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5 August

The irony of the Commonwealth Games going woke

Athletes are taking on the contest’s colonial history.

By Poppie Platt

Birmingham, Britain’s industrial capital, is now home to the Commonwealth Games, that dazzling, unifying celebration of… what exactly? A hundred years ago, the Empire; now, apparently, taking a stand against injustice.

First held in Hamilton, Canada, in 1930 as the British Empire Games, the sporting competition today features athletes from 72 member countries, including Australia, Barbados, Canada, India, Kenya, Zambia and Tanzania. It is held against a backdrop of growing anti-British feeling in former colonies. Barbados chose to become a republic in 2021, removing the Queen as its ceremonial head of state, and some Canadian and Australian politicians are also campaigning to cut their country’s ties to the monarchy.

The changing political climate perhaps explains the Games’ decision to allow competitors to “advocate”, ie protest, without fear of official sanctions. The Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) announced in February that any athlete was free to highlight issues they feel strongly about, whether that be racism, sexual orientation or social injustice, under new “Athlete Advocacy Guidelines“. This stands in stark contrast to the Olympic Charter, whose Rule 50 states: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

Some critics argue that the Olympics has the right idea, and the Commonwealth Games should follow suit – they say it keeps sports away from controversy, athletes separate from activists. Such an argument ignores the proud legacy of protest in sport: the defiant victories of Jesse Owens, the African-American sprinter who won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, in the face of Hitler’s racism; or the American football player Colin Kaepernick kneeling in protest against US police brutality.

Tom Daley, the Olympic gold medalist diver, didn’t seem to agree either. He used the Commonwealth’s opening ceremony on 28 July as a platform to protest against intolerance toward the LGBTQ+ community. Daley, 28, who is married to the film director Dustin Lance Black, entered the Alexander Stadium as part of the Queen’s Baton Relay in a group waving Pride flags. It was a stark reminder of the fact more than half of the Commonwealth’s competing nations have laws that criminalise or oppose homosexuality; for Daley, writing on Instagram, the homophobic laws represent “a legacy of colonialism”. The comedian Joe Lycett, who was born in Birmingham, used his platform as a host of the Games’ opening ceremony to protest against the British government’s immigration policy. While introducing athletes from countries in Asia, he joked: “I’m going to do something now that the British government doesn’t always do, and welcome some foreigners – this time from the region of Asia.”

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Who can blame Daley or Lycett for taking advantage of their platform to make their dissatisfaction with the status quo known? In a world that is becoming increasingly polarised – truth versus disinformation, woke versus anti-woke, young versus old – it should come as no surprise that any independent thinker should use every opportunity they’re given to express their opinions. Whether that be a Republican spending yet another day making anti-Biden memes, a teenage TikTok user making videos deploring cultural appropriation, or an athlete.

The Commonwealth Games, as an organisation grappling with its uncomfortable history, has made the right call in allowing its participants to speak up for what they believe in. The Olympics, and other sporting bodies such as the organisers of Wimbledon and Uefa, could learn a thing or two.

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