Myth and Reality in the Common Wealth

“… the Commonwealth Games are Australia’s gift to the weaker nations of the region…”

Perry Crosswhite – Head of the Australian Commonwealth Games Association.

It is tempting to write off a comment like this as just another entry to the Sir Les Patterson School of Australian diplomatic niceties, but it does seem pertinent to the air of detached reality that inhabited so much of our official and media response to the latest Aussie medal-fest.

Given our medal haul, you might think we weren’t exactly reluctant to give ourselves a few gifts into the bargain, but I’m happy to give Mr Crosswhite the benefit of the doubt on a couple of fronts.  I doubt he was knowingly condescending to all those “less fortunate” countries who share Commonwealth association with us. However, he was probably fortunate this comment seemed to get more play back home than in India. We’d given the Indians enough cause for offence as it was.

At least he had a point in one respect. When there’s a gold medal on offer, you can rely on some eager Aussie athlete pursuing it with all the zeal that tax subsidized, performance based funding can inspire.

But if the broader purpose of these multi-nation, multi-sport extravaganzas is still notionally to foster cultural understanding and brotherhood between nations, it might pay us to tone down the triumphalism a notch or two. It normally falls to our cricketers to cause cultural offence. We don’t need to expand that particular list.

Though you would be hard pressed to tell from much of the media coverage, the advent of India’s games was really an event crucial to the Commonwealth’s long term future. As a political body, the Commonwealth of Nations has been moribund for several decades now. The one really significant activity it can still point to is the holding of these quadrennial games, but in an international sporting calendar now crowded with competing interests, even this is under considerable challenge. In light of this, the commitment of India, which on its own accounts for half the total population of the Commonwealth, is essential if the games are to hold any pretence to future relevance.

Rather than acknowledge this fact, and encourage the Indians in their endeavours, a lot of our emphasis was on the negative. Australia’s media had no sooner finished partying at Melbourne’s games, than they set about highlighting what they perceived as the manifest deficiencies in India’s efforts- four years before the event was even to occur.

As it turned out, there was some justification for the concern. New Delhi revealed a talent for last minute brinkmanship that probably even had them wondering at times. In the case of that now infamous pedestrian bridge, it was only good luck, not good management, that it toppled when there was no one on it.

Let’s face it, if your priorities were Teutonic efficiency and clockwork organisation, then you probably shouldn’t be in India in the first place. To experience India is to take the average westerner out of their comfort zone.

But how much of this really warranted the near hysteria that had many demanding the games be shifted, or even cancelled? Infrastructure problems aren’t solely an Indian invention. Lest we forget, we just recently hosted a Grand Final where the teams couldn’t return to their change rooms because they were flooded with raw sewerage. If that had occurred in New Delhi, you could just imagine the headlines.

Security was obviously the utmost question, and on this the Indians deserve great praise. Despite all the potential perils their region offers, everyone who attended New Delhi is going home safe. Fortunately, in the querulous weeks leading up to the games, this was the one issue on which Australia seemed to unambiguously provide support.

I doubt the gracelessness of much recent commentary would have been easily forgiven had we been on the receiving end. Lord knows, any suggestion that the Sydney Olympics or Melbourne’s Games weren’t the finest events in all recorded history is sufficient heresy to have the offender instantly condemned as an obvious lunatic. So it makes you wonder why we aren’t a little more sensitive to raising Indian hackles.

But this is all part of the peculiar Australian balancing act. On the one hand, we’re driven to achieve in sport, in part, to validate ourselves on the international stage. On the other hand, we often seem oblivious to how our efforts actually portray us on that same stage, regardless of our achievement.

Fortunately, dire predictions proved largely unwarranted. There was an obvious issue with ticketing allocation, which robbed the early days of much atmosphere, but otherwise, most problems were trivial in the greater scheme of things. The organisational hinges creaked, but they didn’t break. Such grumblings as have subsequently been heard from Aussie officialdom seem to indicate, upon closer examination, that some of these gentlemen lead very comfortable lives. Not many of the causes for complaint seem that compelling.

But what of the quality of competition? Never have commercial imperatives been more onerous, as broadcasters with hundreds of hours of coverage to justify strived ever more desperately to decorate proceedings with significance.

No matter which way you paint it, when the men’s 100 metres is won by Jamaica’s 8th fastest runner, or when the tennis tournament presents a field that would embarrass the average satellite tournament, you’re facing a hard sell. This is not to deny that some of the events were world class. Others provided genuinely compelling contests. But you really had to pick and choose with care.

It’s hard not to think that, in this instance, the broadcasters relentless emphasis on all things Oi Oi Oi worked against them. Part of the unique colour and interest of the Commonwealth Games is surely those moments where genuinely amateur athletes get a chance to appear on a big stage. But there was scant opportunity to cover such moments when we were required to rush to the next Aussie medal presentation. After all, it would be a shame to miss hearing Advance Australia Fair for the 67th time.

Ultimately, the saving grace was, as always, the athletes themselves. Though some were scared off by pre-games horror stories, or others deterred by the enervating conditions, those who did attend provided the enthusiasm that gives real meaning to such events. The vast majority even avoided flipping anyone the bird, or radically panel beating a washing machine. As long as the athletes maintained their perspective, other failings could be redeemed.

