Dirty tricks at the Commonwealth Games

These days it seems the Empire can only strike back at its uppity former colonial subjects in India with health-and-safety lectures.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

Interesting that nobody in Britain really seemed to care about the Commonwealth Games until it became clear that there were problems with the athletes’ village and the sporting venues being ready on time. Then overnight this third-rate athletics meeting became just about the biggest news story in Britain and other corners of the ‘old’ (ie, white) Commonwealth, such as Australia and Canada.

Why did the non-sporting media in the UK suddenly splash sensational stories of ‘filthy’ living quarters and unfinished buildings, and the ‘reports’ that foreign athletes could be at risk from attack by everything from dengue fever or snakes to terrorists? It gave the old boys of the Mother Country a rare opportunity to look down on the uppity Indians. You know, they might be able to show us a clean pair of heels when it comes to economic growth and technological progress these days. But just look at their dirty buildings and loose light fittings! As Prince Philip famously remarked of a dodgy old fuse box during a visit to a factory in, er, Scotland: ‘It looks as if it was put in by an Indian!’

This shitstorm of self-righteousness about bad smells and a broken bed seems a bit pathetic, really. Once the rulers of the British Empire justified keeping their dark-skinned subjects in their place through the politics of national and racial superiority, backed up by the military might of the Royal Navy and the Army. Now it seems the only ideological weapons they have to demonstrate the alleged inferiority of Indians are the whiny politics of the health-and-safety police.

The Commonwealth Games are of course themselves a symbol of a decline of Britain’s power and influence in the world, and the problems this poses for the elites in knowing who they are anymore. The idea of a sporting competition for the nations of the British Empire was first proposed at the peak of its Victorian power in The Times in 1891, as a ‘Pan-Britannic-Pan-Anglican Contest and Festival every four years as a means of increasing the goodwill and good understanding of the British Empire’. The first version of such an imperial festival took place in 1911 when, as part of the celebrations to mark the coronation of George V, teams from Britain, Australia, South Africa and Canada (note the common feature?) took part in the Inter-Empire Championships.

The first proper Empire Games were held in 1930, in Canada, in an era when the British Empire was already coming under serious pressure from rival powers – Germany, Japan, the US – and from growing national liberation movements in India and other colonies. The games have continued every four years since – with a 12-year break during and after the Second World War, from 1938 to 1950. But the name of the event has altered in line with changing geopolitical realities.

In 1954 they became the British Empire and Commonwealth Games, a last attempt at the fag-end of the Churchill government to hang on to the Empire in name if not in deed. In 1970 that delusion was finally abandoned, and the event became the British Commonwealth Games. By 1978 the ‘British’ had been erased entirely, and they became the Commonwealth Games. That year marked a new high for the event, with almost 1,500 athletes from 46 countries taking part, but a low for British prestige.

It is against that historical background that so many appear to have seized upon the chance offered by the problems in Delhi to tut-tut about the natives once more, recycling old prejudices in the new language of health, safety, anti-terrorism and the environment. There are echoes here of the way that many in the West sought to turn China-bashing into the new sport at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. As spiked argued at the time, they used the Games as a podium to try to take the world’s new economic superpower down a peg or two by lecturing the Chinese over pollution, population, human rights and much else (see And the gold medal for China-bashing goes to…, by Brendan O’Neill). Of course the centralised state power and wealth of the Chinese regime ensured that the Beijing Olympics were a great success in spite of all this.

Now the Western cynics have turned their attention to another fast-developing nation, India, around the Commonwealth Games of Delhi 2010. Indian society might seem to present a softer target than China, with its poverty and inequality on open display – despite the attempt to sweep all Delhi’s beggars from the city for the duration. Yet one does not need to be a supporter of the Indian government – and spiked is not – to see that the British critics want it all ways. They complain about the ‘obscenity’ of spending millions on shiny modern sports stadiums in the midst of the poverty of the city slums. Yet they scream like children with a spider in the bath when they discover that the facilities for ‘our’ athletes might not be up to luxury standards, ignoring the fact that the most ‘uninhabitable’ corner of the athletes’ village will have better facilities than the places that countless Indians inhabit every day.

