Commonwealth Games: History and politics of imperial controlhttps://indianexpress.com/article/research/commonwealth-games-2018-gold-coast-history-and-politics-of-imperial-control-5123195/

Commonwealth Games: History and politics of imperial control

On Wednesday, as the 2018 Commonwealth Games is inaugurated at Gold Coast, Australia, we reflect upon the unique history and politics of this international sports event.

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One of the most significant demonstrations of the ties among the nations is the multi-sport event, Commonwealth Games, that is held once every four years. (Wikimedia Commons)

Two years after India achieved freedom, it proclaimed itself to be a Republic, thereby underlining the necessity of defining a new relationship with its erstwhile ruler, Great Britain. As per the London Declaration issued in 1949, free India decided to maintain its ties with their white masters by entering the Commonwealth of nations association.

“The Government of India have … declared and affirmed India’s desire to continue her full membership of the Commonwealth of Nations and her acceptance of the King as the symbol of the free association of its independent member nations and as such the Head of the Commonwealth.”

Unlike most other colonial powers of the world, Britain had a unique style of imperial control, that allowed significant self-government to its colonies. Post-independence, they saw it as a necessity to maintain cordial relations with their subjects. A most significant product of this need was the creation of the Commonwealth of nations, a free association of sovereign states that were previously under British rule and now saw the British Crown as its symbolic head.

The purpose of the Commonwealth was two-fold. On one hand, the independent nations considered the association beneficial in maintaining better political relations with a large number of countries. “We join the Commonwealth obviously because we think it is beneficial to us and to certain causes in the world that we wish to advance,” declared Nehru at the Constituent Assembly on May 16, 1949. On the other hand, it maintained Britain’s symbolic authority over its former colonies, while at the same time acknowledging their free status.

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Flags of the members of the Commonwealth in Parliament Square, London (Wikimedia Commons)

At present, the 53 member states of the Commonwealth of nations maintain links with each other through education, sports, culture, and literature. Perhaps one of the most significant demonstrations of the ties among the nations is the multi-sport event, Commonwealth Games, that is held once every four years. On Wednesday, as the 2018 Commonwealth Games is inaugurated at Gold Coast, Australia, we reflect upon the unique history and politics of this international sports event.

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History of Commonwealth Games

The idea of an imperial sporting event dates back to 1891 when the clergyman John Astley Cooper suggested a “Pan-Britannic-Pan-Anglican Contest and Festival every four years as a means of increasing goodwill and a good understanding of the British Empire.” Though his suggestion did not bear fruits immediately, in 1911 the Festival of Empire was held at Crystal Palace in London to celebrate the coronation of George V. Australasia (a combination of Australia and New Zealand), Canada, South Africa, and the United Kingdom took part in five athletic events.

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In 1911 the Festival of Empire was held at Crystal Palace in London to celebrate the coronation of George V. (Wikimedia Commons)

But the official forerunner to the current Commonwealth Games was the British Empire Games held in 1930 in Ontario, Canada. The Empire Games were replete with imperial rhetoric. Canadian daily, The Hamilton Spectator set out with much pride an editorial note stating. “From the outposts of the Empire on which the sun never sets have come the flower of the nation’s young manhood and womanhood, the fleetest and sturdiest of her sons and daughters.” South African newspaper, The Johannesburg Star described the games as a ‘successful family gathering.’

In the ensuing years, the games have undergone significant changes. While 11 nations had contested in the games in 1930, the number has grown steadily over the years and at present, there are over 70 nations participating in the games, a few of which were not even part of the British Empire. The nomenclature of the games has also undergone changes depending on the political status of Britain’s relationship with her colonies. The British Empire Games of 1930 turned into British Empire and Commonwealth Games in 1954. In 1970, the name was changed to British Commonwealth Games while in 1978, the name Commonwealth Games was coined which continues to be in use to date. In the last 88 years, the games have been held every four years, with the exception of 1942 and 1946, when the games were canceled due to the Second World War.

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Opening ceremony of the 1938 British Empire Games at the Sydney Cricket Ground. (Wikimedia Commons)

Politics of Commonwealth Games

A unique characteristic of British domination over her former colonies is the fact that she never used military power to maintain control. Rather it was what has been termed as ‘cultural power.’ In other words, a set of ideas, beliefs, rules, and conventions were carried throughout the empire by imperial administrators, industrialists, military officers and the like. An obvious example of such cultural domination is the status enjoyed by the English language even today. However, a lesser explored field of such cultural domination is through the medium of sports.

“In the case of Britain and its Empire in the last hundred years or so, sport played a part in holding the Empire together and also, paradoxically, in emanating the subject nations from tutelage,” writes historian Harold Perkin in his article, ‘Teaching the nations how to play: Sport and society in the British empire and commonwealth.’ He goes on to add that “few would deny that most of the sports and games the world now plays were first organised in the present forms by the British in the nineteenth century: association football, rugby, cricket, tennis, golf, rowing, track and field athletics and skiing.” Sports, in that sense, allowed Britain to decolonise on a friendlier note and also helped transform the Empire into a Commonwealth of nations.

Imperial politics has been part of the Commonwealth Games since its very inception. “The Empire Games created a venue for the exercise of imperial citizenship through ritual,” writes historian Daniel Gorman about the first games that were held at Ontario in Canada in 1930. Conditions for participation in the games included the need for contestants to be British subjects, they had to be resident of a country they wished to represent for at least six months, and they had to prove that they were amateur athletes. The choice of Hamilton as the host city was also significant since in many ways it symbolised the geographical center of the Empire.

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Closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi (2010) (Wikimedia Commons)

In contemporary times, despite the disappearance of the Empire, the politics of Commonwealth is still evident in many ways. Most significant of course, is the way host countries are chosen. The overwhelming dominance of Great Britain and the former white dominions as hosts for the Games is noteworthy. It is notable that Britain tops the hosting list with six games, followed by Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. “Jamaica, Malaysia, and India are the exceptions to the hegemony of the imperial mother country and the former dominions,” writes historian Martin Polley. Interestingly, despite 18 African countries being part of the Commonwealth, the games have never entered the continent.