Brian Oliver ©ITG

The Financial Times is reckoned to be, by some considerable distance, the world’s most influential business newspaper. Its chief economics commentator, Martin Wolf, knows what he is talking about, so what he says in a five-minute video posted by the FT last Friday is worth listening to.

If the pessimists are right, says Wolf, if the coronavirus pandemic is not brought properly under control until next year, the world economy will suffer more damage than at any time since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

"We’re going off a cliff faster than in 1930," he said.

"There could be a bigger decline in output than there was in the 1930s."

In that decade unemployment was around 25 per cent in the United States and 30 per cent in Canada, where two-thirds of those in rural areas lived off state relief.

British export earnings halved, while Adolf Hitler was helped into power in Germany as a direct result of the economic catastrophe.

Even the optimists, who foresee a much earlier return to some sort of normality, accept that the financial cost of this pandemic will be unbearable to countless millions of people in all parts of the world.

Governments are on the way to building up colossal debts, which makes higher taxation inevitable, Wolf says. The worst-hit sectors will be travel, leisure, tourism and retail.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) paints an equally grim picture.

Gita Gopinath, the IMF’s economic counsellor, says this is a crisis "like no other" and is already predicting a worse recession this year than the global financial crisis of 2007-2008.

So why on earth would any Government, or city, or any of its citizens, want to spend billions of dollars on hosting mega sports event in the foreseeable future? The answer, if you look at the readers’ comments on the bottom of online news reports in Canada, is that they wouldn’t.

Bobby Robinson was a driving force behind the first Empire Games of 1930 ©Burlington Historical Society
Bobby Robinson was a driving force behind the first Empire Games of 1930 ©Burlington Historical Society

Why Canada? Because it could be the litmus test, at least for one of those multinational events, the Commonwealth Games. In the next few weeks, the city of Hamilton in Ontario has some serious thinking to do.

Way back in 1930, Hamilton, whose population at the time was 151,000, successfully hosted the first Empire Games, which went on to become the Commonwealth Games. The city, which has since grown by nearly half a million, has plans to celebrate the centenary of its entry on to the world sporting stage by hosting 2030 Commonwealth Games.

An organisation named Hamilton 100 has made such good progress that it has seen off a rival bid from Calgary and was put forward by Commonwealth Sport Canada (CSC) as the country’s preferred candidate city a couple of weeks ago.

It is a private-sector initiative that has the support of the Hamilton and Ontario Governments, a bid that would surely be a shoo-in for the centenary Games.

But now the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) wants Hamilton to go in early, and host the 2026 Games.

Because of the "unique considerations" of the CGF, Hamilton is "currently exploring the possibility of moving the bid" said Brian MacPherson, chief executive of CSC. "A decision will be made by end of May."

That is already a year late for 2026, and if the answer is the expected "no thanks" the CGF will have a big problem.

The CGF had hoped that Adelaide, the only Australian state capital never to have hosted the Commonwealth Games, would step in with a bid for 2026 but it never materialised.

The cost of hosting the Commonwealth Games is about $1.5 billion (£1.2 billion/€1.4 billion) judging by the budgets of Glasgow 2014, Gold Coast 2018 and Birmingham 2022. A host city would normally be announced seven years before the Games.

The current situation, and bad times ahead, give cause for concern not just at the CGF but throughout the wider sporting world, which would surely have discussed the future of bidding this week at the SportAccord Summit in Lausanne, had it not been cancelled along with the rest of world sport because of the virus.

But there is one small ray of hope - Hamilton has been here before, and sport was the winner.

There was no pandemic in the lead-up to Hamilton 1930 but there was a global recession, and its effects were felt more in Canada than in any other nation apart from the US.

Remarkably, despite the fallout from the Wall Street Crash of October 1929 and economic forecasts as gloomy as those emanating now, Hamilton rose to the occasion. It did so mostly because of the efforts of one man, the local journalist, national athletics team manager and farmers’ rights campaigner Melville Marks 'Bobby' Robinson.

"But for the unbounded enthusiasm and persistency of Mr Robinson, the whole thing would never have started," was the verdict in 1930 of Harold Abrahams, the Olympic champion sprinter who was immortalised in the film Chariots of Fire.

Economic forecasters paint a gloomy picture for the global economy post the pandemic ©Getty Images
Economic forecasters paint a gloomy picture for the global economy post the pandemic ©Getty Images

In 1928, the boom before the bust, two new sporting events were conceived during meetings at the Amsterdam Olympic Games - football’s World Cup and the Empire Games, both of which kicked off two years later.

Hosting the new Games was a hugely risky enterprise so soon after the Wall Street Crash. But there was more than civic pride at stake for Hamilton, whose citizens rallied behind the project with the aim of showing the world that they could be capable, welcoming and efficient hosts without going broke in the process.

In June, about two months before the opening ceremony in Hamilton, the US imposed tariffs on Canadian goods for the first time, a disaster for Canada’s economy. A book about the Great Depression, published this year, recounts: "Further damage was the reduction of investment: both large companies and individuals were unwilling and unable to invest in new ventures."

Precisely how Robinson and his colleagues did it is impossible to tell, for there are barely any documentary records of the pre-Games meetings of the organising committee.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), which sent its President to Hamilton and pinched some good ideas from the Empire Games - medal ceremonies, using an army of volunteers, the Athletes’ Village - lamented in a report years later: "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 [now CSC], nor in those of the British Empire Games headquarters in England."

