This week, Ed Warner argues that the Commonwealth Games must adapt if it’s to survive, ponders English cricket’s leadership vacuum and hopes Russia remains in exile.
Depending on your media outlet of choice, Wills and Kate’s Caribbean sojourn was either a triumph of charming diplomacy or another nail in the coffin of empire – as abject a tour of the islands as Joe Root’s.
Four months out from a Commonwealth Games that struggled to find a host, a way must be found to prevent this anachronistic event being dragged into obscurity by the monarchistic network from which it draws its identity.
The 22nd edition of the Commies was never intended to be in England in the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee year. But Durban, South Africa proved not to be up to the task and the British government got its financial shoulder behind Birmingham as a late substitute host.
It means there are now two Birmingham 2022 multi-sport games, England’s vying with the World Games in Birmingham, Alabama for Google search pre-eminence.
The Alabama games feature sports and disciplines outside the Olympics and are expected to be contested by 3,600 athletes from more than 100 nations in 34 sports. The Commonwealth Games, by contrast, will showcase more athletes but from fewer nations in fewer sports, its showpiece ones also being central to the Olympics.
The only overlap between the two events, then, is for air time in a crowded sporting year. At least their dates don’t quite coincide. But it’s easy to see which has more logic to its existence and natural scope for growth.
I’ll be tuning into the inaugural ‘low point’ wheelchair rugby tournament in Birmingham, Alabama. This is a new initiative from World Wheelchair Rugby to add international contests for low-point athletes – those at the more severe end of the disability range. We’re entering a GB team.
The Commonwealths have quirky value within the British sporting system. They provide a window of opportunity for a few sports that are outside the Olympic network – think netball and squash.
The home nations have the chance to flaunt their individual identities rather than be wrapped into the PR juggernaut that is Team GB. And younger athletes in the major Olympic sports who are on the up, as well as those who have not quite hit the highest heights, get to experience international competition.
Roll these together, though, and they hardly make for a compelling commercial proposition or viewing narrative for the public. Birmingham 2022 (the English one) will be superbly organised and resonate loudly in Britain for a couple of weeks, but what noise will it create Down Under? Gold Coast 2018 created barely a ripple in the northern hemisphere.
The Commonwealth Games needs to decide what it wants to be. It can’t be a little bit of a lot of things. Its previous chief executive, David Grevemberg, left in a hurry last year. The scuttlebutt at the time said he was more interested in the Games as a vehicle for societal development than as a sporting enterprise.
Sport is now apparently the central focus once again under his impressive successor Katie Sadleir. She has already stated that only athletics and swimming are sacrosanct as components of future events, in part to maximise the chances of finding host cities for this costly enterprise.
Sadleir would do as well to ask even broader questions. Not only which sports, but which countries, which athletes and under what unifying identity?
There is a slew of multinational sports events reflecting the varying alliances and identities of countries across the globe. Not just continental events such as this year’s Asian Games and the collective European Championships in nine sports, but the Mediterranean Games, for example, and even the Island Games, next scheduled for Guernsey in 2023, with 14 sports for a couple of dozen islands gathered from across the globe.
The Commonwealth Games should consider dropping the colonial bond of old empire and opening itself to a wider range of nations willing to buy into its ‘friendly games’ philosophy (if the friendly tag itself survives any modernisation process – at least from a PR perspective).
This would only bear fruit if a set of sports are chosen to form the core of the Games which have relevance to the public and create a distinctive identity for the competition. Be radical too about location and structure to lower costs and spread the love.
After Birmingham 2022 the Commonwealths look set to head back to Australia following a lengthy struggle to source the next host. Now’s the time for a complete reworking so that Victoria 2026 can mark a new dawn rather than the next leaden step towards an obvious vanishing point.
Not even carrying the drinks
Regular readers of Sport inc. may remember my spiky open application to become chair of the England and Wales Cricket Board last October. I followed it up with a more temperate, formal expression of interest but haven’t made the shortlist of candidates.
Friends think I’ve dodged a hard throw in from the boundary given the deepening crisis within English cricket. Me, I’m gutted as I was hoping for a rumbustious interview addressing the many issues besetting the ECB.
Six months on from Ian Watmore’s sudden departure, you might have thought there would be a final selection of his replacement by now. In case the ECB hasn’t noticed, the County Championship starts next Thursday. Leadership needs a leader.
England’s capitulation (again!) in the final Test in the Caribbean this week surely can’t have passed the ECB board by, though, however distracted they are.
For all the energy being devoted to cultural issues within the sport, here’s hoping there’s sufficient time and attention being paid to the health of the first class game and the obvious flaws in the set-up around the Test team. After all, like many I’ve already bought my tickets for this summer at great expense, and England expects…
Only famous in their own front rooms
I’ve spent a week or so trying to find a full medal table for the ‘We Are Together. Sports’ alternative games that Russian organised in Khanty-Mansiisk this month after its athletes were barred from the Winter Paralympics. No dice.
State news agency Tass did trumpet that Russia had topped the table with 39 golds, 40 silver and 27 bronze medals. In a parallel universe such meaningless triumphalism might just be mildly amusing, if the context wasn’t so sad.
However the war in Ukraine is resolved, I hope sports leaders hold their nerve and keep Russia in ‘We Are Together. Sports’ exile for a very long time to come. But I expect wildly varying degrees of resoluteness.
Ed Warner is chair of GB Wheelchair Rugby and writes at sportinc.substack.com