Twirling towards freedom

Hometown heroes at the Empire Games

The Commonwealth Games have begun in Glasgow, a fact that has been largely buried in the news cycle by the horrors of Gaza and flight MH17.

I am surprised, even a little disappointed, that more hay hasn’t been made out of the Games in which Australia traditionally shines. I thought that this year, in a country denuded of funding for science, the arts, and more or less every other cultural edifice, we could at least cheer ourselves up by proving that our compatriots are better at running very fast than some poor fool from the Cayman Islands. And, as has been pointed out by the British press, our image as Spartan supermen and women could use a polish after the disappointment of the last Olympic Games. To that end, we’ve sent a delegation of more than 700 athletes and officials, at what one imagines is not an insubstantial cost in these times of budget austerity, to show that we are sporting champions in an empire that, although our prime minister doesn’t seem to have noticed, effectively ended a century ago.

As our best and brightest gather to compete in a city famous for its eloquent heroin addicts, affectionate head-butting, and for spiking heart disease across the continent through the creation of the deep-fried Mars Bar, I can’t help but wonder: aren’t the Commonwealth Games just a little bit, well, passé? This is a question driven home by Scotland’s being in the midst of a nationalist surge that might see them secede from the United Kingdom altogether.

There’s no doubting that Australia is very good at the Commonwealth Games. We have long dominated it, boasting a haul of 804 gold medals, and making us the world’s best at its third-largest sporting event. It’s a grand accomplishment, although it looks somewhat less impressive when compared to our Olympic Games gold medal tally of 138, which places us 11th. The disparity is enhanced because many of the world’s top athletes simply don’t compete in the Commonwealth Games, steering clear of the risk of injury to save themselves for the Olympics in two years’ time.

Many of the countries we compete against could not dream of the resources we throw behind our athletes. When you crunch the numbers, it becomes clear that we are not quite the world champions we see ourselves as, but something closer to hometown heroes.

It’s worth remembering, too, that the British Empire, for all the rose-tinted revisionism currently in vogue, was responsible for countless calamities, wars, vicious colonial administrations and acts of genocide. The reverberations of this legacy continue to be felt around the Commonwealth; in many cases, our athletic success is being measured against that of competitors from countries where basic infrastructure and protection of human rights aren’t exactly top of the pops. Take, for example, the fact that homosexuality is illegal in four out of every five countries which compete in the Games today, and imagine how the career of Ian Thorpe, arguably our greatest ever athlete and late-blooming gay icon, might have played out were he born in Uganda.

Sport is a jolly thing to do – but when it’s one of only a few of a nation’s sanctioned cultural expressions, it can be disheartening to have pumped millions of dollars into it and still have it not work out. And when the fun and games are in aid of a questionable allegiance, we would do well to examine the very idea of taking part. We are, undeniably, a nation of talented sportspeople, but perhaps it’s time we started looking at the long game.

Michaela McGuire

Michaela McGuire is a journalist and the author of Last Bets: A True Story of Gambling, Morality and the Law and the Penguin Special A Story of Grief. Visit her blog, Twirling Towards Freedom.


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