Attempting to drum up interest in a weird colonial hangover

The Commonwealth Games has been left to those nations that feel an irrational urge to celebrate historic conquest

The Commonwealth Games in Glasgow – a redundant historical hangover. Ashley McKenzie of England (white) beats John Buchanan of Scotland in the men’s judo 60kg quarter-final. Photograph: Richard Heathcote/Getty

The Commonwealth Games in Glasgow – a redundant historical hangover. Ashley McKenzie of England (white) beats John Buchanan of Scotland in the men’s judo 60kg quarter-final. Photograph: Richard Heathcote/Getty


Today we will be discussing something that almost certainly doesn’t interest you. (You can have “no change there” for free, amusing online commentator.) On Wednesday evening, the Commonwealth Games began in Glasgow. Anybody who’s touched base with BBC television over the last few days will have felt sympathy for the newsreaders and continuity announcers desperately attempting to drum up interest in this weird colonial hangover.

This is how parents sound when, at a toddler’s birthday party, they seek to direct attention to the cut-price, scary clown who’s arrived much the worse for tonic wine. Come on, kids. It’s fun.

If things had gone differently, the Republic of Ireland and the United States might have ended up as regular competitors at this quasi-global fete. After all, the British empire’s detachment from India, Malaysia and Kenya involved more than a little ill feeling, but those nations continue to send representatives. The US had moved on long before the Commonwealth became the apologetic dining club it is today.

Different versions of Ireland attended early “Empire Games” before the nation excused its way politely towards a formal republic. The jamboree was left to those nations that felt an irrational urge to celebrate historic conquest (or, let’s be charitable, hit back at the old oppressors by defeating them at water polo).

Just look at what we’re missing. Who wouldn’t want to go up against Niue in the egg-and-spoon race? Let’s hope that Norfolk Island manages to guess the weight of the cake. Heck, set beside these places, even Northern Ireland begins to sound like a real country.

‘Family of nations’

It’s rather as if the Olympic Games, honouring its own imperial heritage, invited entrants from Thrace, Phrygia and Parthia to fling their javelins in a state of ancient undress. We are happy that the fine city of Glasgow secured “I Can’t Believe it’s Not the Olympics”. Hats off to the athletes who win medals. But almost nobody outside the “family of nations” cares about the blasted thing.

John Oliver, English protege of Jon Stewart, put it succinctly on the HBO television show Last Week Tonight. “How is this still a thing?” he asked a US audience who, having never heard of “this”, were in no position to offer an answer.

“What the f*** are the Commonwealth Games, other than the winner of the creepiest mascot on Earth competition?”

For evidence that there is something to that last vaulting claim, seek out an image of Clyde the talking thistle. One can, indeed, reasonably argue that he is more disturbing than the alien foetuses from London 2012.

It’s not just the absence of so many first-rate sporting nations that repels those who long ago banished the queen from their shillings, dollars and ringgits. It’s the Commonwealth’s strange, antiquated definition of what constitutes nationhood.

Let us leave the Welsh, the Scottish and the Northern Irish to their continuing constitutional convolutions and ponder Jersey, Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands.

These are, I am certain, all fine places whose cafes serve decent cups of tea accompanied by good biscuits, but none troubles the United Nations with membership. You may as well invite the residents of Balham High Road, SW12, or the members of the Alice Springs Neighbourhood Watch to compete as a nation. Like does not compete with like.

The Falklands Islands owes its sense of discrete identity to its status as a British Overseas Territory. Try describing a Canadian’s home country in those terms and see how he or she reacts.

Yet the oddity is that, rather than regarding itself as a continuation of empire, the Commonwealth sees itself as an attempted corrective. True, the “realms” still honour Queen Elizabeth as their head of state. But when it comes to games, conferences and debates about sanctions, former colony deals with former coloniser as an equal. If that allows both sides to feel better about themselves, then that’s simply lovely for all concerned. However, none of it makes the continuing games seem any more vital.

Molly moan

We, of course, condemn the graffiti assault on Molly Malone’s embonpoint over the last week. The poor woman’s statue had just been restored to a new position on St Andrew’s Street when some yob elected to tag it in an intimate upper area.

The story does, however, give us the opportunity to lay down some facts for passing visitors. Despite its baffling status as a genuine tourist attraction, this object only arrived on the streets of Dublin in 1988. It is not our equivalent of Brussels’ charming Manneken Pis (circa 1618) or even Copenhagen’s underwhelming Little Mermaid (circa 1913).

Inspired by a Scottish novelty song, the edifice was constructed solely to offer tourists a space to stand when having their photographs taken. At least the Blarney stone is properly old.

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