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Common Wealth


MIXING 'EM UP: At the closing ceremony of Edinburgh 1970, athletes were bunched according to their disciplines, not countries

The concept of the Games Village is a CWG contribution to world sport. While the idea of a Games Village came to fruition for the first time at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932, that the athletes can stay together in one enclosed area, dine and relax together, train and entertain themselves all under one roof was thought of at the first British Empire Games (later rechristianed as Commonwealth Games) in Hamilton, 1930. Given the potential of this concept, it was only a matter of time before the International Olympic Committee appropriated it. The plan implemented at Hamilton has since undergone multiple transformations, so much so that one of the singular controversies of CWG 2010 veered around the question of the readiness of the Games Village and whether or not it can stand the scrutiny of the 4, 500 international athletes who will soon stay there.


It is now the norm for organisers of mega sporting events to pay for the travel and stay of visiting delegates and technical officials, and also a section of the athletes. For example, Delhi will provide free economy class air tickets to all Commonwealth Games Associations (CGAs), with travel grants for at least 20 members each. It is also providing free business-class travel for presidents and secretary generals of all CGAs and executive committee members of the CGF, apart from free accommodation for athletes and team officials at the Village. This is apart from the guarantee of a free entry to India for all accredited athletes and delegates along with a free trip to the Taj. The practice of offering subsidies, many argue, goes a long way towards ensuring participation of athletes from the relatively smaller and economically weak nations. And, it's a legacy of the Commonwealth Games.
Financing a team to Hamilton was the primary concern for most of the participating countries and it was not until subsidies were announced by the organizers that confirmations were received from the farflung corners of the Empire. In fact, when the amateur athletic union of Australia reluctantly decided to stay away from the Hamilton competition in January 1930 citing financial considerations, the Hamilton organisers immediately came up with the offer of a $5, 000 subsidy towards team expenses that helped change the Australian decision. New Zealand and South Africa, too, were paid substantial subsidies which, in both cases, were 'gratefully accepted'. Hamilton's spending on ensuring participation was a whopping $33, 000 in 1930, which was almost a third of the total revenue figure, estimated at approximately $111, 000.
The Hamilton committee's awarding of subsidy to the participating teams helped set precedents which have survived in the Games since 1930.


More than the realm of sports competition, where it was soon superseded by the Olympics and other world championships, it was in trying to resist the growing political ills through sport that the Games offered a voice to millions of discriminated peoples. The role of the Commonwealth Games Federation in defying Apartheid eventually led the way for world leaders to devise policies to counter racism. Once the South Africans were expelled from the Commonwealth in 1961 and banned from participating in the Commonwealth Games from 1962 onwards, the world was forced to take notice. It was the example of the Commonwealth Games that was emulated by the International Olympic Committee in 1963, which adopted a proposal mooted by India.
The proposal said, "The National Olympic Committee of South Africa must declare formally that it understands and submits to the spirit of the Olympic Charter... It must also obtain from its government before December 31, 1963, modification of its policy of racial discrimination in sport on its territory, failing which the South African National Olympic Committee will be forced to withdraw from the Olympic Games. "


Knowing it was impossible for the Commonwealth athletes to match the standard of the world championships or the Olympics, the Commonwealth Games Federation decided to think fresh and innovate. So, athletes with disabilities were invited to take part in the Victoria Games of 1994, a decision that sparked a major controversy midway into the Games. At Victoria, the Australian chef de mission Arthur Turnstall called the inclusion of disabled athletes an 'embarrassment'. Failing to understand the significance of the act and unable to appreciate the effort put in by the athletes, he declared, "I do not believe they should be integrated with the Commonwealth Games. I can tell you it's an embarrassment for those people and for the athletes in the Village. " Eventually, he was forced to do a double turn and offered an unconditional apology. This was after this that IOC started taking the para Olympics seriously and organized para Games within weeks of the Olympics getting over. But the CWG remains the first mega event to have given para athletes an opportunity to perform on the same platform as the others.


