Brian Oliver ©ITG

He was a champion of local farmers, a newspaper man who left school at 13 and worked his way up, a lover of athletics who founded a prestigious club and became Canada’s Olympic team manager, a man who would never take "No" for an answer, and who could not stand arrogant Americans. 

His name was Melville Marks "Bobby" Robinson and without him there would be no XXI Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast this week. 

"Bobby" Robinson is the Pierre de Coubertin of the Commonwealth Games, the man without whom the quadrennial gathering would never have made it on to the sporting calendar.

Others claimed to have played a leading role in creating what started as the British Empire Games, most notable among them an English vicar, J Astley Cooper.

Astley Cooper first suggested a "Pan-Britannic Festival"nearly 40 years before the first Games were hosted by Hamilton in Ontario in 1930. He wrote about his ideas in The Times and other publications as long ago as 1891, and he spoke to de Coubertin himself in the years before the modern Olympics began at Athens in 1896.

But while the vicar, who is erroneously credited on Wikipedia as being the inventor of the Commonwealth Games, was a talker, Bobby Robinson was a doer.

The Amateur Athletic Union of Canada, the nation’s governing body of Olympic sport at the time, first talked about an Empire Games at the Paris Olympics of 1924.

Robinson kept the idea in mind, and brought it up again in 1927 when he was discussing with Howard Crocker, another athletics administrator, the lack of chances for Canadians to compete against elite opponents.

Crocker, an important figure in Canada’s early Olympic history, mentioned the Festival of Empire, hosted by London in 1911 at the time of the coronation of King George V and featuring an international sporting championship.

Crocker also told Robinson of Astley Cooper’s far earlier suggestion for a festival of culture and sport - one that would have been open to the United States, and whose main object was to promote the superiority of the English-speaking world.

Canada's Melville Marks
Canada's Melville Marks "Bobby" Robinson was the driving force behind the first British Empire Games, now known as the Commonwealth Games ©Burlington Historical Society

Robinson began planning immediately, little knowing that Astley Cooper would later appear to claim the credit.

The events of the 1928 Olympics made Robinson more determined than ever that the Empire Games should take place.

He was so incensed by the perceived lack of respect shown to his team in Amsterdam, and by the domineering attitude of others that he threatened to withdraw Canada from the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles.

The Americans were largely to blame, he felt, and he made his views known. Lou Marsh was Canada’s best-known sports writer at the time, as well being an Olympic ice hockey referee who, on his death in 1936, gave his name to the trophy that is still awarded annually to Canada’s top sports performer.

In the Toronto Star Marsh reported that meetings to discuss the Empire Games were held in Amsterdam "as a direct result of the dominance, real or attempted, by Germany and the United States at the Olympic meet...Robinson finally boiled over and, after consultation with other Canadian officials, met representatives of the other British teams and laid the foundation for what is hoped will be a series of British Empire meets to be held every four years."

Among Robinson’s gripes at the Olympics, where Canada made an official complaint, were the absence of a Canadian flag when Percy Williams received his 100 metres gold medal; the fact that Americans were allowed to train on the track but Canadians were not; a disputed judges’ decision in the women’s 100m that went in favour of an American when the Canadians thought their runner had won; and a direct insult by Avery Brundage, then the most influential American in the Olympic Movement, to a Canadian team official.

These confrontations fuelled the anti-American fire. The Toronto Star wrote of "serious trouble brewing between the Canadian and US teams and between the Canadian representatives and the International Olympic Committee (IOC)".

At one point Robinson vented his anger at Sigfrid Edström, the Swede who would later become President of the IOC.

"We know the Canadians are getting the run-around here and we don’t like it!" he said.

The Canadians even had a dispute among themselves, which would fester for months, over the making of that official complaint. Robinson wanted the Empire Games to be more relaxed and friendly, to be "sport for sport’s sake, devoid of petty jealousies and sectional prejudices".

Organisers in Hamilton made clear their aims. "The event will be designed on an Olympic model, but these Games will be very different. They should be merrier and less stern, and will substitute the stimulus of a novel adventure for the pressure of international rivalry."

Having the idea was the easy part: putting the plans into action was a challenge that would have been beyond most men. But not the tireless Bobby Robinson, who had worked his way from lowly beginnings to become a man of stature, respected by all who knew him and able to call on the help of senior "movers and shakers" from public and private sectors in Ontario.

