It started as the British Empire Games in 1930. It still begins with an official message from the Queen that travels by hand from Buckingham Palace. It still culminates with a tribute to the British Military that would put the old Red Square parades to shame. It is the Commonwealth Games (CWG) and its goal from the outset has been to use sports to create goodwill between the United Kingdom and the various outposts of ye olde empire.
As the Reverend Astley Cooper first proposed in 1891, a "Pan-Britannic-Pan-Anglican Contest and Festival every four years [could act as] a means of increasing the goodwill and good understanding of the British Empire.” Today this sporting festival involves 71 countries and a series of games that spring from the UK like lawn bowling, rugby seven, and netball.
I don’t know if the CWG has created goodwill, but as the 2010 Games are set to start in Delhi, we are getting a very good understanding of empire, at least the 21st century variant. The games are teetering on an unprecedented implosion and the problem is not just that India, a country where 46% of the children are underweight, is spending $2.5 billion on athletic facilities alone. The problem is not just that India, a country where 42% of the people live under the World Bank poverty line of $1.25 a day, promised $100,000 to every country’s delegation to secure the games (what is called in less refined circles “a bribe.”) And the problem is not just that this state of affairs raises the question about whether India, with all its nouveau economic might, should be playing footstool for the inert Queen’s “Empire Games.”
The games might not go on because the CWG facilities built at great economic and social cost have been flagged as a serious health hazard. In preparing the various arenas, dozens of workers have been grievously injured in accidents due to faulty materials and equipment. This week alone a ceiling collapsed at the weightlifting venue and a bridge crumbled outside the main staging ground, Nehru Stadium, injuring 27.
Commonwealth Games President, Michael Fennell, expressed in writing his “great concern” over the current situation. "Many nations that have already sent their advanced parties to set up within the village have made it abundantly clear that, as of the afternoon of September 20, the Commonwealth Games village is seriously compromised," he said.
Mike Hooper, the CWG chief executive, sniffed, "the village is filthy…one can’t occupy the rooms. There is building dust and rubble and the toilets are not working. Reports of excrement being found are true….[It’s not fit] for human habitation.”
The chairperson of the Commonwealth Games Council for Wales, Anne Ellis, raised the unprecedented prospect of canceling it altogether. We will see how London handles the 2012 Olympics for example, and recoil anew without the comfort of xenophobia.