Welcome to the Dissident Games
Posted: Mon, 15 Sep 2014 08:59
In the end, even Usain had a good time. But despite the unqualified success of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, many will continue to question the purpose of the event and its role in an ever more crowded sporting calendar. