Offside, 2 August

The Commonwealth Games is like a school sports day - medals come cheap and participants are applauded just for turning up.

Duleep Allirajah

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Did English sprinter Dwain Chambers feign injury when he realised he couldn’t win the 100-metres final at the Commonwealth Games? We may never know.

If I were Dwain Chambers I would have certainly faked cramp to avoid the shame of being a loser in the Losers’ Games – er, I mean the Friendly Games. Actually, the Losers’ Games is an entirely apposite title because, let’s be honest, rewarding the losers with pseudo-medals is what the Commonwealth Games is all about.

Without the Americans, the Germans and the east Europeans there is very little meaningful competition in the Commonwealth Games. ‘If there is a podium finish for an athlete in the Commonwealth Games, it’s not worth anything at all’, said Sven Arne Hansen, director of Oslo’s Bislett Games. ‘I went to the Commonwealth Games when they were in Brisbane in 1982, and to call it a Mickey Mouse event would have been an insult to Mickey Mouse’, he added (1).

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the tournament is a sham. For a start, the Brits win hatfuls of medals. Not as many as the Aussies, who top the medal table, but enough to rouse suspicions that something ain’t right. Then there’s the fact that the BBC has acquired the broadcasting rights – a tell-tale sign of a meaningless sporting event if ever there was one. The BBC commentary team tries gamely to maintain the fiction that this is a Serious Tournament, but the more they insist that a Commonwealth medal is meaningful, the more you know it is worthless.

Invariably, large numbers of competitors simply didn’t bother to show up. The organisers had expected 5000 competitors, but only 3800 actually entered. In some of the major track and field events, a handful of world-class athletes have been able to lend the appearance of real competition.

But in other disciplines there were so few competitors that only an Ultra-Loser could have failed to land a medal. In one of the women’s weightlifting categories there were only four competitors vying for the three available medals, while in the men’s wrestling, competitors stood a 50 percent chance of winning a medal (2).

One of the novel developments in the 2002 Games is the inclusion of 10 events for disabled athletes within the mainstream tournament. For the first time in a major tournament (and I use the word ‘major’ reservedly here), medals won by disabled competitors count towards a nation’s overall medal tally.

‘The Games are a powerful blow for the idea that everyone can make a contribution on their own terms’, declared the Independent (3). ‘Everyone’s a loser at these Games, so you may as well take part too’, is the implicit message. Having been granted equal status, one competitor demonstrated that disabled sportsmen were just as capable of bringing shame on their sports as their able-bodied peers. John Davies, a 60-year-old New Zealand bowls player with an artificial leg was sent home in disgrace after it was alleged that he sexually harassed a female volunteer in the athletes’ village.

The Commonwealth Games is like a school sports day where medals come cheap and participants are applauded just for turning up. Some are even applauded for losing abjectly. The Barbados men’s hockey team was humiliated 10-1 by South Africa, yet they were cheered every time they won possession, and indeed the South Africans were even jeered off the park at the end.

In the Olympics, we have also seen abject losers being accorded hero status. It all started when Britain’s Eddie the Eagle became a national hero after his inept ski-jumping display at the 1988 Winter Olympics. ‘I think what my Olympic participation shows is that you don’t have to be the best in the world to be popular’, said the nation’s most famous loser. More recently, swimmer Eric the Eel from Equatorial Guinea became an international celebrity after recording the slowest 100-metres freestyle time in Olympic history at the 2000 Sydney Games. Cheering for the underdog is one thing but celebrating ineptitude is simply perverse.

What is the point of the Commonwealth Games? What do all those Commonwealth gold medals mean to the Australians? That they are better than those terminal losers, the Poms? That they’ve trounced athletes from third-world countries that have little or no sporting infrastructure? Big deal! No wonder the Australian Daily Telegraph has suggested that its athletes should compete for their state of origin rather than their country in order to make the tournament more competitive.

The trouble with the Aussies is that they labour under the illusion that the Commonwealth Games is all about competitiveness and winning. How naive! The Commonwealth Games is effectively a form of sport therapy designed to raise the self-esteem of mediocre athletes. Gold medal anyone?

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) ‘Champions likely to be palmed off with fool’s gold’, Owen Slot, The Times (London), 26 July 2002

(2) Entrant Shortage threatens ‘No Contest Games’, Nick Harris, Independent, 26 July 2002

(3) An accessible rostrum for athletes with disabilities, Independent, 26 July 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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