Nick Butler

Sport is full of irritating buzzword or phrases which get banded around at every opportunity without meaning anything substantial.

"Good governance", "sustainability" and "zero tolerance" are three of the most popular, and to this we can now add “relevance” - the word of choice at the Commonwealth Games which closed in Gold Coast yesterday.

"More relevant than ever," the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) told us at every opportunity as well as, sometimes, when there wasn’t really an opportunity at all.

They were confronting head-on the twin criticisms that the event is essentially a colonial throwback with no contemporary significance and that it does not even produce top-level sport. 

Two statements which, clearly, can both be defended and challenged.

My main problem with the entire relevance debate is that it such a subjective concept.

We are, thankfully, yet to live in a global utopian society in which everybody has the same interests, concerns and objectives. An event like the Commonwealth Games can still be relevant for some and not for others.

It is never going to catch-on in United States or China, and why should it, and it will remain low-down the sporting radar for most in some participating countries too.

The Commonwealth Games retains relevance with some even if has little with others ©Getty Images
The Commonwealth Games retains relevance with some even if has little with others ©Getty Images

Yet, for others it remains a fun sport event to watch and for athletes it can be a vital opportunity to gain experience before competing in an Olympic Games.  It can also be good way to come together and share cultures even if the Commonwealth does have a limited political significance today.

The standard of many events was very high. The open-air swimming venue reminded me of a vibrant rock concert as Australia firmly re-imposed themselves as the bloc’s dominant paddling power, despite some superb international performances. 

Even the occasional bursts of torrential rain only added to the fun. The track cycling was also of the highest quality, rugby sevens too, and three reigning Olympic medallists battled-it out for gold in men’s triathlon on day one, with Alistair Brownlee - perhaps the sport’s greatest ever exponent - labouring home in 10th.

Low quality?

Most other sports had a least several world-class performers. Even the athletics, which had been so criticised beforehand due to a flood of withdrawals, still featured global stars like Caster Semenya and Shaunae Miller-Uibo, who won a 200 metres final brimming with talent. Reigning Olympic champion Elaine Thompson was only fourth.

The athletics was affected more than most by the out-of-season timeframe and expect less stars to be missing at Birmingham in 2022.

Crowds at virtually every venue were also fantastic and the abundance of signage and live-sites created an atmosphere completely different from the Pyeongchang 2018, where it was sometimes easy to forget you were at a major sporting event at all.

The real charm, though, was how world-class sport sat side by side with a weird and wonderful. Cook Islands and Norfolk Islands thriving in lawn bowls before the winner of the men’s singles whipped-off his shirt in celebration.

Lawn bowls was one of the charming successes as Gold Coast 2018 ©Getty Images
Lawn bowls was one of the charming successes as Gold Coast 2018 ©Getty Images

Arriving at the table tennis to find the women’s team bronze medal match delayed as one player had been unable to stop crying after being docked a point for time-wasting. 

A women’s squash singles final littered with John McEnroe-esque running-battles between the officials and eventual loser Sarah-Jane Perry. 

A 42-year-old full born rifle Queen’s Prize-winning shooter carried victoriously by his opponents in a sedan chair in a tradition dating back to 1860. 

A marathon runner collapsing within one-mile of the finish line when leading by more than two minutes and a heroic English upset of the Australian hosts in netball.

It didn’t feel like we were attending the most important event on the calendar, but it was a lot of fun nonetheless.

Why does every part of life have to be relevant anyway? 

We don’t always watch television and films and listen to music because they affect our everyday judgements, but for a means of escapism and relaxation. Should not sport be the same?

Too often these days we find the sports world wrapped-up in the main political and diplomatic drama of the day, be it in North Korea or with the "new Cold War" between Russia and the West.

This has always been the case and will continue to be as sport remains a strategic means of projecting "soft power". But there are some in the Olympic Movement who seem to see it as a mini-United Nations in the making and almost prioritise the wider political role over its sporting one.

Don't get me wrong, the CGF trumpet this development role as much as anyone, just in a different way. 

