Commonwealth Games must confront the truth about its sportswashing past

The Commonwealth Games ought to be prefaced with one of those warnings about outdated attitudes, like the kind Disney have attached to the beginning of its old movies. They could run it before the opening ceremony, right before they bring on Simon Le Bon. “These Games were predicated on the mistreatment of people and cultures.”

The first were held in Hamilton in 1930, but have roots that go back beyond that into the Victorian era. In the official timeline, it was an Anglican clergyman called J Astley Cooper who first floated the idea for a “pan-Britannic festival of culture and sport” in a series of public letters published in 1891.

Cooper died a few months before the first Empire Games were held, but did such a good job of talking up his contribution that he’s gone down as their inventor, although a lot of the actual organising was done by the Canadian journalist and administrator Melville Marks Robinson. Cooper also claimed the credit for persuading Cecil Rhodes to establish his scholarships and for the Triangular Tournament of Test cricket contested by England, Australia and South Africa in 1912.

The three men were all part of the same plan to foster “manly qualities” like “truth, courage, devotion to duty, kindliness, unselfishness and fellowship” in the Dominions.

“You have an object lesson of what is in my mind if one looks at cricket,” Cooper said in an interview published in the Observer in March 1929. “Unless you have been and lived among black people, as I have, you can have no idea of what a wonderful moral and disciplinary effect cricket has on the black races entrusted to our charge.” Maybe the organisers could use that quote in one of their big-screen montages too.

There weren’t any African or Asian nations at the 1930 Games. India were invited, but preferred to go to the Far Eastern Championship Games in Tokyo. They made it to the second, but it was another 16 years before any black African athletes took part. The Games were supposed to be held in Johannesburg in 1934, but they were taken away and given to London after Canada raised concerns about the way their black athletes were likely to be treated in racially segregated South Africa. More than 70 years later, the Games still haven’t been held on the continent. This one would have been the first, if it had gone ahead in Durban as planned.

The Games were going back and forth over apartheid through to its end. There were threatened boycotts in 1970, 1974, and 1982 and an actual one in 1978, when Nigeria stayed away in protest at New Zealand playing sport with South Africa. It got worse. After the Springboks toured New Zealand in 1981, Jamaica successfully proposed a new Commonwealth Code of Conduct that meant nations could be banned from competing in the Games if they violated the 1977 Gleneagles Agreement to withhold support for teams and sports from South Africa. Which didn’t stop the Rugby Football Union from sending England there on tour in 1984.

The English Commonwealth Games Council were supposed to write a letter of protest to the RFU. They refused to do it. Then they tried to rewrite the new Commonwealth Code of Conduct too, but failed. Somehow England still managed to end up competing at the Edinburgh Games in 1986, which 32 nations boycotted in protest.

But then, the object of the Games had changed by the time they were founded. As the Observer explained back in 1930, they were largely about making us look good. “The British empire has been likened unto a family of nations: the mother country and her offspring scattered the world over … it is wise to maintain the idea of unity by careful cultivation, lest the attrition of time take effect.” They were, in the words of the historian Katharine Moore “a way to reconfirm and redefine” the empire. Through the 20th century they served to sportswash its reputation, a “friendly Games” between nations whose abiding connection is that they were all colonised by the same one.

The Commonwealth Games Federation had no choice but to try to move on from all this in the last few years, as part of a wider effort to reinvent the Commonwealth. It is all about shared values now: “equality, humanity, destiny”. The website even mentions the “historical injustice” of the empire. Worthwhile as it is, the effect is inevitably a little watery, like listening to one of those royal speeches about the “profound sorrow” of slavery. In Birmingham, protesters have already described these as the “Plantation Games” in the local press.

In the era of the Windrush scandal, when people are tearing down statues of slave traders, when Barbados has become a republic and Jamaica is pressing the case for reparations for the slave trade, what’s the role of a Commonwealth Games that is sold on the promise that it is a celebration of common values with the nations we once exploited? Like all these mega-events, it’s meant to help shape our sense of ourselves as a nation. Once the usual legacy promises about urban regeneration and sports participation are stripped away, what value do the Games have unless they’re part of a genuine attempt to reckon with our own unconfronted history?

“My idea was they would be a family gathering,” Cooper said. “We could all meet and get a clear insight into affairs which concerned us and a better understanding of each other’s problems.”

If you’re English, sit down: this might take a while.