History of the Commonwealth Games | When and why were they first founded?

Why were the games founded?

We can trace the roots of the Games back to the 1890s when Australian-born cleric John Astley Cooper called for a ‘Pan-Britannic’ sports festival to bring together the different parts of the British Empire in friendly competition. His vision of who might participate in this project was, typical of his time, racially exclusive: it included only (what he considered to be) the “Anglo-Saxon” Dominions, and he also called for white American participation, thereby excluding all black Native Americans from sports.

This imperial vision of sport developed in parallel with the Olympic Games, which were first held in 1896. Aside from a four-team sporting competition at the 1911 Festival of Empire at London’s Crystal Palace, the idea didn’t really take off until the late 1920s. The success of the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics inspired Canadian journalist and athletics administrator Bobby Robinson to revive the idea of ​​an Olympic-style imperial sporting event, and his work led to the Canadian city of Hamilton hosting the first British Empire Games in 1930.

The 1930 Games were quite modest, with 400 participants from just 11 teams, compared to 2,883 from 46 nations that had attended the Amsterdam Olympics two years earlier. Teams included British Guiana and Bermuda, and the “Anglo-Saxon” Dominions of Cooper’s Vision.

Canada’s Jimmy Ball secures first place in the men’s 400m semifinals at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Which countries were involved in the games?

In its early years, the Games were limited to countries within the British Empire and further down the Commonwealth. Over the decades, teams have come from countries with varying degrees of independence and sovereignty. Many countries from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean participated both before and after independence and 2022 will see Barbados perform for the first time since becoming a republic in November 2021.

External territories of the Commonwealth nations also send their own teams, such as Norfolk Island, which has attended all games since 1986, while Overseas Territories are also eligible: regular teams in this group include those of Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Montserrat and St Helena. The Crown Dependencies of Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man all have their own teams. This arrangement means that the United Kingdom will not compete as a single team, with England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales all competing separately.

And there are also nations that historically were not part of the British Empire but joined the Commonwealth as part of their own post-colonial history. Mozambique, which has participated in every game since 1998, and Rwanda, which made its Commonwealth Games debut in 2010, are examples of this trend. For the same reason, the Irish Free State sent a team to London and Manchester in 1934, but they did not compete in 1938 and never returned after full independence in 1949. Sportingly, Australia has the best overall medal record in the 21 games so far, with England and Canada second and third respectively.

Cities across the Empire and Commonwealth have hosted the Games in their various formats, although homelands and the former Dominions have dominated. So far, Australian cities have hosted them five times, Canada four, New Zealand and Scotland three each, England two and India, Jamaica, Malaysia and Wales one each. England will host this year and Victoria will be in Australia in 2026. We are still waiting for Commonwealth Games in Africa.

Have there ever been political boycotts at the Commonwealth Games?

Despite the “friendly” label, political fault lines in imperial and post-imperial relations have occasionally affected the Games. These have focused on South Africa. The 1934 Empire Games were originally planned for Johannesburg, but London and Manchester took over due to South Africa’s racial segregation policies. With Canada, India, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago all having to compete with teams that included black and Asian competitors, sports officials feared their athletes would be discriminated against in Johannesburg.

In 1978 Nigeria boycotted the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Canada. This was to protest the presence of New Zealand. As part of the 1977 Gleneagles Agreement, the Commonwealth countries had pledged to reduce sporting contacts with apartheid South Africa, but New Zealand had refrained from doing so.

The most significant boycott took place in Edinburgh in 1986. Margaret Thatcher’s government never fully committed to the Gleneagles Agreement and remained ambiguous about links with South African sport. In response, 32 nations, from Barbados to Papua New Guinea to Cyprus, Ghana and India, stayed away from Edinburgh.

What sports were played at the Commonwealth Games and how have they changed over time?

The first Empire Games in 1930 was a fairly modest affair with events in just six disciplines: water sports, track and field, bowling, boxing, rowing and wrestling. All were open to men, but women could only compete in swimming and diving. From those humble beginnings the sports program has expanded and over the years have added badminton, cycling, fencing, netball, rugby sevens, shooting, weightlifting and more. The program is now set by the Commonwealth Games Federation, which works with each edition to host city and the international federations of the various sports.

