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A global sporting spectacle spawned by a Letter to the Editor (IANS Backgrounder)

By Sourish Bhattacharya

New Delhi, July 23 (IANS) It was a Letter to the Editor of ‘The Times’ of London in 1891 by John Astley Cooper, described by his contemporaries as “a propagandist for athleticism”, in 1891 that planted the seed of the idea that became the Commonwealth Games, the biggest multi-sport spectacle today after the Olympics.

Cooper made a robust case for a “Pan-Britannic-Pan-Anglican Contest and Festival every four years as a means of increasing goodwill and good understanding of the British Empire”. But it was Baron Pierre de Coubertin who first acted on the idea and after of course modifying it, launched the Olympic Movement.

The original idea, which found a distant promoter in Richard Coombes in Australia (Cooper was born in Adelaide before his family moved to England), was brought to life as the Inter-Empire Championship in 1911 to coincide with the coronation of King George V, which Indians will remember for the Durbar that was held at the Red Fort in Delhi, which was attended by the British monarch and his wife. It was at this Durbar that the king announced the shifting of the capital of British India from Calcutta to New Delhi.

The Inter-Empire Championship was a “grievous disappointment”, as a journalist from the ‘Auckland Star’ wrote, with teams from the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and South Africa participating in a limited number of events. Then came the tumultuous World War I, and by the time the world recovered from it, Cooper’s idea was consigned to history’s footnotes.

But then came Melville Marks ‘Bobby’ Robinson, the sports editor of the Canadian newspaper, ‘The Hamilton Spectator’, who went to the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam as manager of his country’s track and field team.

At the Olympics, riled by the behaviour of the Americans and the Germans, who obviously did better far than athletes from the British Empire, Robinson lobbied for a British Empire Games to be launched in his home city in 1930.

When his idea got the green light, Cooper claimed much of the credit and said that his aim had been “to show through a festival of sport and culture that Anglo-Saxons ruled the world”. Unfortunately, he died six months before the first British Empire Games were flagged off on August 16, 1930, in Hamilton, Ontario, by the then Governor-General of Canada, Lord Willingdon, who later served as the Viceroy of British India between 1931 and 1936.

Ironically, far removed Cooper’s vision, in the 2022 Commonwealth Games, the overwhelming majority of the 72 participating nations are not Anglo-Saxon; the city in which they are being held, Birmingham, has Britain’s highest population of people of Indian origin; and the host country, England, is in the middle of a contest for the Prime Minister’s office where one of the two contenders is of British African Indian origin, a devout Hindu, and is married to the daughter of one of the pioneers of India’s infotech success story.

India was not among the 11 nations and territories that participated in the 1930 British Empire Games, but it opened its account in 1934, when the Games, inaugurated by King George V, were held in London. And India also got its first medal — a Bronze for a now-forgotten wrestler, Rashid Anwar, in the welterweight division. All that we know about Anwar is that he was born in 1910 and died in 1983 in Camden, UK.

India also participated in the 1938 Games held at the Sydney Cricket Ground to also celebrate the 150th anniversary of the founding of Australia. The contingent returned home without a medal — and the Games then went into a limbo only to return after 12 years in 1950.

India, however, did not join the 1950 British Empire Games in Vancouver, Canada, maybe because all its efforts and budgets had been taken up by the then-upcoming Asian Games, which were first held in New Delhi in 1951. Interestingly, Pakistan opened its account with the 1950 Games and picked up six medals.

In 1954, the British Empire Games became the British Empire and Commonwealth Games and India was back in the fray. The Games will be remembered forever before it was there that gold medallist Roger Bannister (England) and silver medallist John Landy (Australia) became the first humans to run a mile in less than four minutes.

The event, televised live across the world for the first time, became known as the ‘Miracle Mile’ and is commemorated by a statue of Bannister and Landis that still stands in Vancouver. The Indian contingent came back empty handed.

The next British Empire and Commonwealth Games, held in Cardiff, Wales, in 1958 is memorable for India because of Milkha Singh’s historic gold medal in the 440 yards race (but more of that in Part II).

But the 1958 Games will be remembered for the letter written by many leading sports stars, including Stanley Matthews, Jimmy Hill and Don Revie, to ‘The Times’ on July 17, 1958, slamming the presence of white-only South African sports. Perhaps in the first show of athletes uniting for a political cause, the signatories opposed “the policy of apartheid” in international sport and defended “the principle of racial equality which is embodied in the Declaration of the Olympic Games”.

India missed the 1962 Games — obviously because of the government’s preoccupation with the border war with China — but it returned in 1966 (Kingston, Jamaica). India managed a rich haul of 10 medals, including a silver in hammer Praveen Kumar, who’ll forever be remembered for playing Bhim in the televised ‘Mahabharata’.

The Games were renamed the British Commonwealth Games in 1970. The event in Edinburgh, Scotland, saw Queen Elizabeth II attend the Games for the first time since her coronation in 1952 in her capacity as the Head of the Commonwealth of Nations. And in 1978 (Edmonton, Canada), the Games got the name that they have carried since then — Commonwealth Games. They were boycotted by Nigeria in protest against New Zealand’s sporting links with South Africa and Uganda, for Canada’s hostility towards the regime of the dictator Idi Amin.

But the biggest-ever boycott took place in 1986, when 32 African, Asian and Caribbean nations, including India, stayed away from the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh to protest against the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s stern refusal to snap sporting ties with apartheid-era South Africa.

Since, the Commonwealth Games have grown bigger and stronger, and haven’t seen political controversies on this scale, except in India, where the 2010 edition was marred by rampant mismanagement and allegations of corruption against the organising committee members. But the Games survived with their sheen intact.

(Tomorrow: When Nehru declared a national holiday to fete Milkha Singh)

–IANS

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