John Oliver, on his HBO show Last Week Tonight, runs an occasional series called How Is This Still A Thing? Over the years he has done daylight saving, Ayn Rand, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue and, in a particularly choice segment from back in 2014, the Commonwealth Games, a sort of “off-Broadway Olympics” for all the countries the British invaded once upon a time, “the historic display of a once mighty nation gathering together the countries it lost and finding a way to lose to them once more”. Which is a cruel joke. England, after all, is only second in the all-time medal table, a mere 272 golds, silvers and bronzes behind Australia.
Among all my many cherished memories of the Games it is Delhi’s police monkeys I’m fondest of. They were vicious-looking gray langurs, highly-trained, we were told, and bussed in from up country to protect the spectators from the horde of mischievous local rhesus macaques. You would see langurs with their handlers, patrolling outside the venues. It was a necessary safety measure. Not long before, the city’s deputy mayor died when he fell off a balcony fighting off a macaque attack. It seemed to be a theme. A plague of moths drove everyone from the athletics stadium, and there were birds nesting in the rafters above the swimming pool, crapping in the water.
Happy days. There was, at the end of it all, one glorious and uplifting moment of sport, when India’s women won gold in the 4x400m. It was, Seb Coe told us, a moment “that could change the course of athletics in Asia”. A year later three of the four runners failed drugs tests. By then the sorry rest of it started to come out too – the gross budget overruns and rampant corruption. Even now no one seems entirely sure exactly how much it all cost. One audit put the final figure at £4.1bn, 16 times over budget. In the end the Delhi 2010 chairman, Suresh Kalmadi, spent 10 months in jail after he was charged with cheating, conspiracy and criminal forgery.
Next to that Glasgow 2014 came in cheap at £543m. The biggest story of those Games was the Times report where, caught in an unguarded moment, Usain Bolt had said the whole thing was “a bit shit”. Which, besides being a very British turn of phrase, felt like a pretty fitting epithet for it all.
More so, anyway, than the Commonwealth Games Federation’s own slogan of “Humanity, Equality, Destiny” given that homosexuality is still illegal in 37 of its 53 member states. Bolt spent the next few days denying he had said it but, in a Guardian poll, 61% of the respondents agreed with him anyway.
They had the sense to hold the next one on the Gold Coast. The Australians are good at this stuff. Sunshine, sport, beating up on the rest of us. After that, well, the 2022 edition was supposed to be in Durban – no one else bothered bidding, so it was not much of a competition – but they dropped out when they decided they could not spare the money. So, in 2017, Birmingham stepped up, after the government agreed to stump up £558m. One cannot but wonder what it was, exactly, about those first bleak and windswept months after the Brexit referendum that sparked this sudden desire to throw a party for the old Commonwealth.
There might be one or two clues about the motivation behind this cash splash in the recent carry-on with the Indian Olympic Association. If you missed this, The organisers of the Birmingham Games decided last summer they were going to cut the shooting events from the programme because the only appropriate venue was in Bisley, 130 miles away, and they reckoned there were better ways to spend public money than paying to revamp a shooting range in Surrey. The problem was that shooting happens to be an event the Indians are particularly good at – they were top of the International Shooting Sport Federati on rankings last year and won 16 medals at it in 2018.
So India promptly threatened a boycott (they do call them the “Friendly Games”). And, in a course of action which may or may not owe something to the fact India has over half of the Commonwealth’s population and accounts for more than a quarter of all its internal trade, the British government has been scrabbling to find a workaround ever since.
First they suggested an alternative Commonwealth shooting championships could be run in parallel alongside the proper Games, but that did not wash because the medals would not count in the official table.
Now the latest suggestion is that the shooting competition is going to take place after all, only it will be in India, 7,000km away, in March, four months before everything else begins.
No doubt the British government, and the CGF, would have been similarly accommodating if, say, Nauru had threatened a no-show because their national sport of weightlifting had been ditched from the programme instead. It will, at least, save Birmingham from having to find the extra £20m India have promised to spend on hosting it.
It is a good thing too, given the way costs are already spiralling. Auditors have warned that the event could bankrupt the local council, who have to find the other 25% the government is not providing. Coe recently explained there are five major stages involved in organising an event like this. The first is euphoria, the second is blind panic, the next is blame, which, one suspects, is about where the Birmingham Games are at right now. The new aquatics centre is £13m over budget, the new bus depot is £13.5m over budget and there are concerns that the athletes village is going to overrun too. After that, Coe promises, come success and glory. Sometimes.