Glasgow Commonwealth Games 2014. Athletics, Hampden Park. Men's 10,000m Final. Runners cast long shadows during the race. [photo: Ian Rutherford / Alamy]

First Durban, then Victoria and now Alberta. As one host after another decides the costs are too high, the future of the 93-year-old sports event is in doubt

From 35,000 people watching Roger Bannister beat John Landy in the ‘Miracle Mile’ at the 1954 Vancouver Games (the first time two runners broke four minutes for the distance in the same race) to the young Indigenous sprinter Cathy Freeman winning 400m gold in a record time in 1994 and then defying Australian officials to parade with the Aboriginal flag on her victory lap in Victoria, Canada, the Commonwealth Games has had some memorable moments.

But the storied history of the competition, which began in 1930 when 11 countries sent teams to the British Empire Games in Hamilton, Canada, may be coming to an end. Durban, the city due to host the last Commonwealth Games, and the putative host for the next one in 2026 – the Australian state of Victoria – both pulled out, leaving the organisation responsible for trying to run it, the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF), in disarray, with the very future of the event in question.

The most recent Games were held in Birmingham last year because Durban, which would have been the first African city to host it, was stripped of the contract in 2017 after the South African government said it could not meet its financial commitments. However, there was also criticism of the cost in Britain, with one local woman tweeting: ‘So Birmingham city council can’t even organise bins being emptied but they can organise a Commonwealth Games?’ The organising body for Birmingham claimed the Games would create about 35,000 jobs, though the real figure was rather lower, with the UK government announcing this year that the true figure was only 9,000 full-time jobs.

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The Birmingham Games were widely considered a success, with more than 1.5m tickets sold. However, it emerged two months ago that the local authority – the largest in Europe – had been advised in 2019 not to go ahead with the Games in order to resolve its financial problems. The city is now bankrupt and owes about £760m ($950m) – by coincidence, almost exactly the same amount as the projected cost of hosting the Games.

But the Birmingham Games were at least not riddled with the corruption and delays displayed when Delhi hosted them in 2010. A report by India’s auditor-general found that the final cost was $4.1bn (rather more than the original estimate of $270m), that ‘due diligence was conspicuously absent at all levels’, and that Delhi’s preparations had been ‘ill-conceived and ill-planned’. The head of the organising committee, Suresh Kalmadi, was later jailed for 10 months.

While costs exceeding estimates by a factor of 15 may be unique to Delhi, ballooning bills are a feature of most multi-sport events – Montreal’s debts for the 1976 Olympics were not paid off until 2006. So it was perhaps unsurprising that Victoria pulled out of hosting the 2026 Games in July. The Australian state’s premier, Daniel Andrews, said the cost had more than doubled from initial estimates of A$2.6bn ($1.8bn), adding: ‘I’ve made a lot of difficult decisions in this job, this is not one of them … we are not going to spend $6-7bn on a 12-day sporting event.’

The reaction in Australia was more about the issues raised by the debacle than any great regret for its loss, with commentators discussing the negative environmental impact and broken funding model of such events. An Australian commentator in the Spectator castigated Andrews for using the Games as a ‘cynical’ means to spend freely ahead of state elections and leverage those funds for voter-friendly renewal projects, but more typical was another columnist, this time in the Guardian Australia, expressing ‘indifference … about something not happening you forgot was even planned’ and dismissing the supposed beneficial spin-offs from an expensive ‘boondoggle’.

Though its reaction was couched in diplomatic language, the CGF was also understandably angry at the withdrawal, noting: ‘We are disappointed that we were only given eight hours’ notice’ that ‘the Victorian government has walked away from their agreement.’ It made clear its disapproval of Andrews’ decision to go for a ‘unique regional delivery model’, which involved building new temporary venues rather than using Australia’s wealth of sporting arenas. However, the CGF seems no closer to finding a city to step in for the 2026 Games, with a statement in the past week merely referring to ‘ongoing efforts to find a host’ and that it ‘aims to provide greater clarity on this front in early 2024’.

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Once – or if – the CGF finds somewhere for the next Games, it will then have to worry about replacing Alberta as the 2030 host, after it pulled out in August, citing soaring costs. Joseph Schow, minister of tourism and sport for the Canadian province, put the price tag at C$2.68bn ($1.96bn). ‘The corporate sponsorship model and limited broadcast revenues for the Commonwealth Games would have put 93% of those costs and risks on taxpayers,’ he said.

Katie Sadleir, CGF’s chief executive, put a brave face on it, with talk of ‘opportunities in the short-term’, but admitted that Alberta’s withdrawal was ‘not great news’. She told Insidethegames: ‘It has given us the opportunity to have a look at who is interested, but at the same time think about what we might do that might be quite different.’ Eye on the Commonwealth asked the CGF what these ‘opportunities’ might be, what the future of the Games might look like, and how they could be financed but did not receive any response.

One possibility may be for a drastically slimmed-down version of the Games, making a virtue of the fact that its two biggest competitions – swimming and athletics – are already just part of athletes’ training schedule for the Olympics or world championships. The Games are one of the few remaining areas to raise the profile of an increasingly invisible and moribund Commonwealth and give it a sense of relevancy. But in a world in which the cost of mounting international sporting events only makes sense if they can draw the broadcasting revenue and global interest of the World Cup or Olympics, the Commonwealth Games have truly become a modern-day white elephant – a gift bestowed by Siamese kings that inevitably proved ruinous.

John Oliver’s satirical show Last Week Tonight described the Games as: ‘A once-mighty nation gathering together the countries it lost and finding a way to lose to them once more’, beginning with an ‘off-Broadway version of the Olympic ceremonies’ (he could have been thinking of tartan-clad dancers twirling giant Tunnock’s teacakes at the 2014 Glasgow Games).

Oliver might also have mentioned the absurdity of tiny colonial-era dependencies competing as independent states, such as Gibraltar, the Isle of Man, Niue and Norfolk Island (the last two of which have a population between them of less than 4,000). Or the exorbitant expense of what many regard as merely a second-rate Olympics: the Delhi Games cost more than $940,000 for each of its 4,352 competitors.

Many sporting traditions disappear over time; tug-of-war and live pigeon shooting are among many categories long ago dropped from the Olympics. Sometimes sporting competitions reach the end of their natural span, too. Dozens of defunct multi-sports events have withered away through lack of interest (such as the Intercalated Games) or because they were marooned by tectonic shifts in geopolitics (such as the Workers’ Olympiads). The Commonwealth Games may also have reached the end of the road.

Oren Gruenbaum is a member of the Round Table editorial board