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Commonwealth Games to explore the rights and wrongs of British Empire, and back LGBTQ rights – Jonathan Walker


Should sport get involved with politics? We’ve seen it happen in recent weeks, with FIFA barring the Russian team from international competition. It means Russia is unlikely to be able to take part in the World Cup.

But that’s a break from the norm. There’s an unusual level of consensus across the world that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is barbaric and wrong.

Often, there is disagreement about whether sport and politics mix. And such as the case with the Commonwealth Games, taking place in Birmingham and across the West Midlands this year.

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The region will welcome athletes from 72 different nations and territories when the Games begin on July 28, for what is thought to be the biggest event the region has ever seen. However, the Commonwealth has a difficult history.

The Queen has described it as “built on the highest qualities of the Spirit of Man: friendship, loyalty, and the desire for freedom and peace”. And today, it is made up of independent, sovereign states who are free to leave if they wish. It hasn’t officially been called the “British” Commonwealth since 1949.

But the Commonwealth grew out of the British Empire. And empires, today, are not seen as a good thing.

I won’t attempt here to catalogue the crimes of the British Empire, nor to consider whether these might, to any extent, be offset against benefits it bought to the world. But is it possible that an event like the Commonwealth Games might provide an opportunity for the nation to do just that?

This was a question posed by MPs on the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee, when the Games’ organisers visited Westminster.

MP John Nicolson asked: “Of course the Commonwealth is an offshoot of the empire, with all the terrible memories and legacy of empire. I know you are from Glasgow, and Glasgow, like Birmingham, has a slavery legacy. I wonder what challenges you have in reflecting those colonial legacies and integrating them into Birmingham 2022.”

But Ian Reid, the Games’ chief executive, said he believed the history of the Commonwealth was not an issue for the Games, which are focused instead on “the modern Commonwealth”.

He said: “We understand that history, but our focus is very much on that modern family of Commonwealth nations. It is a voluntary association with an incredible charter focused on human rights and other things that we would expect to see.

“In fact, when we look at Rwanda and the Commonwealth Games, it is a recent joiner. It already hosted a Commonwealth Games Federation General Assembly. They can very much see the benefits of that family, but we are not naïve to the history that you mention.”

Asked if the Games would mention the Transatlantic slave trade in any way, he said: “There is nothing specific that we are doing specifically on slavery, no. As I say, our focus is on the modern Commonwealth and making sure that we reflect all those values looking forward.”

However, he suggested individual athletes could use the Games as an opportunity to speak about matters of concern to them. “We very much encourage athletes to use their voice and seek to reduce inequalities and build peaceful communities,” he said.

But the opening and closing ceremony of the Games, and the cultural festival taking place alongside them, are a different matter, according to Martin Green, the Chief Creative Officer of the Birmingham Games.

He told the MPs: “It was really important to us from the outset that we said that those were particularly spaces where artists, creatives and communities could have any conversation they wanted to have around the Commonwealth and its history. Arguably, because sport is so codified and set, it is the cultural spaces around the games that allow the space for people to have those conversations.”

He added: “The culture programme will fully explore a lot of the issues around empire and Commonwealth, as I am hoping our opening and closing ceremonies will as well.”

And it seems that’s what’s happening. For example, the cultural events running alongside the Games include an exhibition at Birmingham Library, running from March 18 to June 18, called From City of Empire to City of Diversity. It apparently shows “how Birmingham’s connections to the British Empire have shaped its past, present and future”, according to organisers.

Midlands Arts Centre (probably better known as mac) will run an exhibition called a Empire Through the Lens from July 9 to September 11. This is billed as “a multi-faceted look at the former British Empire and its impacts on people today”.



Commonwealth Games mascot Perry the Bull poses with children from Thorns Collegiate Academy, Brierley Hill
Commonwealth Games mascot Perry the Bull poses with children from Thorns Collegiate Academy, Brierley Hill

It’s not just the past that will be examined. Mr Nicolson suggested that “some of the Commonwealth countries … are the most homophobic countries in the world.” He asked: “Will there be a challenge at the Commonwealth Games over some of these policies?”

Mr Green (who told MPs he was gay himself) said there would be opportunities “to have those conversations and highlight the issues around that.”

In one example of this happening, the cultural festival includes an exhibition, also at the mac, called Nevertheless, We Persisted. It features cards, letters and messages of support sent in 2019 to Anderton Park School, Sparkhill, when it was targeted by protests against LGBTQIA+ inclusive teaching. This runs until April 3.

We don’t yet know what to expect in the opening ceremony but, based on Mr Green’s comments, it seems likely to contain at least some references to the Commonwealth’s origins. Organisers of the Games – or, at least, the cultural events connected to them – are clearly not shying away from political issues.

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