So praise be to India for pulling it off in the face of more trying circumstance than any Australian organising committee will ever face. They got the big stuff right, even if some of the small stuff needed a polish. By enabling the Commonwealth Games to meaningfully engage the area where most of its population resides, they offered it some prospect of surviving into the future.

As for Australia?  We grumbled, we largely conquered, but at least we came. As usual, we spared little effort in congratulating ourselves, and spent unseemly amounts of time pouring over medal tallies, but hopefully no terminal offence was caused.

And at least we beat the Poms.

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has passed his 40th year as a Carlton member.


  1. Well written JB,
    I think that main beneficaries of the games were the sick, imfirmed and insomniacs. I did not partake of much of the coverage for a number of reason not least being the coverage itself. When presenters are still giggling at tougue twisting surnames in 2010 I think it time to switch off. The Footie Show has that material covered one would think.
    It is understandable that the coverage be centred around the Australian team as the broadcaster has to maximise potential advertising revenue. The Nigerian bowls team doesn’t get too many viewers salivating nor most of the other inter school sports that were played.
    However, the media has done little to alter the firm perception held by many Indians that Australians are arrogant and racist. Righly or wrongly, that perception feeds on ever increasing concerns for safety of Indian students studying here and is reported as such. A little strange really when Indian culture is based on class systems and active discrimination but that for another forum
    It was grating to see that our back slapping is not just confined to the sporting field. The coverage of the recent canonisation of “Aussie Mary” shows can Oi Oi Oi for anything. Very cringe worthy and very poor form.

  2. I found it remarkably easy to miss the entire thing. Saw and read nothing. Other than my taxes, have i missed anything?

  3. David Downer says

    JB you surmised this beautifully…

    “Never have commercial imperatives been more onerous, as broadcasters with hundreds of hours of coverage to justify strived ever more desperately to decorate proceedings with significance.”

    I tried, lord I did try to be interested in the Comm Games. I even had access to an extra 6 dedicated channels on Foxtel. Some of the hosting was so deplorable it was if they knew no one was watching – they feigned significance but they could barely convince themselves. Such gems out here on channels 181-186 included the opening rounds of women’s table tennis featuring traditional rivals Malaysia v Wales. I suspect it didn’t quite rate its arse off.

    As for the Games itself, I was a massive fan of Melbourne 2006. Bar the odd athletics event starring world class performers going head to head, I realised I was watching sport of little global meaning or significance, but I didn’t really care – the city was alive with atmosphere and it was just a great place to be. This time I just didn’t give a stuff. I heard the netball final was a great event, but I’m not troubled I missed it.

    The Delhi negativity angle gained momentum being the only interesting aspect of the Games (and the tabloid world we live in). No one really gave a rats about anything else …I heard there were some of those in the village too.

    But I’m glad they pulled it off.

  4. John Butler says

    Thanks for the comments gents.

    The Comm Games will never compete with the Olympics or such like, but it would be nice if they truly were the friendly games. I quite like the obscure events- just not 12 hours straight of them. As always, overkill seems to be the name of the game.

    Get rid of the medal tallies I say. What harm would it do? I know it will never happen though.

  5. Dave Nadel says

    What is missed in all this is that Australia and New Zealand need the Commonwealth Games a lot more than any other Commonwealth nations. I am indebted to ABC radio (possibly Gerard Whately) for the following insight.

    Almost every other nation that has major sporting pretensions has an alternative regional competition that they can compete in two years out from the Olympics.

    Canada, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago can compete in the American Games.

    Great Britain can compete in European Championships.

    India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Malaysia can compete in the Asian Games.

    South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and all the other former African colonies can compete in the African Games.

    All Australia and New Zealand have is Oceania. Somehow I don’t think competing against Kiribati, the Solomons or even Papua New Guinea is going to be adequate preparation for facing the USA, China, Germany and Russia at the next Olympics!

    Our officials and journalists really should have been less patronising about the Commonwealth Games.

  6. Phil Dimitriadis says

    Perceptive piece JB,

    I reckon the Commonwealth Games meant more when Australia was ordinary on the world stage. For me it was like watching the bottom 8 play a finals series. I watched a few moments, but it didn’t engage me.

  7. thank God I am Australian
    we’re number one in sport
    but if you try to take our crown
    we’ll belt you off the court

  8. JB – you are right about the Australian “balancing act”. We love our sport and take great joy from success. But is it our fault if the opposition is not up to it? Did I take any less pleasure out of the Cats thumping Port in the 2007 Grand Final because we won by 10,000 points? No.

    A bit of graciousness (particularly in the pool) wouldn’t hurt though.

    I often wander where this whole worshipping of sport will end. There is just too much money in it. A sign of too much affluence is when a country can afford to hold the Olympics or when people start buying specially cooked meals for their dogs.

    My view is that the opening and closing ceremonies should be canned. They’re a spendathon for no purpose. That’s where many millions of dollars go, and all the costumes and makeup and giant blow up kangaroos probably end up in the tip.

  9. John Butler says


    It isn’t Australia’s responsibility that other nations may not be competitive. I just hope that we keep the value of some of those medals in perspective.

    You’re right about money. It’s at the root of much of the unattractive side of sport (and life). But we’re like helpless addicts about it. We justify all sorts of things in its pursuit that we know are bad for us in the long run.

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