The idea for the British Empire partly came because of how angry
The idea for the British Empire partly came because of how angry "Bobby" Robinson was at how Canada was treated during the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam ©Getty Images

If he was less well known in other parts of the British Empire that would change in his campaigning for the Games, most notably when he travelled to London to persuade a reluctant England to take part.

Robinson, born in Peterborough in Ontario, left school at 13 and started at the Toronto News as an office boy, working his way up to become sports editor of the Hamilton Spectator in 1908, when he was 20.

He served with the 19th Canadian Machine Gun Company in the First World War. He became secretary-treasurer of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association, devoted to strengthening the position of farmers in an increasingly competitive economy. He joined Hamilton’s Education Board in his early 30s and helped to found the Hamilton Olympic Club in 1926, by when he was campaigning to make the city the national centre of Canadian athletics.

From the Mayor downwards he seemed to know everybody who had a say in governing the growing steel city of Hamilton, Canada’s fifth largest in the late 1920s with a population of 151,000.

He also had good connections in the worlds of business, agriculture and, of course, sport. Much later, Robinson would have a high school named after him in Burlington, just outside Hamilton.

The Toronto Star, in the build-up to the Games, said Robinson "plans ahead of everyone else” and was “known from coast to coast as a great organiser".

When it came to forming an Organising Committee for the Empire Games after Canada’s return from the Amsterdam Olympics, Robinson could call on some big hitters.

As Carol Phillips wrote in the Journal of Sport History in 2014, "Robinson ensured that men of influence, nationally and internationally, were on board, especially to help convince countries to send a delegation to this as yet untested event."

There was Edward W Beatty, President and chairman of the mighty Canadian Pacific Railway; Sir William Thomas White, former Finance Minister, two bank Presidents, the heads of two local universities and the nation’s Olympic rowing coach.

Persuading other Empire nations to compete was one challenge, finding the money to host the Games - during the Great Depression - was another.

The first edition of the British Empire Games in Hamilton was declared a great success ©Wikipedia
The first edition of the British Empire Games in Hamilton was declared a great success ©Wikipedia

Undeterred, Robinson presented his plans to the Hamilton City Council and the Board of Control. He wanted investment in swimming and athletics venues, plus a guarantee of CAD$25,000 from the city for Games costs; he told them they would lose no more than CAD$10,000 and, if all went well, they would make a profit.

It was, he said, a great investment in raising Hamilton’s status, especially outside Canada, and William Burton, then the Mayor, agreed when he said, "This opportunity of promoting the city should not be passed over lightly."

Robinson got what he wanted; the city spent CAD$140,000 on providing a swimming pool and upgrading the Olympic Club’s premises to the Civic Stadium, with a capacity of about 20,000.

The Games lost money but not so much that anybody complained, and Phillips concluded in her 2014 publication: "Among the many legacies [the Games] left the city of Hamilton was the notion that this mid-sized city could attract the world’s best athletes and run an event of such magnitude - that it could, indeed, be considered a 'world-class city'."

As for persuading other nations to come to Canada, Robinson was relentless and innovative. He guaranteed travel expenses would be paid by the host city, which was enough for Australia and New Zealand to send teams.

England were less keen. Those in charge of the nation’s amateur sports did not want to enter into a new initiative that might weaken the Olympics, they said.

So Robinson travelled to England to meet Lord Desborough, chief organiser of the 1908 London Olympics, Lord Derby and their cohorts.

He argued his case and, in the words of the Canadian author Cleve Dheensaw, "the ebullient Robinson just kept on pushing and pushing. If they would not accept willingly, he decided he would just wear them down with his sheer persistence and enthusiasm for the project".

It worked: England eventually said "Yes" a month before the opening ceremony, which was held on August 16 in1930.

The capacity crowd in the Civic Stadium was enthralled from the start by a parade by the 400 athletes, fireworks, a huge display of flags, and a home success in the first medal event of the Games.

There was a capacity crowd at the Civic Stadium for the Opening Ceremony of the 1930 British Empire Games in Hamilton ©Commonwealth Games Scotland
There was a capacity crowd at the Civic Stadium for the Opening Ceremony of the 1930 British Empire Games in Hamilton ©Commonwealth Games Scotland

Gordon "Spike" Smallacombe, from the West YMCA club in nearby Toronto, won the hop, step and jump, later renamed the triple jump.

