The plus-and-minus Commonwealth Games

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Visitors with the Commonwealth Games mascot (image by Lee Duffield).

The Commonwealth Games wound up on the weekend on Queensland’s Gold Coast and produced a familiar mix of celebration about the good vibe and bitching around the fringes.

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield says top-level sports events like the Commonwealth Games can be seen as part of a worldwide festivals movement, while still picking up bad press among non-sports followers.

MANY THOUSANDS WENT to the 2018 Commonwealth Games and had fun:

  • more than 90 per cent of tickets (from the heart-throb intensity of medals’ contests in the pool to the doubtful scintillation of heats at the Lawn Bowls) were sold;
  • economic spin-offs can be identified;
  • credibility was given to the idea of the Gold Coast becoming a world sports mecca by so many Australian athletes training and living there ahead of their success in the competition; 
  • hands reached across the ocean with teams coming from 71 countries (and washing over other differences, for instance mixing of large Christian populations with larger Islamic ones, especially in Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Nigeria and Pakistan);
  • everybody spoke English (except for Cameroon and Mozambique, respectively former French and Portuguese colonies that asked to join the Commonwealth);
  • as a peace event, it was an antidote to the toxic warfare in the Middle East – and helped to rub out a bit of the stupidity of the Australian cricketers with their ball-tampering crisis.

Action on the field, Vanuatu women going for their Bronze in Beach Volleyball at Coolangatta (image by Lee Duffield).


It was not quite the Falls Festival, or Bluesfest and Splendour in the Grass at Byron Bay, just down the road from the Gold Coast. It had a different following and definitely a different genre of performance, but still, it moved in step with the growing cultural habit of going off for a break and congregating in large numbers.

In terms of the competition, did Australia “win” the Games by getting the most medals and dominating also when the scores are weighted toward the pre-eminent value of gold medals?


Some back-of-the-envelope calculations, represented in the table below, show that actually, while Australia did get the most medals, Britain, as represented at the Olympics, would still have been first — ahead of Australia, as in the last two times at London and Rio de Janeiro.

That conclusion is reached by adding up medals obtained by England, and its vassal states Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, plus the Isle of Mann, which got one silver — total for the group, 229, against 199 for Australia (including a bronze for Norfolk Island). This should be refined by recognising the doubling-up that the British teams were able to do in certain events, which is not possible at the Olympics.

Certainly, when it came to the crucial gold medals tally the Australians came out dominant; not exactly outright winners, but close to it in some quarters. Altogether 43 countries won medals, there were 275 gold medals, 80 won by Australians, 65 by the British.

To add some interest, the figures here are given a nominal categorisation into regional groupings (a bit distorted in places). For example, with the domination of Aotearoa New Zealand in the “NZ and South Pacific” group, India in “South and South-east Asia”, or the Republic of South Africa among African countries. Some points to notice: performances by the small country of Cyprus with eight gold medals out of 14 in total and Malaysia as a sporting country with seven gold medals out of 24.

Country Total Medals Gold Medals
Australia (including Norfolk Island 199 80
Great Britain 229 65
South and South-east Asia 114 39
Canada 82 15
New Zealand and South Pacific 46 19

Carribean (includes British Virgin Islands)

42 15
Africa 95 34
Cyprus and Malta (Cyprus 8 Gold) 16 8

Positives and negatives

The cost of the Commonwealth Games was obvious to anybody on the scene with the Queensland Government, alone, putting up some $1.5 billion to $2 billion. Therefore, things had to go smoothly — ample security to ward off potential terrorists and any misbehaviour by patrons, free trains and trams, free entertainments out on the beaches and online ezyTicketing.


Crowd control Queensland-style, a talking-machine volunteer with megaphone (Image by Lee Duffield).

As is usual for Games, complaints or negatives were taken up to colour the news feeds.

These included:

  • initial delays with shuttle buses;
  • athletes not getting to parade in the main closing event on television;
  • a few platoons of security guards quitting as they did not like their accommodation in a holiday camp;
  • syringes, but not dope, discovered in the Games Village; 
  • one or two competitors getting into bar brawls (one a boxer, so probably he won);
  • local businesses saying they’d expected more casual traffic from the crowds;
  • a dozen or so African athletes evidently jumping ship, off blending into the crowd somewhere in Australia;
  • all still covered by their Games visas into next month (at least one of those is a Gold Medal prospect for the 2020 Olympics, if “they” should care to fix him up with an Australian passport; importation of talent is a good trick to get elite sports success — a track already well marked out by the United Kingdom).

None of that challenges the idea of Australia being a great sports country and also being a wonderful, good country because it can afford to run events like Gold Coast 2018 — and can manage it well. Yet there is opposition to sports whether a participation activity or a grand scale fetish built up around professional elites, sometimes to the point of loathing, which is not hard to find.

Anti-terrorist bollards, even large groups of drunks found them hard to tip over (Image by Lee Duffield).

What are the grounds for loathing the Commonwealth Games?

  • the competition is so intense it distorts the minds of the athletes and obliterates much of the goodwill it was supposed to sustain;
  • it’s too costly for governments, taking away money from schools, health or the needy;
  • a right-wing political take on that is governments should not gather any revenue, especially they should not tax rich players — and should not spend money on anything at all;
  • it’s too commercial, with high-cost television rights and sponsorships (by brands like Elastoplast who must have unwound several marathons-length of sticky bandages over the 11 days of competition);
  • a leftwing political take on that is that as well as sport alienating workers from their true personalities (very strong left idea of the 1970s), it’s all done mainly for the advertisers, sponsors and local businesses, turning citizens into just consumers;
  • among many young people, it’s a perpetuation of suburban sports culture that you get away from to live in the inner city and must be avoided like plague or mowing the lawn;
  • despite crowd participation, including big-handed applause for underdogs from any country, it’s a spectator occasion only good for the athletes’ health, but nobody else’s health, since having beer and pizzas and watching sport is not good for general health;
  • Indigenous protests took place against the peremptory use of Aboriginal land for such events and for any other purposes, as well as colonialism in the shape of the ex-British Empire coming back to life (see this report in IA from 7 April). 

Beachfront entertainment zone (Image by Lee Duffield).

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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