New Delhi’s chaotic preparation for the Commonwealth Games has been met with criticism from all over the world and has prompted many to ask what the Commonwealth Games are for.
“The games were a much more political project or idea than the Olympics, in that [they were] designed to strengthen the ties or the cultural and social relations between [participating nations],” said Bruce Kidd, University of Toronto professor in the Faculty of Physical Education and Health, who won a gold and a bronze medal as a track athlete at the 1962 British Empire and Commonwealth Games.But the lack of appeal of the Commonwealth Games may have contributed to the fiasco in India.As Alexander Chancellor wrote in The Guardian, “It is hard to imagine any country, even India, being so lackadaisical in preparing to host the Olympic Games or the World Cup. But the Commonwealth Games don’t have their glamour.”The Commonwealth Games are unique in that they were established on the basis of history, instead of geographical location. The Commonwealth nations are supposed to share similar cultural and social traditions because of their past and present exposure to British rule.But some, including Chancellor, argue that the ties are no longer strong enough, and that the members do not share many of the same cultural attributes and traditions anymore. This is evidenced by the fact that Mozambique, in which Portuguese is the official language, and Rwanda, in which French is more widely spoken than English, are both members.As a member of Commonwealth Games Canada, the organization coordinating the Canadian team’s participation in the games, Kidd believes that they are still relevant.“I think there was an effort among the leaders of the Commonwealth Sport and there is an effort in world sport to put more of these major games in their benefits in the developing world, in the global South, and this is an example of that,” he said.What do the games mean to the Canadians then?If not for the crisis in New Delhi, the Commonwealth Games could pass by almost unnoticed in Canada. In 2010, the Canadians enjoyed a gold medal haul at the very successful Vancouver Winter Olympics, and passion for soccer spread across the country thanks to the FIFA World Cup during the summer.And now, here comes another quadrennial sporting event — the Commonwealth Games.
Hamilton’s failed attempt in bidding to host the 2010 Commonwealth Games would probably be the only — if there is one — Canadian link to this year’s games an average Canadian could identify with.Yet Canada has deep roots at the games. Melville Marks (Bobby) Robinson, who was a sports journalist with the Hamilton Spectator at the time, attended the 1928 Olympics as the manager of the track and field team. He created what was then called the British Empire Games to accommodate entities within the British Empire that do not have an Olympics team.The idea had been around for years, but it was Robinson who put it into practice — 400 athletes from 11 countries attended the 1930 British Empire Games with a competition program made up of six sports. This year, 7000 athletes from 72 countries will be competing in 17 sports.Canadian athletes have participated — and excelled — at every single Commonwealth Games since. Canada comes third in the overall medal count, after Australia and England.Canadian swimmer Graham Smith swept six gold medals at the 1978 Games in Edmonton, and Alexandra Orlando repeated the same heroics in rhythmic gymnastics in 2006 in Melbourne.However, even looking at Canada’s glorious record at the games, one might ask if it even matters that much to an average Canadian.Canada performs well in the medal table, largely because some of the greatest sporting nations on Earth — the United States, Russia, and China for example — are not competing.Does this mean that the Commonwealth Games only serve as the diving board for the young and upcoming athletes?“Given the fact that Canada continues to have significant trade and cultural relations with these nations — so many immigrants come from the Commonwealth countries — these games remain important for us,” Kidd said.Kidd claims that, for example, there is strong Canadian presence in India, and the games would only help strengthen it, “Canadians are having increasingly strong ties with India, immigration and trade are big, [and there is] the exchange of technology and the exchange of university students.“The games are supposed to express and reinforce those ties.”However, the fact that Canada has been a keen supporter of the games, (Canada has hosted the games a record-tying four times), does not help to fuel the popularity of the games.Kidd feels that the Commonwealth Games are not as popular among Canadians as they used to be but suggests that hosting them again might improve their popularity (Canada last hosted the games in 1994 at Victoria, British Columbia).