Time's up for the Games: Where once the Commonwealth provided great sport, it now offers us only empty show, says Mark Lawson

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The Independent Online
THE REAL question raised by the reports of failed drug tests in Victoria is why any athlete in their right mind would bother to take drugs to compete in the Commonwealth Games. Indeed, the fact that in one of the current cases the dubious urine sample dates from the earlier, more prestigious European Games, may be significant. The Commonwealth Games are now so dull and unimportant that the only really useful drug might be Prozac - to keep the spirits up. Like an old runner with a pulled muscle, the Commonwealth Games have been left lapped and panting on the sidelines.

The year 1930 saw two intriguing attempts in Britain to consolidate the declining idea of Empire. The first was the Empire Games. An amateur athletics meet for runners from countries swearing loyalty to the British sovereign, this sporting event was enthusiastically patronised by King George V, for whom public demonstrations of patriotism and imperial fervour were a useful distraction from the historically embarrassing Germanic connections of his family.

The other ideologically allied innovation of the age was the United Empire Party, a new right-wing political force, backed by the press tycoons Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere, which proposed that, in a new 'Empire free-trade area', the distant sun- kissed countries of the Empire should provide all of Britain's food, while Britain produced all of the manufactured goods for those other nations. This project is now forgotten and seems comical in retrospect.

Like the United Empire Party, the Empire Games now seem anachronistic and laughable. Yet, unlike the political movement, they somehow survive, now called the Commonwealth Games, and currently taking place in Victoria, Canada.

Even before the fuss over drugs, controversy attended the 1994 event from the start, with a debate over the status of the disabled athletes present at the games. An Australian sports supremo, Arthur Tunstall, thought they shouldn't be competing at all, but was rebuked by his government for saying so. Activists for the disabled argued that medals awarded in these specialised events should have equal status with those awarded in the main games. But this is the wrong controversy. The proper question is not whether handicapped athletes should be at the Commonwealth Games, but whether able-bodied competitors should be. The real debate is over whether the Empire Games, even under their marginally less risible contemporary name, should continue.

The debate about the disabled does, though, touch on the first objection to the Commonwealth Games. That those with physical handicaps should be able to participate in sport is an excellent thing, but the events in which they take part are merely an imitation of the top-level version. To uphold this principle is no more discriminatory than to exclude park tennis players, however keen, from Wimbledon. Therefore, any sporting event in which the disabled take place can only be considered an exhibition event, rather than a proper contest.

You can, however, see why wheelchaired athletes might claim equality with the top- class sprinters competing in Canada, for the Commonwealth Games, in themselves, are now an exhibition event. All of the major international sporting contests - the Olympics, the Commonwealth Games, the football World Cup - began as a combination of philosophical ideal and physical challenge. For example, in sporting terms, the Olympics aim to single out the best performers on the planet in each discipline, but, politically, they are also supposed to promote international harmony and global fair play.

It is clear that the latter ambition has not been realised - the Olympics have tended to be Armageddon by other means - but the sporting competition they provide is sufficient consolation for all but the most idealistic sports fans. The Commonwealth Games, however, have achieved the remarkable double stumble - a trip at the first two hurdles - of becoming ludicrous in both their sporting and their ideological aims.

With regard to the sport, the problem - for all the mutterings about the admission to full competition of crown green bowling and synchronised swimming - is not the minority sports but the majority ones. What does a victory for Linford Christie in the Commonwealth Games 100 metres mean? Nothing - except to provide a small clue to the form and fitness he will bring to subsequent encounters with European and American rivals who are barred, by an accident of British history, from competition in Victoria.

As the medals table shows, this Commonwealth Games has been, in effect, a three- way athletics meet between Australia, Canada and Britain. This might not matter - Olympics have often been dominated by a handful of flags - except that Sydney and Ottawa do not happen to be the current centres of athletic excellence. In the 1954 Empire and Commonwealth Games (their brief transitional name), when Britain's Roger Bannister took on John Landy of Australia in the mile, they were the two fastest athletes in the world.

But the baton has passed to other nations, and such encounters have become unlikely. The British press and public are being encouraged to cheer loudly victories against the B-team. The coverage given to the competition by the BBC - in both live broadcasts and news reports - is ridiculously breathless and intense.

Admittedly, all major sporting competitions with no global entry have this problem. The European Championships in soccer suffer from not being the World Cup, but at least the continent holds many of the major footballing nations. The European Athletics Championships, though obviously inferior to the Olympics, are also relatively lucky with their countries. But the Commonwealth, the product of abandoned historical and political criteria, offers a particularly unbalanced and unsatisfactory pool of prospective competitors.

Accordingly, the Commonwealth Games mean no more to those top athletes who happen to be qualified than a reasonably useful stage of preparation for more serious competitions. This was made clear when the world sprint champion Linford Christie, though competing in the Commonwealth 100 metres, felt unable to spare the time from his training and earning timetable in the real world to run in the 200 metres and relay. Christie's decision to do a runner from the games seals their low-rent reputation.

Insignificant in competitive terms, the event is even more anachronistic politically. Like her predecessor, George V, Queen Elizabeth II has been a faithful patron of the games. She and her husband were present in Victoria this time for the opening ceremony, as was Prince Edward. The Queen was present not because she likes athletics, but because she sees it as her historic mission to keep the Commonwealth on track. Yet the fact that her presence in Canada became a focus for Republican protests, in a country previously considered among the most solidly monarchic of Britain's old possessions, reminds us that the Commonwealth is a dying ideal.

The tide of history is against it. You can see the way history is running in the ever greater number of competing nations at the Olympics: a product of the fragmentation of the Soviet bloc. But the future of the Commonwealth Games looks to be the opposite: fewer flags, shorter opening ceremonies. And, as if further to underline the death of the old concept of monarchy, the current games have been overshadowed by reports that the wife of the heir to the British throne may be a telephone pest.

Rather like the Labour Party, the Commonwealth Games are burdened with the dated associations of their name. Football's World Cup, also started in 1930, was shrewder, for there will be a world of sorts as long as there is football. But the phrase 'Commonwealth Games' is already becoming as droll as the 'Empire Games' it replaced.

Perhaps the competition could be renamed again: for example, the BAA (Britain, Australasia, Africa) Games, which would have obvious airline sponsorship possibilities. But there would still be the problem of the games themselves, and their unrepresentative irrelevance. Overtaken by both history and sport, the Queen should think about pulling her grandfather's idea off the track.

(Photograph omitted)