The number of sports for women gradually grew during the event’s earlier years: athletics in 1934, fencing in 1950 and badminton in 1966 were the only new women’s events between 1934 and 1978 (it is worth noting that fencing is no longer an official sport in the Commonwealth Games). From 1978 onward progress accelerated, with new events being added at each edition between then and 1990. The 1998 Kuala Lumpur Games saw a major leap, with cycling, field hockey, netball and squash events all being added for women. At the time of the 2006 Melbourne Games only boxing and rugby sevens were men’s only and these opened to women in 2014 and 2018 respectively.

Competitors in the 80m hurdles at the British Empire Games (later Commonwealth Games) in Sydney, 24 February 1938

The first 80m hurdles race at the British Empire Games (later Commonwealth Games) in Sydney, February 24, 1938. (Photo by Alan Webb/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This year there are no sports reserved for women and two – netball and T20 cricket – have women-only competitions. Netball remains women-only due to its international status, while the cricket event aims to both increase the visibility of women’s football and help create an argument for future inclusion in the Olympics.

There are 20 different disciplines in Birmingham this year, including the second Commonwealth Beach Volleyball event and the inaugural 3×3 basketball competition. Parasports is integrated into the main event program (since 2002) and this year the games will include Esports – electronic sports based on video games – as a demonstration event. Esports are already present at the Asian Games but not yet at the Olympics, so this year’s experiment in Birmingham is likely to be another step towards their full acceptance in transnational sporting events. At the demonstration event in Birmingham, mixed-gender teams will play soccer simulations and the multiplayer online battle arena game Defense of the Ancients.

What are the main differences between the Commonwealth Games and the Olympic Games?

The main difference is that the Olympic Games are open to any nation with its own National Olympic Committee. There has been some flexibility over the years in this regard, particularly for the Unified Team in 1992 when the USSR collapsed and since 2016 with the introduction of a refugee team for athletes who lost their national status, but the basic model is the nation state , regardless of its alliances or memberships in other bodies. Membership in the Commonwealth of Nations is a prerequisite for the Commonwealth Games.

This explains the large differences in the size of the events. The last Summer Olympics, held in Tokyo in 2021, attracted 11,420 competitors from 206 teams, while the 2018 Commonwealth Games on Australia’s Gold Coast hosted 4,426 athletes from 71 teams. Accordingly, the Commonwealth Games are much cheaper to stage: current estimates put Birmingham 2022 at just under £800m compared to the £8.8bn for London 2012.

Ultimately, the biggest difference is that the Olympics is a global brand, with all the lucrative advertising and broadcasting deals that come with it, while the Commonwealth Games have a more limited appeal. The seats of the governing bodies of the two events are quite revealing here: the IOC occupies its own complex in Lausanne, Switzerland, while the Commonwealth Games Federation is based at Commonwealth House in London’s Pall Mall, along with various non-sporting organisations.


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Birmingham is hosting the 2022 Commonwealth Games. What other UK cities have already hosted them?

This year the games will be held in Great Britain for the seventh time and in England for the third time. The 1934 Empire Games, temporarily relocated from Johannesburg, were split between London and Manchester. Wales hosted the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in 1958, with Cardiff taking the honour, and then Edinburgh won two games in consecutive decades that saw the successful 1970 edition and the much-boycotted 1986 Games. Next came Manchester in 2002, then Glasgow in 2014.

Some of these games have left sporting legacies for their cities. For example, Wembley Arena, now used for concerts and major events, was built as an Empire Pool for the 1934 Games and Manchester City FC’s Etihad Stadium began as an athletics stadium for the 2002 Games before being converted for football became.

Martin Polley is a history professor and director of the International Center for Sport History and Culture at the University of De Montfort. He has written extensively on sport diplomacy, Olympic history, amateurism and professionalism, gender, and historiographical and methodological issues in the study of sport

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