As a country where sport trumps culture (it is the culture), it should come as no surprise it was an Australian who first developed the concept of a Commonwealth Games.
Born in Adelaide in 1858, Rev J Astley Cooper introduced the idea of an international sports carnival—a “Pan-Britannic Festival”—in an article he wrote in the July 1881 Great Britain. He lived his adult life in England and died there in 1930, six months before the inaugural British Empire Games (later renamed the Empire and Commonwealth Games, 1954-66; then Commonwealth Games, since 1970) were held.
According to Katharine Moore, a Commonwealth Games historian from Canada, Cooper had “grandiose ideas ... to celebrate industry and culture and athletic achievement. He didn’t nail himself completely to the Dominions as we would know them now; he had the US in his plans as well, so he was looking at countries with predominantly white, British backgrounds.”
There was immense theoretical support for the idea, but from mid-1894 the revival of the Olympic Games began to dominate the international sports scene and Cooper’s idea was overwhelmed, but not entirely forgotten.
Although the Olympic Games was a democratic, worldwide, multi?sport festival, the Americans dominated that competition in almost every sport. There was a growing sense that they weren’t really playing by the rules of fair sportsmanship, that winning at all costs was their philosophy. The idea of some kind of more private, family gathering, this time excluding the Americans, came to be more appealing.
At the 1911 Festival of the Empire at the Crystal Palace, London, Richard Coombes, manager of the Australian team, strongly advocated the idea of a regular meet. However, it was Canadian Melville (Bobby) Robinson, manager of the Canadian team at the Amsterdam Olympics, who finally launched them.
Robinson, of Hamilton, Canada, took the lead to put on a games, and they were inaugurated in August 1930, in his home town of Hamilton. From this time, while many countries wanted to retain some link with England, they also wanted political independence, and the Empire then Commonwealth Games provided a vehicle for this transition.
The Games are not so much an expression of Anglo-Saxon imperial superiority as a way for all those member countries to feel connected to the empire. “I think this is still the link which the various disparate countries in the Commonwealth have with each other, and sport has proved a very popular way to express that,” says Moore.
The Commonwealth Games are also known as the “Friendly Games.” Initially, this was a reference to the British and those schooled in that culture who understood how to play sport in the “right” spirit—like cricket. The element of fair play applied across the board. It was also reminiscent of the nations’ past shared experiences.
A unique aspect of the Commonwealth Games is that there is no competition between countries—just competition between individuals and competitors in team events. There is no official scoring by countries.
In the 2002 Commonwealth Games, held in Manchester, UK, the English women’s hockey team well demonstrated the true spirit of Commonwealth friendliness in their reaction to India’s victory.
The loss resulted in a request for an appeal, but when that was turned down the English offered genuine congratulations to the winners. “In the spirit of the ‘Friendly Games’ we have decided to accept the situation,” said Team England chief media officer, Denise Tyler.
England coach Tricia Heberle insisted the decision not to launch a second appeal was the right one. “Full credit to the Indians,” she said. “We have to be accepting that the umpire’s decision is final.
“One thing I’ve tried to instil into the players is a sense of pride and sportsmanship. It was the best thing to do and the right decision.”
Being “friendly” nations, they also celebrate each other’s achievements. When one-legged swimmer Natalie du Toit (South Africa) was voted Outstanding Athlete of the 2002 Games, it was not because she’d won two disabled finals but because she finished eighth in the able-bodied 800 m; proof that her efforts were more valued than a golden win.
The Commonwealth is like a large family, where while there may be differences and spats from time to time, they are put aside for the greater good of the family, and for its future generations.
And just as sport unites the members of the Commonwealth, play itself is important in uniting families. “A great thing happens to families when they play together,” says Dr Jim Burns. “They begin to talk and laugh and lighten up. Family memories are built, inside jokes are shared, and serious moments of intimacy are communicated. Families need special times together to build lifelong memories and to play together!
“Play produces family togetherness and support. It creates a deeper sense of belonging and community in the family. Families that play together will not only stay together, they will be much more happy and healthy.”
Just like sport has the power to unite people, play has the power to unite families.
Jim Burns, The 10 Building Blocks for a Happy Family, Regal Books, 2003.