Sport Sport Focus Kate, Will and beating Poms: Why we cling to the Commonwealth Games
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Kate, Will and beating Poms: Why we cling to the Commonwealth Games

Anna Meares will carry the flag for Australia in Glasgow.
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They’re on again. This week the Commonwealth Games begin in Glasgow and many Downunder will tune in to what’s seen as one of sports’ big yawns.

They’re the friendly games but, let’s face it, Australians have never played sport to make friends. It’s about winning. If you’re a winner – especially in a high profile sport – you’ll get funding and sponsorships.

Usain Bolt is popping in for the relay. Photo: Getty
Usain Bolt is popping in for the relay. Photo: Getty

The Commonwealth Games is a good place to kick off a big buck career. The competition is not that hot and Australia has an outstanding record. Since the games’ inception in 1930 Australia have topped the medal tally on twelve occasions. Since 1990 we’ve not been beaten and if our form holds we’ll do the same in Glasgow.

There’s more chance of Usain Bolt playing Twenty20 in Australia next summer than lining up in the hundred.

Of course, we’ve got a vested interested in these games. Many hope Glasgow will reinvigorate the games after the disasters of Delhi. They’re heading to the Gold Coast in 2018, and the last thing Queenslanders need is a sporting mega-event on the slide.

Let’s face it, these grandiose events are on the nose, especially the likes of the Commonwealth Games, which have lost much of their lustre.

The Manchester and Delhi games ran way over budget, and Glasgow’s heading the same way. Already the games’ cost is ₤200 million in excess of its original 2007 estimate.

For just under two weeks Australians will celebrate our sporting excellence against a pretty ordinary bunch. We’ll fudge the figures to substantiate our place as one the globe’s premier sporting nations. We won’t be competing against Britain but the four home countries and an increasingly underfunded Canadian team.

Furthermore, high profilers like Jamaican sprinter Yohan Blake have decided to pass, though he will run in the Diamond League meet at Glasgow’s Hampden Park just prior to the games.

Despite lobbying from organisers, Blake’s countryman, Usain Bolt, will by-pass the blue-ribbon individual sprints for the relay. Bolt’s never competed at the Games. There’s more chance of him playing Twenty20 in Australia next summer than lining up in the hundred.

The swimmers are sure to clean up - again. Photo: Getty
The swimmers are sure to clean up – again. Photo: Getty

These games are losing relevance quickly. In those sports which are awash with money, high profile performers will increasingly give preference to their bank balances over a gold medal.

We’ll still do well. Our swimmers will triumph.

As Australian Commonwealth Games Association CEO Perry Crosswhite explained, organisers are not in a position to commence paying athletes.

We’ll still do well. Our swimmers will triumph, while our netballers and hockey players will steal the show. Other than Sally Pearson, we’ll go missing on the track again if the events of last week are any indication.

The little known middle distance runner Alex Rowe equalled Ralph Doubell’s 800 metres record on Friday. It’s stood since 1968. If there’s a ‘stat’ which suggests a history of chronic under-achievement on the track it’s this one. Rowe’s feat must be acknowledged, but it raises the question of what value do we get for taxpayer money from elite sporting institutes.

There may be calls from Australian sports heavyweights to consider jettisoning the Commonwealth after 2018 for the Asian Games. We’d compete against sport’s new global superpower, China, and the ever-competitive Japanese and South Koreans.

At the London Olympics China finished second behind the US in the medal tally, while the South Koreans came in fifth. The Japanese were just pipped for a place in the top ten by Australia.

Kate and Harry after their successful tour of Australia. Photo: Getty
Kate and George after their successful tour of Australia. Photo: Getty

The Asian Games would be a greater test of Australia’s sporting prowess and more in line with our strategic and economic interests. Our politicians and business leaders have touted frequently about our place in the so-called Asian Century. They’ve constantly reminded us that the Chinese market kept us afloat during the global financial crisis. It won’t be long before we hitch more of our sporting wagon to the region.

With Kate, William and Harry, we’ve rediscovered the royals.

Australia has already attempted to gain access to the Asian Games. With more than 10,000 competitors in 39 sports, they’re almost double the size of the Commonwealth Games.

In 2010, China’s chef de mission at the Asian Games welcomed Australia’s inclusion, suggesting it would raise the region’s sporting standards. However, the president of the Asian Olympic Council, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Fahad Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah said the move would gut the Oceania Olympic Committee of which Australia is the major player.

There is a precedent, however. Australia left Oceania in 2006 and joined the Asian Football Confederation. For those who framed the new era of Australian football, such as Frank Lowy and David Crawford, the move was about market access not traditional loyalties. The same considerations will eventually sway the Asian Olympic Council.

Australia’s inclusion in the Asian Games would boost opportunities for increased sponsorship and broadcasting rights at a time when questions are being raised about the viability of sports mega-events.

This will not mean the end of the Commonwealth Games. Australians are economic opportunists when it comes to Asia. They are traditionalists where the Commonwealth and ‘mother country’ are concerned.

With Kate, William and Harry, we’ve rediscovered the royals. There’s almost a begrudging acceptance of Charles and Camilla, and the Queen is still our head of state. We cling to old conservative myths like Gallipoli, though we have nationalised it.

Hopefully the centenary of the Great War will bring back the word ‘imperial’ and we can view the conflict for what it was – a war in defence of Empire – not for what we want it to be: national self-aggrandisement.

The Queen and the colonial boy, jockey Luke Nolan, after Black Caviar's win at Royal Ascot. Photo: Getty
The Queen and the colonial boy, jockey Luke Nolen, after Black Caviar’s win at Royal Ascot. Photo: Getty

Despite boasts of multiculturalism, we are more British than we like to think. Unlike India and South Africa we are not a republic and if the recent poll is any indication we never will be one.

One of the defining moments in recent Australian sport was when the Queen met Black Caviar.

This reflected in our sporting culture. The southern states may have an indigenous football code, but it has been propagated partly through a public school system that cherished the British Empire, muscular Christianity and the games tradition.

Melburnians may call AFL a religion and the MCG a sacred site, but our sportsmen and women cherish Lord’s, Twickenham and Wimbledon.

One of the defining moments in recent Australian sport was when the Queen met Black Caviar at Royal Ascot. It defined where our sporting loyalties lay.

So, too, do the Commonwealth Games.

We’ll head to Asia because the money’s good, but we’ll stay in Commonwealth because it’s our home and we are a conservative nation. And we’ll continue to define our sporting greatness against the Poms.

Why?

Because our nationalism is defined by who we’re not, rather than by who we are.

Dr Tom Heenan lectures in sport studies at Monash University.