What happened to them, nobody knows, though newspaper reports make it clear enough that the biggest concern for the organisers was finance. 

When he first met the city’s leaders in January 1929, Robinson asked for $25,000 to run the Games, plus $160,000 to build the stadium and other facilities.

He organised a 'test event' in July 1929, when the Hamilton Olympic Club hosted a match against a combined Oxford and Cambridge team. Everything was going well until late October, when the American stock market crashed and the world economy nosedived into the Great Depression.

It may have been a time of amateur sport but money was needed for time-consuming travel. The Australians, having agreed to travel to Canada, decided in January 1930 that it was too expensive.

Robinson’s telegram offering $5,000 towards expenses changed their minds. Expenses were also paid to other nations - New Zealand’s athletes needed all they could get as they were away for five months.

Eight more teams accepted but, to Robinson’s consternation, England did not - until he went to London to badger them into submission.

The rulers of English amateur sport were not only short of money, they were worried that the Empire Games might overshadow the Olympics, and could not unanimously agree that it would be a good idea to send a team to a new international event on another continent. 

Robinson crossed the Atlantic to meet Lord Desborough, chief organiser of the London 1908 Olympics, Lord Derby and the other gentry who ran amateur sport in England. 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 and raised £8,000 to fund the trip through a public appeal.

Canada has hosted the Commonwealth Games on four previous occasions ©Getty Images
Canada has hosted the Commonwealth Games on four previous occasions ©Getty Images

Hamilton recouped much of its huge outlay from donations and ticket sales, ending up with a loss of only a few thousand dollars. Unsurprisingly, given that Robinson worked for the Hamilton Spectator, local press coverage was highly favourable. So was the international media verdict.

Bevil Rudd, a decorated soldier, Olympic champion and respected writer, was a prolific correspondent for British newspapers and, later, an editor at the Daily Telegraph. Rudd travelled to Hamilton, from where he sent despatches to newspapers in London and Manchester.

There had been worries about the city’s ability to stage the Games, he acknowledged. "ould the costs be too much of a burden? Would the public buy tickets?

By the finish he declared the Empire Games "without a doubt an unqualified success... which must be repeated".

Rudd, like the capacity crowd of 20,000 in the stadium on the first day, August 16 1930, was enthralled from the start. He saw an impressive Opening Ceremony with a parade by the 400 athletes, and scores of officials, from 11 nations, then watched a Canadian take the first gold medal of the Games.

Gordon 'Spike' Smallacombe, from the West YMCA club in nearby Toronto, won the hop, step and jump, later renamed the triple jump, setting a national record in the process.

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, which was 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.

Rudd wrote of spectators being "in a frenzy" throughout the Games.

"Even the field events were watched with an excited scrutiny that must have been a novel experience for the performers."

The arenas for swimming and boxing were packed, and free viewing up above the course meant that "great rowing was watched by crowds that at times swelled to nearly 100,000".

These were enormous numbers for a fledgling sports event.

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 - from 1930 to 1950 - the British Empire and Commonwealth Games - 1954 to 1966 - the British Commonwealth Games - 1970 to 1974 - and the Commonwealth Games - from 1978 - was assured.

When Robinson started on his Empire Games project he was worried about the Olympics, in which he felt the participants were too often hostile and antagonistic to each other. He wanted the Empire Games to be more relaxed and friendly, to be "sport for sport’s sake, devoid of petty jealousies and sectional prejudices".

The organisers 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."

Hamilton is considering whether to host the 2026 Commonwealth Games ©Getty Images
Hamilton is considering whether to host the 2026 Commonwealth Games ©Getty Images

Hamilton had the right formula, public support and, despite the times, financial backing from some of Canada’s biggest businesses. Hamilton rose to the occasion; but can it do it all again all these decades later, or does it even want to?

PJ Mercanti, the entrepreneurial chief executive of an entertainment and hospitality company, is chair of Hamilton 100. Before coronavirus did its worst to ruin everything Mercanti said the 21st century Games would "serve as a catalyst for social transformation and economic development… It will play a role in creating prosperity for this entire community."

Hosting the 2030 Games would lead to "an entire universe of social benefits" and would result in investment of $2 billion (£1.5 billion/€1.85 billion) into the city, Mercanti said.

His fellow Hamilton 100 Board member Louis Frapporti reckons the Games could help to repair the financial devastation caused by the pandemic, by providing jobs, stimulus spending, and boosts for local tourism and hospitality businesses.

Frapporti does not sound keen on moving the bid forward to 2026 as "it's the 100th anniversary that resonates well with me". It would, he says, be "a pretty big leap to switch from that to another date that doesn't have the same kind of commemorative value to it".

Hamilton’s Mayor, Fred Eisenberger, does not sound keen either, and said there were more important things for the city to worry about.

"We're in no position right now to be dealing with that kind of decision.”

And in the readers’ comments on a report by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation - which was founded during the Great Depression in 1936 - a Hamiltonian says what many others will be thinking.

"There will be so much debt at every level of Government after the months still left of this virus crisis that no Government should even think of getting into more debt over sporting events."

Even Bobby Robinson would find it hard to counter that argument.