A brief history of the Commonwealth Games
As the 2022 Commonwealth Games continue in Birmingham, historian Martin Polley explores the history of the Games, which have existed under various names since 1930. Their history, he argues, sheds light on imperial and post-colonial relations…
When was the first Commonwealth Games?
The first event called the Commonwealth Games took place in the Canadian city of Edmonton in 1978. But this was a re-branding of an older event that has always been closely tied to the political, cultural, and economic structures of British imperialism. So the real starting point was 1930, when Hamilton in Canada hosted the inaugural British Empire Games. They have taken place every four years since then, on an alternative quadrennial cycle to the Summer Olympic Games, except for 1942 and 1946.
In that time, the name has changed to keep in line with the shifting political relationships that underpin the sport. In 1954, as the dissolution of the empire was gaining pace, they became the British Empire and Commonwealth Games. The word ‘empire’ was dropped in 1970, and the British Commonwealth Games finally became the Commonwealth Games in 1978.
Why were the Games established?
We can trace the Games’ roots to the 1890s, when John Astley Cooper, an Australian-born clergyman, called for a ‘Pan-Britannic’ sports festival as a way of bringing together the different parts of the British empire in friendly competition. His vision of who could take part in this project was, typically for its time, racially exclusive: it encompassed only (what he deemed) the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Dominions, and he also called for white American involvement, thus excluding all black and indigenous people from the sports.
This imperial sporting vision developed in parallel with the Olympic Games, first held in 1896. However, apart from a four-team sporting contest at the 1911 Festival of Empire at London’s Crystal Palace, the idea didn’t take off until the late 1920s. The success of the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam inspired Canadian journalist and athletics administrator Bobby Robinson to revive the idea of an empire-wide sports event along Olympic lines, and his work led to the Canadian city of Hamilton hosting the inaugural British Empire Games in 1930.
The 1930 Games were fairly modest, with 400 competitors from just 11 teams, compared to the 2,883 from 46 nations which had competed in the Amsterdam Olympics two years earlier. The teams included British Guiana and Bermuda, as well as the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Dominions of Cooper’s vision.
Which countries have been involved in the Games?
In their earliest years, the Games were restricted to countries from within the British empire and, as it evolved, the Commonwealth. Over the decades since, teams have come from countries with varying degrees of independence and sovereignty. Many countries from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean competed both before and after independence, and 2022 will be Barbados’s first appearance since it became a republic in November 2021.
External territories of Commonwealth nations also send their own teams, such as Norfolk Island, which has been at every Games since 1986, while Overseas Territories are also eligible: regular teams in this group include those from Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Montserrat, and Saint Helena. The Crown Dependencies of Guernsey, Jersey, and the Isle of Man all have their own teams. This arrangement means that the UK does not compete as a single team: instead, England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales all compete separately.
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And there are also nations that were not historically part of the British empire, but that have joined the Commonwealth as part of their own post-colonial history. Mozambique, which has competed at every Games since 1998, and Rwanda, which made its Commonwealth Games debut in 2010, are examples of this trend. By the same token, 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. In sporting terms, Australia has the best overall medal record over the 21 Games so far, with England and Canada in second and third place respectively.
Cities across the empire and Commonwealth have hosted the Games in its various formats, although the home nations and the former Dominions have dominated. So far, Australian cities have hosted them five times, with Canada on four, New Zealand and Scotland on three each, England on two, and India, Jamaica, Malaysia, and Wales on one each. England is hosting this year, and Victoria in Australia in 2026. We still await a Commonwealth Games in Africa.
Have the Commonwealth Games ever experienced political boycotts?
Despite the tag of the ‘friendly games’, political fault lines in imperial and post-imperial relations have, on occasion, impacted the Games. These have focused around South Africa. The 1934 Empire Games were originally scheduled for Johannesburg, but London and Manchester took over due to South Africa’s segregationist racial policies. With Canada, India, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago all due to compete with teams that included black and Asian competitors, sports officials were concerned that their athletes would face discrimination in Johannesburg.
In 1978, Nigeria boycotted the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Canada. This was to protest against New Zealand’s presence. Under the 1977 Gleneagles Agreement, Commonwealth countries had committed to reduce sporting contacts with apartheid South Africa, but New Zealand had failed to act on this.
