Last week, the funny people at John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight poked fun at the Commonwealth Games. In case you didn’t see it, here’s the clip from YouTube. (Be warned, this segment contains irony, swearing and Republican sentiments).
It would be easy to dismiss this as an example of Americans believing that nothing of worth can happen without their involvement (like wars). But let’s take the question they ask and turn it around:
How was this EVER a thing?
Whilst the first Empire Games were held in Canada in 1930, the idea for a “pan-Britannic” sporting festival had been mooted in the late nineteenth century. This is not surprising given that the second half of the 1800s saw a growing interest in sporting carnivals, which culminated in the first Olympiad in 1896. Yet the first attempt for a sporting competition involving teams from around the Empire occurred in 1911. In that year, George V was crowned and to celebrate, a huge Festival of Empire was held in and around the Crystal Palace in London.
Between May and October, a series of displays and pageants celebrated the might and breadth of the British Empire, which at its peak ruled over a quarter of the world’s people. Around the grounds of the Palace something called the All-Red Route was built (pre-1917 being Red was not so bad!), a “concentration of the British Empire”. Visitors climbed aboard an electric railway stopping off to visit displays in model parliament houses. Cute and…expensive. Apparently the Festival cost nigh on a quarter of a million pounds. Even today that seems like quite a bit of cash.
As well as the physical displays, there were musical, theatrical and sporting performances. In late June the Festival of Empire Sports was held, and three teams (all men) competed in swimming, boxing, wrestling, and athletics – sprints and hurdles. Lawn tennis was on the original programme but wasn’t played. The three teams were from Canada, Great Britain and Australasia – New Zealand and Australia combined. Canada won the most events and walked away with the Lonsdale Cup. Australia came third.
Compared to the modern Commonwealth Games where even the Isle of Man has its own team, you might be wondering why there were only three countries/regions represented in 1911. In 1910, in the early stages of planning for the event, India and South Africa were also going to be invited by the sporting Festival organisers. The historian Erik Nielsen suggests, however, that there was some opposition, particularly from Australian representatives, to a competition involving Indian – that is, non-white – athletes. So their invitation was, how shall we say it? Lost in the post.
Which brings us back to the original question: How was this EVER a thing? The story of the Empire Festival/Empire Games/Commonwealth Games is a story full of tensions. On one hand, the Dominions are participating in order to celebrate their “Britishness”. Yet at the same time, the quadrennial competition was an opportunity for the colonies to demonstrate their independence by beating the Mother Country at her own games. There was also a disjunction between the sense of being ‘one’ within the Empire, and the sense that the Empire was differentiated between the Anglo-Saxons and ‘The Rest”.
When we think about it in those terms, the resilience of the Empire/ Commonwealth Games concept is quite remarkable. I, for one am glad. There is a certain satisfaction in watching Australia compete on an international stage with the knowledge that we are quite likely to win. And win, and win again, and win…