Tim Hollingsworth

In his extraordinary, shocking announcement nearly a fortnight ago that the Australian state of Victoria was no longer going to host the 2026 Commonwealth Games, the Victoria State Premier Daniel Andrews opined that it was an easy decision because hosting a Commonwealths is "all cost and no benefit".

It’s been a while since I read such a myopic statement.  I’m not remotely suggesting there were not significant cost pressures on Victoria at a time of great economic uncertainty - although pretty much everyone I know in the state with an informed view is clear that most of those costs arose from the Premier’s own insistence that it become a state-wide event not based in Melbourne… 

Nor am I particularly interested in understanding state politics in a country where I have just spent an excellent week being hosted by an amazing people. 

What I am massively invested in however is the future of the Commonwealth Games and in particular the real legacy benefits that can flow from its hosting at national and especially local level.  That was my topic when invited recently to give the keynote address at the 2023 National Sport Convention in Melbourne. 

It's a significant conference with over a thousand delegates from across the sport sector in Oceania and beyond. The title of my session was "Global Mega Events and Their Legacy".

The Australians may not have Victoria 2026 now to build towards but they are still the venue for several major events in the years ahead before hosting the ultimate in the 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

My opportunity, having had the privilege of being very closely involved with them all, was to reflect on what lessons we have learned in the UK from London 2012 through to more recent events such as the Rugby League World Cup, the Women’s European Football Championships and of course Birmingham 2022. 

My purpose was to show that done right, the opposite of Mr Andrews’ assertion can be the case. There are real sustained benefits that can be achieved especially for the local communities around the Games once the highs of the athlete performances have calmed and the travelling Games circus left town.

The Commonwealth Games offers real legacy benefits at both local and national levels, Sport England's Tim Hollingsworth believes ©Getty Images
The Commonwealth Games offers real legacy benefits at both local and national levels, Sport England's Tim Hollingsworth believes ©Getty Images

What it needs is a lens that doesn’t focus on assumed participation increase merely as a result of major event competition but rather uses the event as a catalyst to engage people at a place-based level and with a strong emphasis on building legacy programmes that are right for them.  

While we have a great proportion of the population in this country that love sport and are active in their everyday lives, Sport England’s Active Lives survey suggests that around a quarter are classed as inactive, that is doing less than 30 minutes a week.

If a Games is really going to have lasting sustained impact then programmes that help and support their activity should be the priority, as should ensuring that any sporting opportunities and facilities are effectively prioritising those who have previously been less well served. 

I don’t think we did this effectively enough around London 2012. While there are so many elements of that triumphant Games to celebrate, the participation legacy was still based on the "build it and they will come" approach. 

And where excellent programmes such as Sport England’s £135 million ($171 million/€156 million) “Places People Play” were in place, they were perhaps not effectively targeted enough at communities of greatest need.  

We didn’t really engage those inactive people who needed help the most. A big lesson learned is that it is not enough to do a one-off programme.  Rather, a long term systemic approach must be taken.

We’ve moved on from this and targeted investment in legacy much more strategically and locally for both the Rugby World Cup and the Women’s Euros.

And in particular, we built a different approach through our £35 million ($44 million/€40 million) investment in the physical activity and wellbeing legacy for Birmingham 2022.

The priority for action here was on the most inactive and underrepresented parts of the local community.  Two examples spring to mind – the successful engagement of the local community in the planning for and construction of the Sandwell Aquatic Centre and how our Commonwealth Active Communities fund used the fact of the Games to be a real catalyst for local engagement and delivery - particularly among the sizable Muslim communities of the West Midlands.  

Sport England chief executive Tim Hollingsworth takes to the podium at a National Sports Convention in Melbourne, where he spoke about global mega-events and their legacy ©Sport England
Sport England chief executive Tim Hollingsworth takes to the podium at a National Sports Convention in Melbourne, where he spoke about global mega-events and their legacy ©Sport England

But what we have really learned and how might this help our Australian colleagues think differently about the opportunity they still have? Not least given the rare privilege of a nine-year horizon to 2032. There are five things I would highlight here:

One, you have to take a long-term approach. Behaviour change takes time - both the inner workings of legacy delivery and consumer engagement pre, during and post any event. Don’t leave it too late to initiate change at scale.

Two, secure political buy in. Government plays a key role in any major event legacy. It shows the need to be clear on your ambition, your evidence base and desired outcomes, and crucially how benefits will flow to the host community. 

And unfortunately too, how not being clear can lead to the cost of hosting being seen as unaffordable.

Third, focus on place-based delivery. Adapting to the local community’s needs is essential, empowering local leaders based on their deeper understanding of their community. What are their needs? 

What are the barriers to entry? Are there existing pathways and assets where a little funding could do a lot of good? Local community leaders are best placed to know all this, so empower them to work locally in your stead.

Four, explore how you can develop and deliver traditional sport in non-traditional ways. Organised competitive sport is not for everyone, so consider how you can do things differently or adapt existing offers to engage new audiences who may have been put off sport in the past.

And five, drive purpose led communications.  A major event is a powerful platform, and it is important to do all you can to capitalise on it. 

If you are to cut through to those unengaged inactive communities where the greatest benefits to getting active can be realised, you must speak directly to them in your communications - not the proportion of the population who already love and live sport. 

Australia must recognise the opportunity they have ahead and the catalyst the next decade can be to sustained positive change. They must recognise that while cost will always be an issue for any major event - and where politicians will always be balancing the needs of their community - it can be more than outweighed by the real, tangible lasting benefits that can be achieved.