As comedian Frankie Boyle (not normally a favourite of mine) observed last week, the migrant labourers building these facilities have been paid a pittance and forced to live in grim camps, while they labour to make nice luxury apartments for teenage girl gymnasts and synchronised swimmers. In which case it might seem entirely reasonable if they had crapped in the beds and hooked the electricity up to the taps.

One British team’s officials, arriving after the emergency clean-up operation in the athlete’s village, observed sniffily that the facilities were still three-star rather than five-star. Yet even three-star comforts seem rather too soft for what are meant to be hard young men and women athletes at the peak of their fitness. Surely something a bit more Spartan would be appropriate. Why not stick them in bunk beds in old-fashioned military barracks? After all, that was what the hard-up British authorities did with male competitors at the 1948 London Olympics, although they did generously allow the athletes a bit of extra grub in those dark days of postwar rationing. (It has also been noted that some of the athletes from Scotland and Wales described the facilities in Delhi as ‘fantastic’.)

There seems little doubt that the preparations in Delhi have been marred by a familiar combination of political infighting, incompetence and corruption. This is the sort of thing that tends to accompany the construction of almost all the great white elephants of sporting stadiums; even the London 2012 Games, the facilities which are now being held up as an example of how to get things down the right way, have magically trebled in price to well over £9 billion since before construction began. In a developing nation these problems are always likely to be more exaggerated and exposed.

But perhaps the apparent foot-dragging also hints at an underlying tension in Indian attitudes to these games. On one hand Delhi 2010 has been hailed as India’s ‘coming out’ on to the international stage as a fully accredited player. But not all Indians seem comfortable about making such a debut under the shadows of the old Empire from which they won their freedom more than 60 years ago. This tension came to the fore in the quiet struggle over who should officially open the games, once the queen had let it be known she would not be dragging herself and Philip over to Delhi. The Palace simply assumed that Prince Charles, as Her Majesty’s representative on Earth, would stand in for his mother and wave a royal hand at the natives. Those uppity Indians, however, seemed to object to getting the monkey rather than the organ-grinder, and wanted their own national president to open the games in their city instead. The nerve of these people! It appears that some sort of compromise has now been cobbled together whereby they will both have a say on the day. But it was perhaps a more telling little contest over the future than any that might take place on the track in Delhi.

The Commonwealth Games has become something of a victim of the changing world order. No doubt all those athletes discovering health or security reasons to bottle out of Delhi will rediscover their nerve when it comes to the 2012 London Olympics, where there is likely to be permanent terrorism panic, but which really matter. The Commonwealth Games is already less important in sporting and prestige terms than the coming Asian Games in China. The BBC might expect us all to be gripped by the multicultural ‘friendly games’ in Delhi, to judge by the way it has packed its broadcasting schedules. But that says more about the Beeb than the event itself. For many, to quote one Indian headline, ‘Commonwealth Games is more nostalgia, less sports’.

Yet something else makes me want these games to be a success for India. There is a new orthodoxy abroad which preaches that staging major sporting events can benefit the peoples of developing nations and help to unite the world. This is pious nonsense, as the experience of the recent World Cup in South Africa has demonstrated once more. But the alternative sanctimonious prejudice of our age is, if anything, even worse. This one preaches that there is something ‘arrogant’ or ‘obscene’ about a developing nation such as India daring to attempt grand projects such as the Delhi games, rather than concentrating its efforts on the poorest. Thus the critics protest loudly about the ‘resettlement’ of thousands of shanty town-dwellers to make way for the stadium – the sort of slum clearance that always accompanies major urban redevelopment – and ignore the new airport, subway lines, roads and railway bridges that the bloated budget for the games has brought to the city. The message to India is: know your place. But the backlash in India against the international Delhi-bashing suggests there is as little chance of that happening as of Prince Charles winning a medal next week.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

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Topics Politics


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