has proven to be a great concern for the Delhi organisers. The security challenged facing the organisers were put into sharp focus by the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, where Pakistan based terrorists killed at least 173 people.
As such Delhi’s security budget was second only to Beijing 2008 Olympics, with unprecedented numbers of security staff. This has led to commentators questioning the morals behind spending such huge sums on security for foreign athletes while many Indians live in abject poverty. Despite these concerns the measures seem to have had the desired effect, with no security alarms by the half way point of the games.
There have been other concerns too, concerns that have turned into greater problems day by day as the opening ceremony of the Games drew nearer. These problems included delays in completion of projects, poor construction standards and corruption by Games’ Organising Committee officials. Media reported tales of stains and excrement in living quarters at the games village, partially completed living quarters, a damaged running track, and safety concerns after the collapse of a pedestrian bridge near the main stadium. The footbridge collapsed injuring twenty-seven and seriously injuring five.
This is without doubt a sorry tale, and a cautionary one for organising committees worldwide (take note Seb Coe et al). However it need not act just as a caution, it should act as a catalyst for a complete re-think of the Games themselves, and the organization they showcase.
The Commonwealth is an organisation from a bygone era, and the games their flagship event. It covers a huge number of countries for which the only link is that they were once conquered by Britain. That they were once attacked and enslaved within their own country by a dominant and brutal Imperialist power. It is not the greatest common history with which to bring together nations for a multi-sport event.
Aside from the moral rights and wrongs of the Commonwealth, it is the quality of the sport that is the defining evidence of the irrelevance of the Games in the modern world. In an interview with BBC Sport Jonathan Edwards (2002 Games gold medalist) said ‘You just can’t deny that the standards have been disappointing’.
The Commonwealth Games have often been the catalyst for leading athletes developing mysterious injuries, ‘family issues’, or safety concerns (as if there could be anywhere safer than a fortified complex).
Delhi 2010 has seen this situation worsen, with the paucity of world-class athletes reaching staggering proportions. Philips Idowu (World Champion triple jumper) is symptomatic of the stay away athlete. Announcing his non-attendance in the traditional manner (via Twitter) he said ‘I can’t afford to risk my safety in the slightest. “It was a tough choice but I made it for my children’. Safety concerns there undoubtedly were, but similar issues surround any major event.
This decision is as much about Idowu’s disregard for the Commonwealth Games as it is about safety issues. For many athletes the Games interrupt their preparation for the World Championships, or long term training for the Olympics. To many athletes they are an obligation, an inconvenience even, not an honour.
It is not just athletes who treat the Games with indifference. Crowds at the vast majority of events in Delhi have been woeful. At points in the cycling road race there was not a single spectator. Commentators cite a culture gap between many of the sports and the average Indian. This argument may hold sway for some events, but sports such as hockey, shooting and badminton have all been poorly attended. Indians know as well as any other sport fan that the sport they would be paying to watch would be of an inferior standard compared to other major tournaments.
The Commonwealth limps on to Glasgow in four years time where the immediate construction and fraud issues may dissipate but the fundamental problems will remain. The Games are a relic of a bygone and regrettable era that produce inferior sport undertaken by indifferent athletes.