Tom Peck on the Commonwealth Games 2014: So, just what is the point of the Games, other than to remind us all of the embarrassment of the empire?
It is in many respects a glorious sporting spectacle undergone for noble reasons
“And special mention must go to Chris Walker from Gibraltar, who at 47 years old is the triathlon’s oldest competitor, and by some margin,” the commentator proudly informed us over shots of the hot sun shimmering on the lake at Strathclyde Country Park.
He was never mentioned again, and indeed it may not have been him the cameras cut to minutes later, splashing about with the fitful energy of a shipwrecked pirate as the same commentator now pondered over “whether anyone’s ever been lapped in a two-lap race before”.
But whoever it was should take some comfort in the anonymity that comes from being among a great abundance of questionable sporting talent making up the substantial numbers at Glasgow 2014.
At the Tollcross Pool yesterday, the crowd went suitably crazy for Ann Wacuka, a Kenyan para-swimmer who finished almost a full minute after everyone else in her minute-long heat, but appeared thrilled and knackered in equal measure as her swimming-capped head finally popped out of the water, not least because, as viewers had already been informed, “all six competitors in this race will go through to the final”.
It might seem ungenerous to mock para-sports, but given their top protagonists and their governing bodies consistently state they will be taken seriously as sports once people have the courage to criticise the athletes, this column is prepared to suggest that there may be one or two competitors here who are not quite the elite sports people the ticket holders have paid to watch.
It’s legitimate to ask quite what is the point of the Commonwealth Games now. When it began in 1930, as the inter-Empire Championships, its purpose was obvious, to improve “goodwill and understanding” between the nations of the Empire – a noble and necessary endeavour after Africans and Indians had been forced to turn their guns on one another in the First World War, for reasons that were never fully explained to them.
In 2014, this is less of a problem. There are many who find the games more than a little embarrassing, them being the clearest living visible remnant of empire. Quite what is the need for this quadrennial reminder of the shame of it all?
As the never-ending parade of unimaginably tiny nations entered Celtic Park on Thursday evening, it was slightly breathtaking to wonder at the sheer determination of Britain’s 19th-century Empire builders.
“And here comes Nauru,” informed bonnie Hazel Irvine. “A tiny spit of sand with a population of eight, 4,000 miles from anywhere, and yet we STILL bothered to take it over. Just look at their happy faces.
“And look, it’s Njababaville. A birdwatcher’s paradise, just nine hours’ flight from Hawaii. Look out for them in the lawn bowls events. The whole team’s called Jones, and the coach too. In fact, everyone on the entire island can trace their roots back to the same 18th-century Welsh sea captain and rapist.”
Still, it is in many respects a glorious sporting spectacle nonetheless, undertaken for the noblest reasons, and mostly by men and women uncorrupted by the advantages of astronomical wealth. And the weather’s helped.
The urge is to look at the purity and nobility of it all, and see it in stark contrast to the wanton avarice of football. But they’re not so different. We’re still at it – empire building, that is, only with modern methods.
If you find yourself wondering quite why the pacific island of Nieue, population 1,300, has a Union Jack in the corner of its flag, its for precisely the same reason that there is also a brand of Japanese tomato juice with the Manchester United logo on.
Just as Britain’s 19th-century empire has come to Glasgow to hide its historic moneymaking intentions behind a smokescreen of sub-par sport, our 21st-century sporting colonialists are off around the world, extending their reach, expanding their markets, boosting their trade via a host of insipid friendlies neither the managers nor the, in many cases knackered, players want any part of.
A hundred years ago, sport was the seemingly pleasant distraction, the circus. Now it’s the battering ram.
This column happened to ask Alan Shearer, shortly before the World Cup, as he stepped off a super-heated super-humid indoor five-a-side pitch, built as a PR stunt to mimic the conditions in Manaus, if he’d ever played in such unbearable conditions before.
“Yes, once,” he said. “In Kuala Lumpur, in the Premier League Asia Trophy, in the middle of July. It was horrific.”
So no, we don’t mind the Kenyans, Malaysians and Pacific Islanders swimming in our lake and running round our track, lifting our weights and hitting our shuttlecocks, as long as they buy our replica Man Utd kits when they get home.
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