“I like this idea [of the Commonwealth Games] a lot,” said 22-year-old Lev Daschko, a U of T graduate with a specialist in history. “It’s nice to be part of the Commonwealth, and it’s a good way to show Canada’s place in the world, our ties to Britain, and to the other Commonwealth countries.”The Commonwealth Games rarely receive attention from the public, not only because of the modest amount of funding they receive from the federal government, but also due to minimal media coverage. According to Evan H. Potter at the University of Ottawa, Canada was the only major Commonwealth nation not broadcasting the games in 2006.Daschko said, “[The Commonwealth Games] don’t get that much coverage I find. I would like to have them on [multiple TV channels] like the Olympics.“I think if they were televised, there would be more of a following.“For the Commonwealth Games, because they are smaller, it’s even more important for Canadians to support [our athletes]. It’s even more embarrassing if nobody is watching them, and they place very well there.”In fact, Canada is linked to the Commonwealth Games in multiple ways that are seemingly overlooked by the public.Commonwealth Games Canada has been active in sport and social development in the developing world. Kidd was the co-founder of the Canadian Sport Development program, now known as the International Development through Sport programme.The IDS uses sport and physical activity to contribute to some of the basic development goals of the Commonwealth, like basic education, gender equity, and the prevention of HIV/AIDS. The programme is conducted by a number of Commonwealth countries, including the UK and Australia. Canadian programs are currently focused on the Caribbean and Africa.“In Canada, [the programme] came out of the change in the world in the early 1990s,” said Kidd. “It came in response to an appeal by the sports leaders in Africa, and the newly liberated South Africa from the Apartheid, to help them rebuild the sport in South Africa and the frontline states in Southern Africa. It came about as a result of the young athletes who wanted to give something.”Kidd, who has been involved in the Commonwealth Games for around half a century, thinks that even though they have become increasingly diversified (for example, with more developed support systems for the global South), some elements of the games remain unchanged. “There are continuities,” said Kidd, “like this belief in bringing everything together. It is this whole idea of exchange.”Kidd is also currently chair of the Commonwealth Advisory Body on Sport, an organization that advises the Commonwealth Secretariat and Commonwealth governments on sport policy with respect to sport for development and peace.While for many, the Commonwealth Games are the relic of a forgotten legacy, some find that the Commonwealth Games not only give Canadian athletes another place to win medals and to fine tune their skills, but also create national pride.“I would love another games to be in Canada,” said Daschko.
Varsity Blues pole vaulter Jason Wurster will be competing in New Delhi
Photo by Jeff Caton
Jason Wurster, a sixth year U of T student majoring in Geography with minors in Forestry and History, will be competing for a medal in pole vaulting at the 2010 Commonwealth Games.Wurster, a native of Stevensville, Ontario, started pole vaulting in grade 9. He has been training with U of T since 2001 when he was under the auspices of the Junior Development program.“I wasn’t really the guy who’d planned to go to university. U of T has supported me every step of the way and it’s been an experience,” said Wurster.Having participated at the World Student Games in 2005, 2007, and 2009, and now in his fifth year of eligibility as a Varsity Blue, Wurster is no stranger to competition.The U of T pole vaulter finds that competing at the likes of the Commonwealth Games could help him prepare for the Olympics, the Holy Grail for track and field athletes.“As a track athlete there’s certain meets you want to make it to, the Olympics being the biggest event,” said Wurster. “Then there are certain events like the Pan-Am Games and the Commonwealth Games that we strive to compete at.”Wurster has been training — a lot of jumping, pole vaulting, long jumping, sprinting, weightlifting and gymnastics — for a month and a half in order to peak on October 11, which is the final for pole vaulting.Australian Steve Hooker, the current world number one pole vaulter, will be Wurster’s main rival. According to Wurster, Hooker has done “some amazing things.” Hooker jumped the second highest height ever achieved at 6.06m while Wurster’s personal best is 5.5m.“He’s someone I sort of look up to,” said Wurster. “Unless he’s having a bad day, it’ll be difficult to beat him.“I try not to overanalyze things too much. It’s sort of better to forget about a lot of things and go in with a clear head.”Wurster’s family, coaches, and U of T are important components in his support system, but it was Canadian Athletes Now, a Toronto-based funding company, that made his dream of becoming an amateur athlete come true.“I was in my garage working on a bicycle on a Sunday. A girl called me to say I’d got [funding]. I’d sort of forgot about it. I was floored. It overwhelmed me,” said Wurster. “It was $6,000 dollars, which is a lot of money for someone who doesn’t get paid to [pole valut].”Wurster’s long term goal will be to shine at the London Olympics, which will take place two years from now.“Definitely my eyes are on making the Olympics in 2012, and being very competitive there and making the final,” he said.