The most significant boycott came at Edinburgh in 1986. Margaret Thatcher’s government was never fully committed to the Gleneagles Agreement and remained equivocal on links with South African sport. In response, 32 nations, ranging from Barbados to Papua New Guinea via Cyprus, Ghana, and India, stayed away from Edinburgh.
What sports have been played at the Commonwealth Games and how have these changed over time?
The first Empire Games in 1930 were a fairly modest affair, with events in just six disciplines: aquatics, athletics, bowls, boxing, rowing, and wrestling. All of them were open to men, but women could compete only in swimming and diving. Since these humble beginnings the sporting programme has expanded, and over the years badminton, cycling, fencing, netball, rugby sevens, shooting, weightlifting and more have all come in. The programme is now set by the Commonwealth Games Federation, working with each edition’s host city and the international federations of the different sports.
The number of sports for women grew gradually in 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’s worth noting that fencing is no longer an official sport at the Commonwealth Games). Progress sped up from 1978, with new events added at each edition between then and 1990. The 1998 Games in Kuala Lumpur saw a great leap, with cycling, field hockey, netball, and squash events all added for women. By the time of the 2006 Games in Melbourne, only boxing and rugby sevens were men-only, and these opened to women in 2014 and 2018 respectively.
This year, there are no sports closed to women, and two – netball and T20 cricket – which have only women’s contests. Netball remains women-only due to its international status, while the cricket event is designed both to boost the visibility of the women’s game and to help build a case for future Olympic inclusion.
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In Birmingham this year there are 20 different disciplines, including the second Commonwealth beach volleyball event and the inaugural competition in 3x3 basketball. Parasports is integrated within the main event programme (it has been since 2002), and this year the Games will include esports – electronic sports based on video gaming – as a demonstration event. Esports already feature in the Asian Games, but not yet in the Olympics, so this year’s experiment in Birmingham is likely to be another step on the road to their full acceptance in transnational sporting events. Birmingham’s demonstration event will see mixed-sex teams playing football simulations and the multiplayer online battle arena game, Defence of the Ancients.
What are the key differences between the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics?
The major difference is that the Olympic Games are open to any nation with its own National Olympic Committee. There has been some flexibility around this over the years, notably for the Unified Team in 1992 when the USSR was collapsing, and, since 2016, with the introduction of a Refugee Team for athletes who have lost their national status, but the basic model is the nation state, regardless of its alliances or membership of other bodies. With the Commonwealth Games, membership of the Commonwealth of Nations is a prerequisite.
This explains the big differences in the size of the events. The most recent Summer Olympics, held in Tokyo in 2021, attracted 11,420 competitors from 206 teams, whereas 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 are that Birmingham 2022 will cost just short of £800 million, compared to the £8.8 billion price tag for London 2012.
Ultimately, the biggest difference is that the Olympics are a global brand, with all the lucrative commercial and broadcasting deals that go with that, whereas the Commonwealth Games have a more limited appeal. The headquarters of the two events’ administrative bodies are quite telling here: the IOC occupies its own complex in Lausanne, Switzerland, while the Commonwealth Games Federation is based, along with various non-sporting bodies, in Commonwealth House in London’s Pall Mall.
Birmingham is hosting the 2022 Commonwealth Games. Which other British cities have already staged them?
This year will see the Games come to Great Britain for the seventh time, and to England for the third. The 1934 Empire Games, moved from Johannesburg at short notice, were shared between London and Manchester. Wales hosted the 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games, with Cardiff doing the honours, and then Edinburgh took two Games in successive decades, hosting the successful 1970 edition and the much-boycotted 1986 Games. Next up was Manchester in 2002, then Glasgow in 2014.
Some of these Games have left sporting legacies for their cities. Wembley Arena, for example, now used for concerts and major events, was built as the Empire Pool for the 1934 Games, and Manchester City FC’s Etihad Stadium started life as the athletics venue for the 2002 Games before it was converted for football.
Martin Polley is a professor of history and director of the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort University. He has written extensively about sports diplomacy, Olympic history, amateurism and professionalism, gender, and historiographical and methodological issues in the study of sport
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