Cam Cole: Are the Commonwealth Games still relevant?

 

 
 
 
 
Canadian athletes wave to the crowd at the closing ceremonies for the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton.
 

Canadian athletes wave to the crowd at the closing ceremonies for the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton.

Photograph by: STAFF, EDMONTON JOURNAL

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It’s not you, Commonwealth Games. It’s us.

Don’t get us wrong: We still like you. We’ll always be friends.

We’re just not that into you, any more. It kind of snuck up on us, gradually, over time.

No, no, there’s no one thing that cooled the relationship, honestly.

It’s just … the lust we once felt for the medals you lavished upon us — you, the Friendly Games, offering our athletes a welcome view of the medals podium, unobstructed by American runners and swimmers and all those Eastern Bloc heavies who dominated the strength sports — has gone off the boil, somehow.

Ever since we made eye contact across the room with the Olympic Games and it stopped giving us the cold shoulder and actually let us get to second base, it’s been pretty heady stuff, and we’ve started to feel as though we belong with the beautiful people.

And you … you were like our high school sweetheart. And now that we’ve had our heads turned by shinier objects, and the things that used to give us a thrill — you, the Pan-Am Games, Universiade — seem kind of second-tier, like Triple-A baseball or the North American Soccer League’s second coming.

Is that wrong? Well, yeah, we feel a little bit guilty about it.

We were so good together, once.

In 1930, when Hamilton played host to the first British Empire Games, it got Ivor Wynne Stadium out of the deal, and that lasted 83 years. Vancouver built Empire Stadium for the ’54 Games, and Edmonton’s legacy from ’78 was Commonwealth Stadium, and each of those was a transformative event in the history of a city.

Equally, they were transformative of our self-image as competitors on a plausibly (all we had to do was squint a bit) world-class stage. We needed the boost.

At the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Canada won one gold and two silver medals. Two years later at Vancouver’s Empire Games, our athletes won nine gold, 20 silver and 14 bronze medals.

In 1976, even with home-field advantage for the Montreal Olympics, Canadians managed just five silver and six bronze medals. No gold. Two years later, at the ’78 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton: 45 gold, 31 silver, 33 bronze.

No wonder we were in love. You were great for our self-esteem; every four years you stroked our ego and made us feel good. Canadians loved watching our athletes win medals.

By 1994, when Victoria played host to the Commonwealth, the landscape had begun to change. Not radically, but perceptibly. At the Olympics prior, in Barcelona, we had won 18 medals, seven of them gold. So we were already starting to grow as an Olympic entity. The 133 medals Canadians won in Victoria? Perhaps, by then, we were done kidding ourselves about what they were: rewards for being the best among a limited field.

There was no magnificent new stadium purpose-built for Victoria. The legacy, other than the Saanich Commonwealth Place pool and rec centre, was more about programs than infrastructure.

Like Toronto, smitten by visions of the National Football League, looking down its nose at the CFL … like MLS soccer fans dazzled by the World Cup, having to get used to following the bouncing ball on artificial turf once more, the bigger stage was souring the perception of everything beneath it.

The CBC is showing highlight packages daily from the current Games in Glasgow, Scotland, but most of the coverage is online, live-streaming. That tells you Canadians no longer clamour for wall-to-wall coverage.

But the point is, again: It’s not you, Commonwealth Games, it’s us.

There is still plenty of good stuff about you.

Phil Casey, who was the main athletics correspondent during the London Olympics for England’s Press Association, covered the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.

“It was fantastic,” Casey said, during a recent interview at golf’s Open Championship. “Melbourne’s a great sporting city anyway, and Aussies love their sports. They turned the Melbourne Cricket Ground into the athletics stadium, so they had massive crowds there.

“In general terms, though, it’s harder and harder to be relevant. The Olympics are so much bigger, and the European athletics (championships) are this year, so there’s too much stuff crammed into the sporting year. It’s tough for the Commonwealth Games to still have a prominent place in the sporting calendar.”

For Brits, the 2012 Olympics in London have skewed the perception of Glasgow’s Games, Casey said, “because it was such a big success, and we didn’t really expect it to be. We were all very cynical, Brits thinking it’s bound to go wrong, transport will be horrible, this and that — and it wasn’t. It was a tremendous success.

“So once (British distance runner) Mo Farah wins double Olympic gold and follows it up with double world gold, what’s he going to prove (at the Commonwealth level)?”

Well, nothing, as it turns out. He withdrew from Glasgow.

There are no such ambiguities among Australians.

They have been the leading nation in 12 of 19 previous Empire or Commonwealth Games and are comfortably ahead in Glasgow, which would be their seventh medals title in a row.

“Even though I personally see the Commonwealth Games as an anachronism — and would prefer we remove that bloody Union Jack from our flag ASAP — I think in Australia (the Games are) viewed favourably,” says Robert Lusetich, a Los Angeles-based Aussie expat who is a senior writer at FOXSports.

“The thing about Australia is that it’s a remote land with a relatively small population that punches above its weight in sports. So we make up for whatever geopolitical clout we lack by swimming faster than everyone else. And it really does help the national psyche.”

And not only for Aussies.

At the 2004 Athens Olympics, India won one silver medal. Six years later, hosting the Commonwealth Games, Indian athletes won 38 gold, 27 silver and 36 bronze.

New Zealand won eight medals at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. At the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland, it won 58.

The Commonwealth itself has waned in significance, but not quite to the point of irrelevance. Rivalries still exist.

“The other important thing to note about the Commonwealth Games is that we get to kick English arse. And there’s no better feeling for any Australian than to stick it to the Poms, in whatever sport we can,” said Lusetich.

“Following on from that, we had a pretty disastrous 2012 Olympics, dropping to 10th in the medal tally after not having been out of the top five since Sydney, where we were tied with China for third — a tremendous achievement when you consider the sizes of the countries.

“So Glasgow offers us a chance to wipe the London Games from the memory and start afresh, building for Rio. And that’s critical in this, too, the fact that we can use the Commonwealth Games to prepare for the Olympics.”

Aussie swimmers, British cyclists, Kenyan distance runners, Jamaican sprinters … the measuring sticks are there, for Canadians to test themselves against the best in the world. And it’s experience we need, for confidence, or for lessons yet to be learned, before the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

All other arguments aside, it is for that reason that we should still remain friends, Commonwealth Games. Whatever we are, whatever we hope to be, is partly because of you.

Even if the thrill is gone.

ccole@vancouversun.com

 
 
 
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Canadian athletes wave to the crowd at the closing ceremonies for the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton.
 

Canadian athletes wave to the crowd at the closing ceremonies for the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton.

Photograph by: STAFF, EDMONTON JOURNAL

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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