Constructive criticism as Games run out of time

Athletes pulling out, terrorist threats...should Commonwealth jamboree carry on?
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The Commonwealth Games, sport's biggest gathering since the World Cup, begin in New Delhi on 3 October.

It is an event that has been plagued by problems almost since the venue was announced, with reports of corruption and financial irregularities, threats of terrorism, shoddy construction work and worrying delays to the completion of venues. These led to India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, last week ordering an investigation into how the Games, the costliest ever with the original US$2 billion budget escalating more than 17 times, are being run.

Three senior officials have been suspended over revelations of alleged graft in the awarding of dubious contracts and purchase of items ranging from air conditioners to toilet rolls.

So what's new in the wide world of sport, you may ask? There is no doubt that these Games have hit some unprecedented obstacles, not least the number of top athletes who are declining to compete, England's cycling track queen Victoria Pendleton being the latest to pull out.

She joins Scottish pedalling pal Sir Chris Hoy, athletics' principal boy Usain Bolt, England's leading lady Jessica Ennis and Jamaicans Shelly-Ann Fraser and Veronica Campbell-Brown, plus Beth Tweddle, Daniel Keating and Louis Smith among leading gymnasts, in declaring that the Games are not in their 2010 diary.

"This is not good at all," says India's sports minister, M S Gill. "Star athletes have drifted away from the Games... they do not seem to think they are important any more." Sadly, his words have the stark ring of truth. So have the Commonwealth Games passed their sell-by date? For they no longer seem to have sufficient status to remain a major attraction for sport's A-listers.

It used to be the fear of "Delhi belly" that caused sportsmen to shudder at the prospect of a visit to the Sub-continent. Now it is overcrowded schedules, nail-nibbling concerns over security and the lack of relevance of India's Games to the commercial market. Delhi's Games are fast becoming the great Indian takeaway in terms of talent and even more ominously the Australian swimming legend Dawn Fraser, a great former Olympic and Commonwealth champion, is calling on her nation to boycott Delhi because she fears a terrorist tragedy similar to that of Munich 1972. She says: "The Indians are telling us that security will be right but they have been telling us for months their stadiums are ready to go and quite obviously they are not."

Unfortunately the Commonwealth Games have become devalued, just as the Commonwealth title has in boxing and a number of other sports. I do not say this lightly, having attended 10 of the 18 Games and enjoyed them all. They are not labelled the Friendly Games for nothing. By and large they have been a joy to witness and report.

They may not have the cachet of the Olympics, nor would you expect them to have since, by comparison, they are a village fête. This is not to disparage them but to appreciate them for what they are – or rather, were.

The Friendly Games now exist uneasily in a target-obsessed era when friendlies in sport have become meaningless. There is now serious rivalry from the Asian Games, Mediterranean Games, All-African and Pan-American Games, the Youth Olympics and an increasing number of World and European Championships which seem to coincide, bringing fixture congestion and taking priority as far as competitors are concerned. A Commonwealth Games medal is a decent little trinket to hang around the neck but does not possess the market value of one from an Olympics or World Championships.

The problem with the Commonwealth Games is that, rather like the Commonwealth itself, they have become something of an anachronism. Hard as they have tried, they still cannot shake off the vestiges of colonialism. They began in 1930 as the British Empire Games, becoming the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in 1954, the British Commonwealth Games in 1970 and finally the Commonwealth Games in 1978.

While I would be sad to see them made redundant, sport's international calendar is incredibly overcrowded and one can appreciate why Hoy, for instance, has rejected Delhi in favour of preparing to his own satisfaction for both the upcoming European Championships and the Olympics. "The Olympics has to take precedence over everything," says the double Commonwealth Games gold medallist.

I suspect that, given the way that international sport will burgeon over the next four years, the dear old Commonwealth Games will become even less of a magnet for millionaire superstars.

Maybe it is time to start revamping and downsizing with a new format, perhaps even a new title, and a chance to give a shop window to some of those disciplines which never get a look-in at the Olympics, such as water-skiing, darts, snooker and acrobatic gymnastics. Time, perhaps, to celebrate a common wealth of games rather than a Commonwealth Games.

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