History of the Commonwealth Games | When and why were they first created?

Why were the Games created?

The origin of the Games dates back to the 1890s, when John Astley Cooper, an Australian-born clergyman, called for a “pan-British” sporting festival to bring together the different parts of the British Empire in friendly competition. His view of who could take part in this project was, typically for the time, racially exclusive: it only encompassed (what he considered) the “Anglo-Saxon” dominions, and he also called for white American participation. , thus excluding all black and indigenous people from the sport.

This imperial sporting vision developed alongside the Olympic Games, first staged in 1896. However, apart from a four-team sporting competition at the 1911 Festival of Empire at London’s Crystal Palace, the idea only caught on. its take off only in the late 1920s. The success of the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam inspired Canadian journalist and athletics administrator Bobby Robinson to revive the idea of ​​an empire-wide sporting event along Olympic lines, and his work led to the Canadian city of Hamilton hosting the first British Empire Games in 1930. .

The 1930 Games were quite small, with 400 competitors from just 11 teams, compared to 2,883 from 46 nations that had participated in the Amsterdam Olympics two years earlier. Teams included British Guiana and Bermuda, as well as the “Anglo-Saxon” dominions of Cooper’s vision.

Canada’s Jimmy Ball takes first place in the semi-finals of the men’s 400 meters at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Which countries participated in the Games?

In their early years, the Games were restricted to the countries of the British Empire and, as it evolved, to the Commonwealth. In the decades that followed, teams came from countries with varying degrees of independence and sovereignty. Many countries in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean have competed before and after independence, and 2022 will be Barbados’ first appearance since becoming a republic in November 2021.

External territories of Commonwealth nations also send their own teams, such as Norfolk Island, which has participated in every Games since 1986, while overseas territories are also eligible: regular teams in this group include those Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Montserrat and Saint Helena. The Crown dependencies of Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man all have their own teams. This arrangement means that the UK does not compete as one team: instead, England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales all compete separately.

And there are also nations that were not historically part of the British Empire, but joined the Commonwealth as part of their own post-colonial history. Mozambique, which has competed at every Games since 1998, and Rwanda, which made its Commonwealth Games debut in 2010, are examples of this trend. Similarly, the Irish Free State sent a team to London and Manchester in 1934, but they did not compete in 1938 and never returned after full independence in 1949. , Australia has the best medal record in the 21 Games. so far, with England and Canada in second and third place respectively.

Cities across the Empire and Commonwealth hosted the Games in its various formats, although Home Nations and former Dominions dominated. So far, Australian cities have hosted them five times, with Canada in four, New Zealand and Scotland in three each, England in two, and India, Jamaica, Malaysia and the Wales on one each. England are hosting this year, and Victoria in Australia in 2026. We are still waiting for the Commonwealth Games in Africa.

Have the Commonwealth Games ever experienced political boycotts?

Despite the “friendly games” label, political fault lines in imperial and post-imperial relations have, on occasion, impacted the Games. These have been concentrated around South Africa. The 1934 Empire Games were originally scheduled for Johannesburg, but London and Manchester took over due to South Africa’s racially segregated policies. While Canada, India, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago were all set to compete with teams that included black and Asian competitors, sports officials feared their athletes would face discrimination in Johannesburg.

In 1978, Nigeria boycotted the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Canada. It was to protest against the presence of New Zealand. Under the 1977 Gleneagles Agreement, Commonwealth countries pledged to reduce sporting contact with apartheid South Africa, but New Zealand failed to do so.

The most significant boycott took place in Edinburgh in 1986. Margaret Thatcher’s government was never fully committed to the Gleneagles agreement and remained equivocal about links with South African sport. In response, 32 nations, ranging from Barbados and Papua New Guinea to Cyprus, Ghana and India, stayed away from Edinburgh.

What sports were played at the Commonwealth Games and how have they changed over time?

