Playing the games of Empire

One of my life’s ambitions is to one day attend an Olympic Games. Something about international sports competition makes me feel deeply patriotic. This past summer during the 2012 London games, I spent more time watching the coverage on TV than I had in previous years. Sport allows us to indulge our patriotism and have fun at the same time, without getting too political.

While many of us might be somewhat versed in the history of the modern Olympic Games, many folks do not know much about that other games that takes place every four years, the Commonwealth Games. Growing up in Australia, the Commonwealth Games were very much a part of our culture and competitive focus in sports. It was a chance to see athletes compete who might do us proud at the Olympics as well. But how are the Commonwealth Games different today? In this article, I hope to uncover some of the old secrets behind the “Games of Empire”.


In 1891, an English reverend by the name of John Astley Cooper published a proposal in Greater Britain and later in The Times for a sporting competition that would increase “the goodwill and good understanding of the Empire”. Cooper’s “Pan-Britannic” or “Anglo-Saxon festival” would also serve a political agenda; to solidify political ties between England and its colonies, and more generally assert the superiority of the British Empire.

It wasn’t until 1911 that something resembling a sporting competition took place during the “Festival of Empire” celebrating King George V’s coronation. The “Inter-Empire Championships” of London saw teams from Australia, Canada, South Africa and the United Kingdom compete in athletics, boxing, swimming, and wrestling.

Plans for a continued Games were interrupted by the advent of the First World War. It wasn’t until 1930 that the first official “British Empire Games” were held in Ontario, Canada, due in large part to the lobbying efforts of a local sports reporter by the name of Melville Marks (Bobby) Robinson.


Over time as the political climate has changed, so too has the name. I view this as a literal fading of Empire; a realization that the “Empire Games” no longer has real currency in the modern era. In 1954, the event was renamed the “British Empire and Commonwealth Games”, only to be rechristened the “British Commonwealth Games” in 1970. Finally, Britain was done away with altogether, as the Games became known simply as the “Commonwealth Games” in 1978.

In addition to Olympic sports, the Commonwealth Games showcases sports played primarily in Commonwealth countries, including lawn bowls, rugby sevens, and netball. As a sheer testament to the British Empire’s historical reach across the globe, the Commonwealth of Nations boasts 54 member nations. In addition to the Commonwealth nations, many other teams compete in the Commonwealth Games as British overseas territories, Crown dependencies, and island states, totaling 71 teams in all.

Are sporting spectacles such as these still relevant? Does the Commonwealth Games still have an audience in the absence of Empire, and in this multicultural age? It starts feeling like an anachronism. At one point in time, we may have been fighting for Crown and country, but these days I believe it’s just country that we’re fighting for.