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Inclusion wins at the 2022 Commonwealth Games

7 min read

With the largest ever female and para-sport programme, plus new rules on competitors’ right to protest, inclusion and advocacy are the winners at this month’s Commonwealth Games. Marilyn Wright reports

Should sport and politics mix? It is a question as old as time – or at least 532 AD. Back then, chariot racers in Constantinople (now Istanbul) asked Emperor Justinian I to pardon two men condemned to die. His refusal led to the Nika riots in which 30,000 people lost their lives and half the city was burnt to the ground. 

Athletes in modern times have also been moved to highlight social injustice. The repercussions may not have been on the scale of the Byzantine era, but their actions have not passed without incident. 

At the 1994 Commonwealth Games, when indigenous Australian sprinter Cathy Freeman won the 400m and proudly held aloft both the Australian and Aboriginal flags on her victory lap, she was told if she repeated her celebration in future events she would be sent home. 

Despite the threat of expulsion, Freeman wound the flags together and paraded them once again after winning the 200m days later.

Freeman later said she was simply seeking to encourage young indigenes to make something of their lives, “to achieve something”. “I wanted to shout, ‘Look at me. Look at my skin. I’m Black, and I’m the best.’ There was no more shame,” she said in her biography, Cathy: Her Own Story.

It is the continuing desire among professional athletes to use their profile to raise awareness and initiate change that has led to a seismic shift in the rules at this month’s Commonwealth Games. For the first time, athletes will be allowed to flex their protest muscles without fear of official sanction. 

Under new “Athlete Advocacy Guidelines”, the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) is allowing competitors to highlight issues they feel strongly about, especially around racism, sexual orientation or social injustice. 

Trying to develop inclusion is often not quick or easy, but having more medals events for women and disabled people sends a very strong message

Competitors can raise a fist on the podium in support of racial equality, for instance, and hold rainbow flags in favour of LGBT+ rights. The 5,054 athletes taking part in the Games in Birmingham from 28 July to 8 August will also be permitted to wear clothing, armbands and badges on the podium to show solidarity with a cause. 

One cause that’s likely to be a hot topic is the participation of transgender athletes. The CGF’s decision to adhere to the gender guidelines put in place by international federations means the ruling by swimming’s world governing body, Fina, to bar transwomen from elite female competitions if they have experienced any part of male puberty will kick in for this year’s Commonwealth Games, leading to much debate on both sides.

And while some acts of advocacy will be contentious in some parts of the world – Pride flags will send a strong message, for example, when homosexuality is illegal in 36 of the 72 countries represented at this year’s event – all protests must conform to the CGF “Charter of Good Conduct” and be carried out in “a tolerant and positive way”. Hate messages, protests aimed at a specific organisation, person or country – such as defacing a national flag on the podium – remain forbidden.

The move towards athlete advocacy has brought praise from competitors and human rights campaigners, but there is potential for backlash. The trend for sportspeople to weigh in on divisive subjects and insert politics where many don’t expect it, or want it, is not welcomed by all.

Sport provides a respite from political disharmony and a brief distraction from the serious issues of the day. By encouraging athlete advocacy, the CGF risks diluting one of the most powerful aspects of sport – the fun and relief from day-to-day stress. So, is there any place for politics at an event that is, after all, known as the “Friendly Games”?

“It is the belief of the Commonwealth Games Federation that athlete advocacy and activism humanises, rather than politicises, sport,” says CGF president Dame Louise Martin. “I am proud of our approach to help strengthen the athlete voice. We want to encourage the positive, not police the negative.” 

This new ruling on athlete activism is not the only innovation at this year’s Games. “Birmingham 2022 is setting records before a medal has been won,” Commonwealth Games minister Nigel Huddleston tells The House.

“It will be the greenest Commonwealth Games and the fastest – delivered in four and a half years rather than the usual seven. And, perhaps most importantly, it is the most inclusive Commonwealth Games ever. Birmingham 2022 will have the biggest para-sport programme and more medals open to women than men for the first time at any major sports event.”

These enlightened policies have grabbed the headlines, but they’ve also led to concerns the event could be rebranded the “Common-woke Games”. 

“I don’t think anybody has ever called me ‘woke’,” Mike Wood, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Commonwealth Games, tells The House. “But everybody in the APPG agrees that sport should be open to everybody.”

As MP for Dudley South, Wood is proud of the fact the Games will be the largest sporting event the West Midlands has ever hosted, and he’s keen to ensure all his constituents feel the benefit. 
He tells The House his aim is to “maximise the opportunities these Games can bring for those who live in the West Midlands but who are very much excluded, for many reasons, from mainstream society”. 

He continues: “We are working very closely with schools, voluntary groups and employers to use these Games as a catalyst to bring these communities into the mainstream and fully involve those who may be inspired by the Games and the opportunities they bring the West Midlands.”

Inclusivity is certainly high on the Birmingham 2022 agenda. The addition of beach volleyball (which debuted at the 2018 Games in Sydney), women’s T20 cricket and para table tennis to the sporting programme means Birmingham will outdo previous Commonwealth Games for female and para representation. 

It’s a move supported by Preet Gill, vice-chair of the Commonwealth Games APPG. “Having true representation and gender balance among all sectors is what we must strive for,” Gill says. “As the first Sikh female MP, I myself have set out to be a role model to others, and this is exactly what these athletes will be achieving at these Games.”

The Labour and Co-operative Party MP for Birmingham, Edgbaston continues: “I’m proud that my city is one of the most diverse cities in the UK. These Games are a fantastic opportunity for all of us to gain a deeper understanding of the lives of others and the challenges we face.” 

Perhaps nowhere will those challenges be more obvious than the arena of para sports. The Birmingham Games will feature an unprecedented eight sports – athletics, cycling, powerlifting, swimming, table tennis, triathlon, 3x3 wheelchair basketball and lawn bowls. All a far cry from the early experiences of three-time Commonwealth Games competitor Baroness Grey-Thompson.

“I have watched over the years as the Commonwealth Games has evolved and brought in events for disabled athletes,” the crossbench peer tells The House. “From my first Games, where we just about had ‘demonstration’ status – couldn’t stay in the village, or wear team kit, or receive the same medals – to be at the stage where there is a decent level of inclusion is fantastic. Long may it continue.”

Is this the start of a new era in sport? “Trying to develop inclusion is often not quick or easy, but having more medals events for women and disabled people sends a very strong message to each competing country that they need to do more to develop and offer more support,” Grey-Thompson adds.

With just days to go before the opening ceremony, the dial is turning towards inclusion, diversity and encouraging athletes to use their voice on social issues. Freeman’s governing body, Commonwealth Games Australia, now describes her as “one of the greatest athletes of our time”, whose actions “started a national conversation”. 

If an athlete were to unfurl the Aboriginal flag during their victory lap at this year’s Commonwealth Games, they would be met with cheers rather than threats of punishment. It seems Birmingham 2022 is set to break boundaries as well as records. 

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