The first Empire Games in 1930 were a fairly modest affair, with events in just six disciplines: aquatics, athletics, bowls, boxing, rowing and wrestling. All were open to men, but women could only compete in swimming and diving. From these humble beginnings the sports program has expanded and over the years badminton, cycling, fencing, netball, rugby sevens, shooting, weightlifting and many more are entered the game. The program is now established by the Commonwealth Games Federation, in collaboration with the teams of each edition. host city and the international federations of the various sports.

The number of women’s sports increased gradually in the first years of the event: athletics in 1934, fencing in 1950 and badminton in 1966 were the only new women’s events between 1934 and 1978 (it should be noted that the fencing is no longer an official sport at the Commonwealth Games). Progress accelerated from 1978, with new events added to each edition between then and 1990. The 1998 Games in Kuala Lumpur saw a big leap forward, with events in cycling, field hockey, netball and squash all added for women. At the time of the 2006 Games in Melbourne, only boxing and rugby sevens were for men only, and these were opened up to women in 2014 and 2018 respectively.

Women competing in the 80 meter hurdles at the British Empire Games (later Commonwealth Games) in Sydney, 24 February 1938

The first round of the 80 meter hurdles at the British Empire Games (later the Commonwealth Games) in Sydney, February 24, 1938. (Photo by Alan Webb/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This year there are no sports closed to women, and two – netball and T20 cricket – which have women-only competitions. Netball remains women-only due to its international status, while the cricket event is designed to both increase the visibility of the women’s game and help build a case for future Olympic inclusion.

In Birmingham this year, there are 20 different disciplines, including the second Commonwealth beach volleyball event and the inaugural 3×3 basketball competition. Parasports are integrated into the main event program (it has been since 2002), and this year the Games will include esports – electronic sports based on video games – as a demonstration event. Esports are already featured in the Asian Games, but not yet in the Olympics, so this year’s experiment in Birmingham will likely be another step on the road to their full acceptance in transnational sporting events. The Birmingham demo event will see mixed teams play football simulations and the multiplayer online battle arena game, Defense of the Ancients.

What are the main differences between the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics?

The main difference is that the Olympic Games are open to any nation with its own National Olympic Committee. There has been some flexibility on this over the years, notably for the unified team in 1992 when the USSR was collapsing, and, since 2016, with the introduction of a refugee team for athletes who have lost their national status, but the basic model is the nation-state, regardless of its alliances or membership in other bodies. With the Commonwealth Games, membership in the Commonwealth of Nations is a prerequisite.

This explains the large differences in the size of the events. The most recent Summer Olympics, held in Tokyo in 2021, attracted 11,420 competitors from 206 teams, while the 2018 Commonwealth Games on Australia’s Gold Coast hosted 4,426 athletes from 71 teams. As a result, the Commonwealth Games are much cheaper to stage: current estimates have Birmingham 2022 costing just under £800m, compared to £8.8bn for London 2012.

Ultimately, the biggest difference is that the Olympics is a global brand, with all the lucrative commercial and broadcast deals that come with it, whereas the Commonwealth Games have more limited appeal. The headquarters of the administrative bodies for both events is quite telling here: the IOC occupies its own complex in Lausanne, Switzerland, while the Commonwealth Games Federation is based, along with various non-sporting bodies, in Commonwealth House at the Pall Mall in London.


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Birmingham is hosting the 2022 Commonwealth Games. Which other UK cities have already staged them?

This year, the Games will be held in Great Britain for the seventh time and in England for the third. The 1934 Empire Games, moved from Johannesburg at short notice, were split between London and Manchester. Wales hosted the 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games, Cardiff doing the honours, then Edinburgh won two Games in successive decades, hosting the successful 1970 edition and the much-boycotted 1986 Games . Then it was Manchester in 2002, then Glasgow in 2014.

Some of these Games have left a sporting legacy to their cities. Wembley Arena, for example, now used for concerts and major events, was built as the Empire Pool for the 1934 Games, and Manchester City FC’s Etihad Stadium began life as the athletics venue for the 2002 Games. before being converted for football.

Martin Polley is Professor of History and Director of the International Center for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort University. He has written extensively on sports diplomacy, Olympic history, amateurism and professionalism, gender, and historiographical and methodological issues in the study of sport.

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