Belfast Telegraph

Monday 24 November 2014

Commonwealth Games: Big or small... all can get platform

The Queen at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
The Queen at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony

Six days in and I think we can all agree that the Commonwealth Games are proving something of a triumph. Perhaps it's because after the gargantuan feasts of the Olympics and the World Cup, the Commonwealth Games feels just right – normal-sized, human and, despite the BBC's obsession with the medal table, about more than the individual advancement of a few athletes' careers.

The Olympics is synonymous with do or die pressure, as if all the athletes' lives have been leading to this gruelling drama – success, you feel, for many of them is merely about avoiding disaster and the ruined life that would cause.

And what joy is there in the Olympic medal table, watching the giant behemoths of the United States, China and Russia wipe up the vast majority of medals? Why should geo-politics make watchable television?

It was a similar story at the World Cup. Yes, winning and losing is important at the Commonwealth Games, too, but it's just not that important. And that's why it's 20 times more refreshing, more uplifting than any other major sporting event.

After all, what is a Commonwealth? It sounds weird, archaic even. As a political bloc it doesn't make any great claims for itself. It is a self-identifying group of nations which shares some historical connection but not much else. What does a Canadian sprinter have in common with a Tanzanian boxer? Nothing except their countries have a nebulous loyalty to the Queen and the common bonds of sportsmanship and humanity.

Maybe that's why the overall vibe has been so good, from the opening ceremony when the Queen arrived in Celtic Park. And while the symbolism wasn't lost, we didn't get our collective knickers in a twist.

Commentators spent many hours chewing the fat wondering how the Commonwealth Games might impact upon the Scottish Independence referendum.

As Glasgow showcases a proud, vibrant, modern nation, will it help nationalists? Or as the Games show the deep historic bonds between the nations, will it only serve to strengthen the cause of unionists?

Of course, the vast majority said that it wasn't going to change their opinion one iota. They just wanted to enjoy the sport, the spectacle and the all-round good feeling.

The Commonwealth Games reminds us that not everything has to be grindingly and tediously political.

Indeed, one of the best moments over the past few days was the tweeting of a photograph featuring local boxers Paddy Barnes and Steven Ward at the opening ceremony. Both had their shirts open to reveal football tops: Cliftonville for Barnes, Rangers for Ward. It was fun. It was silly. But it was also a grown-up display of friendship and camaraderie. Unity and diversity. It was a gesture not of triumphalism but of inclusivity. It said enjoy the moment, enjoy life, get over yourselves.

At a stroke it confuses the hotheads and the warmongers, makes the sour twitterer look exactly that. "Rise above it," it says. And that's a good thing in my book.

And then there was Rod Stewart, somehow encapsulating all of this again: the Celtic fan proud to perform for Her Majesty. And that is the essence of the Games. It is not about one nation triumphing over another, nor about demonstrating our way of life is better than yours. It's not about dishing out abuse or taking offence.

Happily too, the Beeb's incessant questioning of athletes about how the Games measured up against the Olympics or World Championships has come under control.

For Ghana, Tuvalu, Rwanda, St Kitts, Solomon Islands, Nauru, Belize, Lesotho and, yes, Northern Ireland and Isle of Man, this is one of the few platforms where athletic achievement against the odds can be recognised and honoured. For a change this isn't about trillionaire economies just hoovering the medals to match the number of velodromes or Olympic-scale swimming pools.

For most athletes, these games represent their opportunity not only to compete on a world stage, but simply to be applauded when they appear, be interviewed, perhaps to gain a medal to bring home, all as some recognition for all the many years spent training in often inhospitable surroundings and without the easy facilities provided in the west.

In a way, the Games represent in sport what the Commonwealth does in politics. It gives at least one platform where the small and even tiny countries of the earth can get identified and known, rather than being subsumed into the larger conglomerates beloved of the media and its broad strokes.

Small nations with their own anthems, their own pride, their own small populations wishing their handful of athletes well. Not expecting much but, occasionally, too, their own stars in boxing, maybe, or on the track or on the mat. Sound familiar?

Follow me on Twitter: @GWalker9

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