Monday, March 27, 2006

The Point of the Commonwealth Games?

I have never been one to believe the shibboleth of many, that sport and politics don't mix. In so many ways, sport IS politics - it affects national identity, civic pride, and in some cases even becomes a rallying cry for certain political groups. The fact that Baltic cities had teams in the Soviet football league allowed independence movements their only real chance to congregate. The fact that Philadelphia has gone so long without a championship winning team - in any sport - contributes to its feeling of being overshadowed by near neighbours Washington and New York.

Hitler, too, realised the power of sport as politics. The number of international football matches played by Germany in the 1930s skyrocketed, as Hitler was so keen to promote Germany as a power abroad. The message was also subtler, though - if we play your country in friendly matches, how can we be a threat? Der F├╝hrer then meddled in selection, demanding a mixture of the Austrian and German national teams following Anschluss as a means of showing the essential unity of the nation.

The most famous involvement of the Nazis in sport, of course, was the Berlin Olympics. The wonderful irony of Jesse Owens being the outstanding athlete of the Games designed to showcase the superiority of the Aryan race has not been unnoticed. But what is less well known is that the Olympic torch was first used in Berlin, designed as a propaganda coup by the Nazis - showing their essential connection to the Greeks, presenting it as a natural lineage.

The Nazis realised the power of the Olympics to showcase their nation to the world. China recognise the same - putting huge amounts of effort into the Beijing Games, both in infrastructure and in preparing teams to be competitive in all sports. And it is in this mould that I wonder whether a new significance will be found for the Commonwealth Games - showcasing developing nations to the world.

New Delhi will host the 2010 Commonwealth Games - and will surely use its experience there as a springboard to try and land an Olympic Games in 2020 or 2024. There's a fair chance that either Abuja or Windhoek will get the nod for the 2014 Commonwealth games. And the list of bidding cities for 2018 is even more exotic - including Nassau (Bahamas), Karachi, Lusaka and Colombo. If any of these cities do win the Games (bearing in mind established nations will probably be able to put forward more fully developed bids), then it will be their chance to showcase to the world that they have the organisational ability to get things done.

For a competition often derided as second-rate, we should consider the power of sport to affect national self-confidence. Sure, the level of competition at the Commonwealth Games is nowhere near as strong as a World Championships or an Olympic Games. But it provides a vital service in getting athletes from developing countries the experience they need of competition at the highest level. To see it disappear would be a great shame. After all, I suspect in a few years time we will see it as a key staging post in the rise of India - and who knows which other countries may rise to the challenge?