Glasgow 2014 partnered with UNICEF to enhance sporting opportunities for the disadvantaged. 

Gold Coast 2018, conversely, focused on raising the profile of Australia’s indigenous communities - with questionable success given the constant protests and limited numbers of spectators from these groups. 

There was also a ceremony to commemorate the Rwanda genocide and the constant messages towards gay rights, gender equality and Paralympic inclusion.

Disaster struck for Scotland's Callum Hawkins in the men's marathon when he collapsed in exhaustion in the closing stages in one of the most dramatic moments of Gold Coast 2018 ©Getty Images
Disaster struck for Scotland's Callum Hawkins in the men's marathon when he collapsed in exhaustion in the closing stages in one of the most dramatic moments of Gold Coast 2018 ©Getty Images

Unlike many sports administrators, who pretend to be zealots for sport’s wider role and transformative power to gain political capital, the CGF’s American-born chief executive David Grevemberg seems to genuinely mean it, and his evangelical enthusiasm is inspiring. I feel that if he had been alive 200 years ago he would have been a missionary off bravely traversing new frontiers to convert the locals to his way of thinking…

But, for me at least, the main attraction of the Commonwealth Games was how we felt so cut-off from the wider world and were just focused on pure, straightforward and fascinating sport. 

There was also a refreshing absence of the rampant commercialisation you see at the Olympic Games, with the dubious sporting relevance of Coca-Cola, McDonalds and Samsung plastered everywhere alongside draconian restrictions on ambush marketing.

You could even argue that the Commonwealth Games echoes the true spirit of "Olympism" better than the Olympics themselves. Athletes of all shapes, sizes and background coming together in harmony for the "Friendly Games" without as much baggage behind it.

There were a few distracting news stories. Athletes and officials from Africa going missing. A few athletes getting in fights and trouble during late-night celebrations. Indians getting caught using needles. 

The usual concerns over whether a major sporting event was having the local economic impact that organisers had been promising.

Clearly, the choice of host was a large reason for the comparatively few problems and a possible Brisbane Olympics in 2032 would surely have far fewer flashpoints that one in, say, Rio de Janeiro.

We are also extremely dubious that the Games was as doping-free as organisers have so far proclaimed and it is good that the CGF have belatedly decided to store frozen samples for re-analysis.

CGF chief executive David Grevemberg, right, is genuinely passionate about sport's wider development role ©Getty Images
CGF chief executive David Grevemberg, right, is genuinely passionate about sport's wider development role ©Getty Images

Of course, the Commonwealth Games does face many challenges. 

There has only been one edition held outside Australia or a part of Great Britain this century and the one, in Delhi in 2010, was a disaster. 

An attempt to go to Durban for 2022 was aborted and Malaysia and Canada, two potential bidders for 2026 and 2030, are probably currently the only other capable hosts. They may not prove willing.

I like the flexibility of a sports programme containing compulsory and optional sports, but there is a danger of host nations just picking ones they will win medals in. 

Does judo, for instance, really need to return in 2022 given the low standard and interest across most of the Commonwealth? Incorporating Paralympic events was good, and I especially enjoyed the crash-heavy Paratriathlon, but they must improve the depth of some swimming and cycling events to justify a gold medal.

They should surely also focus more on quintessentially Commonwealth disciplines rather than repeating the Olympic programme. Twenty20 cricket must be a priority, even if they can only incorporate the women’s game for the time being, while Sebastian Coe’s idea to bring back the mile, perhaps in the city centre rather than in the stadium, is a good one.

Another big idea in the pipeline is to get permanent sponsors rather Games-specific ones in a comparable way to the International Olympic Committee's TOP sponsorship scheme. 

This is a promising idea, if they can persuade companies to come on board and, while it would be hailed as a way to improve the "brand" and do more outside the Games-window, its most significant purpose would be to generate more money for what remains a cash-strapped body.

I just hope Grevemberg and others don’t stop prioritising the quirkiness of the Commonwealth Games, though, and how its biggest selling-point is its charm, character and cheery irrelevance in the complex world of today.