Can radical changes restore sagging prestige of Commonwealth Games?

It all started with a row. When a spindly 20-year-old from Vancouver called Percy Williams won the Olympics 100m final in Amsterdam in 1928, it was such an improbable result he was made to wait for his medal while the organisers tried to find a Canadian flag to run up the pole.

The one they found was so small that Canadian officials complained to the International Olympic Committee. That wasn’t all they were unhappy about. The Canadians were offended the band did not seem to know their anthem either and, by the way, the US team were allowed to practise on the track when no one else was.

They also thought they were on the wrong end of a judge’s decision in the women’s 100m, when the race was awarded to the US’s Betty Robinson ahead of their own Bobbie Rosenfeld.

For Canada’s team manager, Melville Marks Robinson, it was all too much. “We know the Canadians are getting the runaround here,” Robinson told the IOC, “and we don’t like it.”

Robinson decided the Olympic Games had become too fraught, too antagonistic, too jingoistic and, yes, too American. It was his idea to launch a new sports competition, one “devoid of petty jealousies and sectional prejudices”. It would be like the Olympics but “merrier and less stern”, a “celebration of the glorious traditions of British sportsmanship”. So Robinson organised the British Empire Games, which were launched in Hamilton two years later.

The title did not last, but the competition did. It was rebranded once as the British Empire and Commonwealth Games then again as the British Commonwealth Games and finally, once the British gave up their claim on the name, as the plain Commonwealth Games.

“The Games,” wrote Brian Oliver in his history of the competition, “have just carried on regardless of the political and cultural transformation of the British empire, and of all the changes sweeping through the sporting world.”

The 22nd edition starts, like a party you had forgotten your partner had organised, in Birmingham on Thursday, and will be all over the BBC for 12 days.

In Birmingham, they have a great host city that feels ready for its moment, in much the same way Manchester was in 2002 and Glasgow in 2014. They have chosen well, even if it took them two goes to do it. The Games were supposed to be in Durban, who were picked to host in 2015. It would have been the first time the Games had been held in Africa. But the Commonwealth Games Federation took them away two years later when the South Africa government refused to stump up the £500m budget.

Which figures, since £500m really does seem a lot of money to spend on an own-brand Olympics that exists, in the memorable phrase of John Oliver, as the “historic display of a once-mighty nation gathering together the countries it lost and finding a way to lose to them once more”.

The British government, though, was all too keen to step in as it sought to reorient itself after the Brexit referendum, spending more than half as much again. We’re in for at least £778m. The tangible returns are the new Sandwell Aquatics Centre, the redeveloped Alexander Stadium and the regeneration of Perry Barr, although a large part of that latter plan was scrapped because of cost overruns.

It also paid for all the brochures containing nebulous legacy promises about the ensuing boost in tourist revenue and the long-term growth of sports participation among the local population, which may or may not be worth the glossy paper they’ve been printed on.

The Games have been going through what the Commonwealth Games Federation president, Dame Louise Martin, has described as a period of “soul-searching” in recent years, as you might expect for an organisation whose primary purpose for much of the 20th century was sportswashing the reputation of the British empire.

As the CGF explains on its website: “There is no easy way of saying the Commonwealth has a challenging history linked to colonial roots” (credit to them, in writing that they seem to have found a way to do it). Apparently, “work has already started to alter the focus from the hegemony of the British empire to one of global peace, shared sustainability and prosperity”.

The CGF has tried to reinvent the Commonwealth Games as a celebration of shared values rather than shared history. As the former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind said in 2011: “The Commonwealth faces a very significant problem. It’s not a problem of hostility or antagonism, it’s more of a problem of indifference. Its purpose is being questioned, its relevance is being questioned and part of that is because its commitment to enforce the values for which it stands is becoming ambiguous in the eyes of many member states.”

Almost half those states still have anti-LGBTQ+ laws. And the host nation itself has recently had to apologise for detaining and deporting members of the Windrush generation.

Still, the CGF has made some radical changes to the Games in an attempt to jenny everyone along. The Birmingham edition will have the largest Para-sport programme yet, will be the first major multisport event to have more medals for women than men and will, apparently, be the first to be entirely carbon neutral too.

And, in stark contrast to the IOC’s policy of banning political gestures during the Olympics, the CGF has introduced rules supporting the athletes’ right to protest on social issues. Its new guidelines state the CGF “is supportive of expression and trusts, respects and understands that athletes may want to make positive expressions of their values”. A Pride network has been launched to help its LGBTQ+ athletes do exactly that.

When Robinson launched the Games the historian Katharine Moore wrote: “The empire needed the Games to reconfirm and redefine its unity. They could be seen as one step towards re-establishing its sagging prestige.”

That’s as true for the Commonwealth now, too.