Is the Commonwealth still relevant? Questions as Games gear up

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This year’s Commonwealth Games are set to be more than just a medal count.

The 21st Commonwealth Games - beginning on the Gold Coast on Wednesday – are set to be a prelude to talks on the post-Brexit future of the Commonwealth.

A Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting will take place in London straight after the 12-day event.

And while this year’s Games feature a record number of medal events, a new cap on team sizes, and a fresh mascot (a blue koala), the old question remains: Is the Commonwealth still relevant?

Commonwealth Games mascot Borobi at Brisbane International Airport, Brisbane, Queensland, Saturday, December 24, 2017.
Commonwealth Games 2018 mascot Borobi at Brisbane International Airport.
AAP

Lack of competition

The 71 teams taking part in the Games all share one thing; they are part of the Commonwealth of Nations. But a common criticism of the line-up is that it is not a world-class field.

Absent is the US (despite its states being former British colonies), as well as Russia, China and many other leading sporting nations.

Before the 2014 games in Glasgow, British comedian John Oliver starred in a satirical skit called 'How is this still a thing?’

And this year, despite Australia often dominating the medal tally, questions are being raised here.

"The Commonwealth Games is one of the most important aspects of the Commonwealth of Nations, which itself is an odd British imperial relic in lots of ways,” professor of international relations at Griffith University, Ian Hall, told SBS News.

“But one of its great legacies has been the Games.”

Going for gold

Commonwealth Games Corporate chief executive Mark Peters says his team are aware of the commentary.  

“Everyone has their opinion, we sit back and cringe sometimes about what’s said on social media,” he told SBS News.

“All we know is that we’ve sold over a million tickets in a regional city and everyone loves being involved in positives.”

Sally Pearson during the hurdles at the Commonwealth Games
Australia's Sally Pearson at the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
AAP

Australia leads the all-time medal tally at 2,213, followed by England on 2,008 and Canada on 1,473. The three countries have won more than half of the total medals awarded, with a quarter of the teams yet to win one medal.

Mr Peters says it’s the taking part that counts.
 
“For lots of the athletes, particularly from the smaller countries, this is a chance for them to be inspired,” he said.

General view of the Athletes Villages during a media tour of the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games Athletes Village on the Gold Coast, Sunday, March 18, 2018. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt) NO ARCHIVING
The athletes' village at this year's Games.
AAP Image/Dave Hunt

And for athletes in non-Olympic sports including netball, lawn bowls and squash, it doesn’t get any better.

“They still dream of the Olympics, but the Commonwealth Games is their pinnacle,” he said.

Australia is currently bidding to join the Asian Games, which also happen every four years, coinciding with the Commonwealth Games.

Post-Brexit relations

Professor Hall said despite questions about the Commonwealth’s relevance in sporting terms, Britain leaving the EU could, in fact, make way for a reinvigorated Commonwealth relationship politically.

“Britain itself is split on the Commonwealth as it is on Brexit,” he said. “There are some in Britain who hope the Commonwealth can substitute what Europe offered in terms of markets for goods … and people-to-people relationships.”

“A lot of foreign, Commonwealth leaders will be asking the British, 'Where next? What sort of relationship do you want to have with us after Brexit?’”

“But whether the Commonwealth can supply that and if they want to supply that is the big question.

The Commonwealth Games begin on 4 April.

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