A legacy of the former British Empire, the Commonwealth Games, whose 22nd edition takes place in Birmingham (England) until August 9, rely on small countries and atypical sports to exist in the shadow of the Olympic Games and others major international meetings.
Not easy to spend a year after the Tokyo Olympics and only five days after the end of the World Athletics Championships: for the past few days, packages have been increasing for the Commonwealth Games organized every four years and which this year bring together 5,000 athletes representing 72 nations and territories, most of them former British colonies, competing in 19 disciplines.
Latest defection to date, the Australian Kelsey-Lee Barber, just crowned world javelin champion for the second time. The bronze medalist from the last Olympics joins Olympic champions André De Grasse, Kirani James, Neeraj Chopra and British sprinter Dina Asher-Smith on the list of notable absentees.
And it may not be over: doubts hang over the participation of the golden trio of Jamaican sprinters Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Shericka Jackson and Elaine Thompson-Herah.
Absences – counterbalanced by other big names such as swimmers Emma McKeon, Ariarne Titmus, Kaylee McKeown, Adam Peaty or cyclists Geraint Thomas or Mark Cavendish – which revive the debate on the legitimacy of such regional Games, which, at the image of the Mediterranean Games or the Francophone Games, are often perceived as a relic of ancient times – the first edition dates back to 1930 – and which struggle to exist in an already overloaded international sports calendar.
“These other Games are not the Olympics, but they tend to try to emulate them in terms of look, feel and impact. It’s just not possible or credible,” Terrence Burns, former head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), told AFP.
“I think an event that aspires to be global but by definition limits its base of participation to a limited set of nations and territories, faces the challenge of attracting fan interest on a global scale as well than that of the host city,” he continues, noting that by definition, “potential for marketing and sponsorship revenue is limited.”
For Birmingham, a former manufacturing city that was an unfortunate candidate for the organization of the 1992 Olympics, and its region, hosting the competition certainly does not have an Olympic scale but is nevertheless not insignificant from an economic point of view, with revenue total costs estimated at one billion pounds (EUR 1.2 billion).
For Terrence Burns, the challenge for the Commonwealth Games must find their own niche in order to “build (…) their identity accordingly”.
A job to which the organizers of the event got down to business. Among their proposals, the program could include no more than two compulsory sports – swimming and athletics -, the rest of the events being left to the choice of the host cities.
The goal? Attract a wider audience and reinforce the particularity of the Commonwealth Games, which already give pride of place to several non-Olympic sports, such as squash, netball and “bowls”, the British version of pétanque. Also this year, for the first time, women’s cricket.
Other disciplines that are confidential but particularly popular in certain regions of the world, such as lacrosse in Canada or kabaddi in India, could thus be integrated in the long term.
“I think it would be a win-win situation for everyone because it would then open up the Commonwealth Games to other smaller countries and, for me, that is the way to go”, estimated in 2021 the president of the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF), Dame Louise Martin.
Because the other advantage of the competition is to allow small nations of world sport to exist, which is not possible for them during major events, believes Michael Payne, former marketing manager of the IOC.
“For many it is their only moment on the world sporting stage with an opportunity to shine. (…) Because at the Olympic Games, they have no chance of getting a medal, ”he underlines.
Witness the efforts made by Sri Lanka (2 medals at the Olympic Games in 17 participations against 23 at the Commonwealth Games), weighed down by a serious economic crisis, to be present in Birmingham. “We want to stand like other nations before our flag, as a proud nation, upright, with our heads held high,” declared the head of the island delegation, Dampath Fernando.