Hamilton, the venue of the inaugural British Empire Games, remains an outstanding example of sport being used as a vehicle for women's emancipation and as one of the first occasions where the question of gender parity in sport was raised with seriousness. Prior to the first British Empire Games, Count Baillet-Latour, president of the International Olympic Committee, and also chief guest at Hamilton, had spearheaded the move to remove women from all track and field competitions in the Olympic Games. At Hamilton, however, there was strong backing for allowing women's track and field events to continue - support which yielded results at the Empire Games in London four years later. Such vocal support in the presence of the IOC president was hailed as a major marker of difference between the Olympics, which prioritised sports competition above all else, and the British Empire Games, which lay emphasis on healthy rivalry and integration.
Count Baillet-Latour, according to a report in the Toronto Star, refused to attend any of the women's competitions (swimming and diving) at Hamilton. Asked to comment on women's participation, Baillet-Latour gave a rather bizarre explanation: "Women in Europe are not of the same standard as your girls on this continent and I do not think for that reason it was a wise move to retain them on Olympic programmes of the future. "
That it was first British Empire Games to go against the IOC diktat and the call for women's participation in future editions was made much of in the contemporary Canadian press. On one hand, this was seen as the Empire Games charting out its own separate identity vis-avis the Olympics;on the other, it was an attempt to hail the principles of ethics and fair play, which lay at the heart of what was called the imperial Games ethic. Even within its limited context, the first British Empire Games had set an example for the gender battles that were to follow, and a tradition that the Olympics would ultimately not be able to ignore.


The Auckland Commonwealth Games of 1950, it is little known, stands out as having ushered a new era in sports coverage. It was the first occasion in international sports when a reporter, Larry Saunders of Christchurch, trailed the marathon runners on a cycle. Saunders, drenched in sweat, came to the press box just before eventual winner, Holden. entered the stadium, to 'tell the tale of the dramatic race'. Covering sports on site, a norm of our times, started in earnest from the Saunders experience.
Auckland 1950 was a trailblazer in another sense. For the first time, not all medals were won by the major nations. There was a gold for Fiji, with Mataika Tuicakau winning the shot put;and also for Sri Lanka, with Duncan White winning the 440-metre hurdles.


The Commonwealth Games was also the first mega event to have moved to a developing country. Every Olympics from 1896 onwards till 1964 had been held in a major European or American city, with Tokyo 1964 being an exception. It was not until Jamaica hosted the CWG in 1966 that a mega event moved to a developing country.
When the decision to award the next Games to Jamaica was taken during the Perth Games in 1962, there were apprehensions about the Caribbean nation's ability to host an international event. But it was also looked upon as a serious step to democratise the Games in an era of decolonisation. With New Delhi withdrawing its candidature, Jamaica emerged as the front-runner, with Kingston playing host.
Jamaica 1966 was imbued with political significance. During the Games, Caribbean leaders Norman Manley and Grantley Adams called for a united Caribbean, and thoughts of a powerful CARICOM suddenly looked feasible.
That such ambitions weren't fulfilled impacted the image of the Games in the long term. At the time of the event, however, the entire Caribbean stood united behind Jamaica.


In the history of world mega events, it was the 1970 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games, which, for the first time finished off with a novel closing ceremony that highlighted the theme of the 'friendly Games'. Breaking from the conventional norm in closing ceremonies, Edinburgh clubbed athletes of particular sporting disciplines together rather than dividing them on the basis of nationality. This was significant given the heightened political consciousness and apprehension over apartheid seriously impacting sporting events across the world. With a touch of sport realpolitik, the step was perceived by the organisers as a statement to the sporting world - that there was no division between the developing and developed world. Athletes of the developed world were thus being encouraged to make their way to other countries as coaches and ambassadors of sport to help out with grassroot development. This idea has spurred the notion of 'sport for development' in subsequent mega events across the world.

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