Last night’s opening ceremony, complete with Scottie dogs, the Loch Ness monster, Irn Bru and a multitude of tartan, marked the start of the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Today’s events kick off with lawn bowling and we’ve already seen the Sri Lankan cycling team using the M74 as a training track. Over the next 11 days 71 nations and territories, that’s over 4,500 athletes, will compete at 17 sports.
What though do we actually know about the Commonwealth and how relevant is it in today’s world?
It’s roots lie with the British Empire and the modern Commonwealth emerged in 1949. Since then independent countries have joined this voluntary association and it now comprises 53 countries from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and the Pacific and has come to encompass a diversity of races and religions. 2.2 people live within the Commonwealth, the largest member being India with a population of 1.2 billion people and the smallest Nauru with 9,300 people.
The Commonwealth Charter outlines the values and principles of the organisation, united by aspirations to promote democracy, good governance, human rights and prosperity. Rather ironic when you consider that homosexuality remains a crime in 42 of the 53 member countries and Amnesty International will be profiling human rights abuses taking place in countries competing in the games over the coming days.
Those of a cynical disposition might argue that it provides a consolation prize for the loss of the British Empire and the games are merely a chance for England to win medals in an international sporting event without interference from the pesky Americans and Chinese. More controversially it could be argued that it provides legitimacy to otherwise damaging regimes and is perhaps a waste of time as it confers no trade privileges, has no influence on defence or economic policy and doesn’t have the power to play a global role.
Yet there is a queue of countries waiting to become members, so what benefits might they gain from joining the Commonwealth other than an occasional visit from the Queen? Perhaps they are better off being one of 53 than being alone and membership enables otherwise isolated and impoverished nations to network with more powerful allies. It offers access to development aid and informal trade talks and the chance to influence the positions of bigger powers. It may even encourage developing members to raise standards of democracy, human rights and governance.
Whatever stance you take about the Commonwealth we continue to live in a globalised yet inequitable world and the Games provides opportunities for people from such diverse social, economic and political backgrounds to come together for a short period of time, with a common goal and just maybe they will leave with an even greater tolerance and understanding of the world around them.
Enjoy the Games!
If you want to test your knowledge have a go at this flag quiz from The Huffington Post