Sporting achievements at the Commonwealth Games cannot distract from Britain’s colonial sins | Tumaini Carayol

AAt 8.30am on Friday morning, with the sun rising over Birmingham, the Commonwealth Games action will begin. Even in a competition contested by a limited group of countries with notable athlete absences, there will be great performances and heartwarming moments. Supreme displays of athletics will be complemented by breakthroughs from those who have few opportunities to shine on such grand stages. It can be quite pleasant for some to forget the organization that the Games represent.

These were formerly known as the British Empire Games, British Empire and Commonwealth Games, then British Commonwealth Games. What suddenly presented itself as an event for Britain and its colonies is now a useful tool for Britain to distract from its past ills, presenting itself as a more compassionate nation compared to others. former imperial powers, the country that dismantled its empire to become friends with former subjects.

The Royal Family, with Queen Elizabeth II still at the helm of the Commonwealth, often positions itself as gracefully bringing nations together under one roof. A transformation has taken place without ever fully addressing the lasting effects of slavery and colonialism on many of the countries that are part of it.

Wealth, of course, is not common. The vast majority of Commonwealth countries are former colonies and 14, with the exception of Great Britain, are still officially ruled by the British Royal Family. Relations between nations are hierarchical, with major power imbalances within. Canada, Australia and New Zealand are of much more interest to Britain than any country in Africa or the Caribbean.

Even since the last Commonwealth Games just four years ago, the world has changed enough to make this a particularly remarkable moment for the return of the Games to Britain. So many Commonwealth realms are contemplating and seeking to redefine their relationship with the country on their terms. Barbados’ decision to become a republic last year set off a chain reaction of change, with Jamaica, Saint Kitts and Nevis and Antigua and Barbuda all openly discussing the possibility of the sequel.

Celebrations in Bridgetown as Barbados becomes a republic in November 2021
Celebrations in Bridgetown as Barbados becomes a republic in November 2021. Photograph: Reuters

The ill-fated Royal Platinum Jubilee tours only heightened those feelings. As the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited Belize, Jamaica and the Bahamas in March, their presence inadvertently gave center stage to protesters and other citizens working to expose the lasting damage that colonialism inflicted on their countries. Others have pointed out that the wealth and luxury that allows the royal family to roam their country was built on the backs of their ancestors.

Then came the visits to Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Saint Lucia by Prince Edward and Sophie, Countess of Wessex, with demanding protests, apologies and reparations from of Great Britain until their departure. When Gaston Browne, the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, calmly explained to Prince Edward why they ask for restorative help to deal with the long-term effects of colonialism, Edward responded with a pitiful joke and laughter.

The betrayal of the Windrush generation remains in the forefront of people’s minds. As the flags of Commonwealth countries flutter at Alexander Stadium, it will be hard not to think of the treatment of the former citizens of these countries and their descendants, who were drawn to these shores for their talents and skills. They settled down and lived full lives, but Britain spent much of the 2010s trying to evict them. Only public shame led the government to alter some aspects of its cruel immigration policy, by which time many lives had been permanently altered and it was far too late.

Other issues are also at play, such as the fact that more than half of the countries present at the Games criminalize homosexuality, which will spark protests in Birmingham on Thursday. These laws and attitudes were initially implemented by Britain itself, homophobia imported through colonization, another branch of the colonial legacy.

LGBT+ protest at Aston Hall as the Queen's Baton Relay arrives on the day of the Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony.
LGBT+ protesters at Aston Hall as the Queen’s Baton Relay arrives on the day of the Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

On the grounds, pools and track, the Commonwealth Games will thrive. Whether played in front of large crowds or not, contested by a select small group of countries or the entire world, there are always tensions and risks in sport. There are also other positive and distinguishing characteristics, from the integration of athletes with disabilities to the gender balance in medal events and even simply the spirit of togetherness between athletes.

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But this is a time when the relevance of the Games has long been questioned for a variety of reasons, including the costs of hosting such an event. The consequences of this year’s edition included the short-term displacement of homeless families staying in Birmingham hotels.

Its relevance must also be scrutinized because of the weight of history. It is particularly notable in Birmingham, a city home to many African, Caribbean and Asian immigrant communities who originate from Commonwealth countries and who over the decades have experienced many reminders of the fragility of their Britishness in the eyes of the government. It is not possible to separate the Commonwealth and its Memory Games from the British Empire from which it originated.


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