When he was presented with his medal he stood on a raised platform, with the other medallists on a lower level. He saluted as Canada’s flag was raised and the anthem played by the band of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

The distinguished guests in Hamilton were impressed, among them Count Henri Baillet-Latour and Brundage, present and future Presidents of the IOC.

Baillet-Latour ordered that the podium ceremony, never before seen at the Olympics, must feature at future Games, starting at Los Angeles 1932.

The IOC men adopted more ideas from Hamilton, among them the billeting of competitors in an Athletes’ Village, and recruitment of volunteers to help with the efficient day-to-day running of the Games.

Crowds grew at all sports as the days went by. A thousand extra seats were installed at the Civic Stadium. Cars flooded into the city, many of them bringing visitors who were on their way to the Canadian National Exhibition, due to open in Toronto the day before the Games finished. Thousands were locked out of the Stadium for the last two days of athletics.

The arenas for swimming and boxing were packed, and free viewing up above the course meant that the rowing was watched by crowds that, British newspapers reported, "at times swelled to nearly 100,000". These were enormous numbers for a fledgling sports event.

Percy Williams was Canada’s great sporting hero: when he was due to run the shops and most of the offices in the city closed at 1pm.

Winner of the sprint double at the 1928 Olympics, Williams set a 100m world record of 10.3sec in Toronto a week before the Empire Games Opening Ceremony, at which he had the honour of pledging the athletes’ oath of sportsmanship.

The American press said Williams had been a lucky winner, suited by the new, soft surface in Amsterdam. He proved them wrong by winning 21 of 22 races in the four months after his return, all of them in the United States.

The Globe newspaper in Hamilton rejoiced in the success of the British Empire Games ©Wikipedia
The Globe newspaper in Hamilton rejoiced in the success of the British Empire Games ©Wikipedia

Williams restricted himself to the 100 yards in Hamilton, which he duly won, though he was injured during the race and never fully recovered.

Before the week was out an Empire Games Federation had been formed, New Zealand and South Africa had applied to be the hosts in 1934, and the future of the British Empire Games, as it was known from 1930 until 1950, the British Empire and Commonwealth Games from 1954 to 1966, the British Commonwealth Games 1970 to 1974 and the Commonwealth Games from 1978 onwards, was assured.

The 1930 Games were a significant political success. At the time of that Empire Festival in 1911 there had been talk, led from Australia, of an all-in-one British Empire team competing in the Olympics, featuring athletes from Britain and the four main dominions - Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa.

By the middle of the 1920s such a suggestion would have been unthinkable. At the Imperial Conference of 1926, held in London, South Africa asked for a constitutional definition of the British Empire. The Commonwealth had become "a fragile and problematic coalition of interests", wrote the historian R. F. Holland. Members of the Empire, most notably the dominions, sought to find their own identities.

"Political domination in the world by Great Britain was a rapidly fading memory and it was no longer the premier sporting power either," wrote the sports historian Katharine Moore.

"The Empire needed the Games in 1930 to reconfirm and redefine its unity. They could be seen as one step towards re-establishing its sagging the various Empire countries matured and blossomed in their own right."

Whether Bobby Robinson was aware of the wider political significance of the Empire Games is unclear.

There are barely any documentary records of the topics discussed by the Organising Committee. An IOC report laments, "It is a pity that the original minutes of the Hamilton Organising Committee have disappeared, probably forever. They are not in the Hamilton archives, nor in the archives of the Canadian Commonwealth Association, nor in those of the British Empire Games headquarters in England."

What happened to them, nobody knows.

British newspaper readers were left in no doubt after the Games. Canada had "cut herself loose from the American orbit and given a lead to the Empire that should inspire British sportsmen all around the globe".

Canada's great hero Percy Williams won the 100 yards to add to the Olympic 100 and 200 metres gold medals he had won at Amsterdam 1928 ©Hamilton Spectator
Canada's great hero Percy Williams won the 100 yards to add to the Olympic 100 and 200 metres gold medals he had won at Amsterdam 1928 ©Hamilton Spectator

Praise rained down on Hamilton from all quarters: from athletes, officials, the media, and spectators lucky enough to have been there.

For one man, above all others, Hamilton had been a magnificent triumph. That man was the founding father of the Commonwealth Games: "‘Bobby" Robinson.

Harold Abrahams, the British sprinter who won Olympic gold in 1924 before becoming one of the most influential voices in athletics in the first half of the 20th century and who was later immortalised in the Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire, wrote, "But for the unbounded enthusiasm and persistency of Mr Robinson, the whole thing would never have started."