Just as the Australian men’s cricket ball-tampering scandal exhausts itself at last, the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games appears, as if on cue, to fill the feelgood sporting void.
These are, after all, the “Friendly Games”, as celebrated in stamp collections. They are meant to be free of the sledging and cheating witnessed in the South Africa-Australia test cricket series.
But is the Commonwealth Games the most appropriate vehicle to elevate the collective spirit? Its origins in the British Empire Games are a permanent reminder that they were forged out of imperialism, colonialism and dispossession.
That this relic of Empire is being hosted by the glitzy Gold Coast, which still struggles to be regarded as an actual city (unlike its immediate Commonwealth Games predecessor, Glasgow), looks like a cruel cosmic joke.
The Gold Coast Commonwealth Games will host more than 6,600 atheletes and officials from 71 Commonwealth nations. It is the fifth largest sporting event in the world, and will be the biggest ever Commonwealth Games and para-sports program.
The Gold Coast aims to be considered a “world-class boutique city” as part of the legacy of the Games.
Quickly turning around a city’s image is a difficult task. And the Commonwealth Games, as with the Olympics and other large sporting events, may not be the best vehicle for this kind of transformation.
The experience of Olympic cities such as Atlanta (1996), Sydney (2000), Vancouver (2010), London (2012), and Rio de Janeiro (2016) is of trying to prevent shiny, happy images being besmirched by the grim realities of urban poverty.
In fact, this is already happening on the Gold Coast, with the promise of “greater reconciliation and social justice for all Australians” looking rather hollow as many local homeless people are exiled across the New South Wales border.
Controlling the media narrative
Hosting any major international sport event attracts a large entourage of journalists with time on their hands. A series of “colour” stories will be generated.
Some will be innocuous travelogues (and even sponsored content), while others are likely to be less flattering. Cliches that have already been trotted out include those focusing on drugs, alcohol, violence, bikie gangs, and gun crime in Surfers Paradise.
Already, an Australia-based Indian journalist has been charged with people-smuggling, involving eight Indian nationals allegedly claiming to be accredited media covering the Games.
With so many people attending from poor and troubled Commonwealth countries, Australia’s notoriously punitive border protection policy could also intrude on the idea of these being the “Friendly Games”.
The waning prestige of the games
This is the third time in 30 years that Australia has hosted the Commonwealth Games. In that period the event has mostly shuffled between the affluent, Anglo-dominated UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
In any case the competition to host the games is diminishing, with the Gold Coast’s sole competition for the 2018 games being Hambantota in Sri Lanka.
But the Commonwealth Games are, ultimately, about sport. With major world sport powers such as the United States and China ineligible, how important is it to compete at the Commonwealth Games and win a medal?
Usain Bolt, the most famous athlete of recent times, reportedly described Glasgow 2014 as “a bit shit” and the Olympics “better” – statements that he later denied.
Many athletes of world renown will be competing, including Australia’s Sally Pearson, Jamaica’s Elaine Thompson, England’s Adam Peaty, and South Africa’s Caster Semenya. But other prominent athletes, including several leading Kenyan distance runners, are planning to miss the Games in favour of other, more compelling athletic priorities.
These and other leading Commonwealth athletes have decided not to disrupt their training for what they regard as more important events, like World Championships.
Queensland has invested around A$2 billion in the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. Getting a decent return and long-term benefits from this sport-led urban adventure may prove elusive.
Nonetheless, memorable sporting moments and displays of camaraderie among athletes, officials and spectators can be anticipated. As most of the Games’ audience cannot attend, it is hoped that exclusive television broadcaster Channel Seven covers them well, avoiding the national chauvinism and stereotyping that has marred previous televised sport events.
At the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games, for instance, host broadcaster Channel Nine was heavily criticised for its parochialism.
Copyright disagreements have led to boycotts by major news organisations, but there will be no shortage of television, radio, print, online and media coverage of the Gold Goast games.
Scenes of sand, sea and skyscrapers will add a glitzy veneer to an Old Empire at play.
Authors: David Rowe, Emeritus Professor of Cultural Research, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University