Commonwealth Games: differentiate to survive

Looking beyond the construction delays in Delhi as the city prepares  for the forthcoming Commonwealth Games, there are some useful lessons for the future of major multi-sport events.

The Times of India is one of many news outlets that has covered in detail the scramble to finish preparations in time for the opening of the Games on 3 October. It has featured a number of stories about athletes withdrawing, sometimes blaming minor injuries, sometimes explicitly citing potential risks to their health.

The first and perhaps biggest name to withdraw was sprinter Usain Bolt (focusing on 2011). He has been followed by numerous elite competitors including  British cyclists such as Chris Hoy (clash with European Championships), Australian discus thrower Dani Samuels (concerns about health and safety), tennis player Elena Baltacha (health worries), and many others.

The clue is in the sports of the high profile absentees:
- Athletics – this is the only year in a four year cycle without either a World Championships or Olympic Games (and there were European Championships this year) so athletes want to have a rest
- Cycling – the European Championships clashes with the Commonwealth Games and has become an important event for Olympic qualification
- Tennis – with the focus on the four Grand Slam events, players have often appeared indifferent to the Olympic Games and other multi-sport events featuring tennis

It is noticeable that there are far fewer absentees in sports such as rugby 7s, netball, hockey, swimming and indeed the para-sport events on the Commonwealth Games programme in athletics, swimming, table tennis and power lifting.

These are all sports which have room in their calendar for the Commonwealth Games and which draw many of their top athletes from the eligible countries. From a British perspective there is also the interest of seeing England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland plus Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man compete in separate teams.

While athletics and tennis draw big television audiences for their biggest events, they will not do so in the absence of their star performers. I would argue that multi-sport competitions such as the Asian Games, Pan-American Games and others would benefit from differentiating more in their sports programmes and schedules.

Attempts to cut sports from major events will always be met with resistance – few stakeholders will vote for their own abolition – but innovation can bring success. The Commonwealth Games was the first to introduce rugby 7s to a multi-sport event and it is now on the Olympic programme. Similarly, the recent Youth Olympic Games in Singapore trialled new formats such as combined male/female relay events, which were well-received.

It is inevitable that hard-pressed athletes will pick and choose major championships in an over-crowded calendar. For event owners it is better to acknowledge that fact and to look for ways to differentiate than to imitate the Olympic Games and fall short.

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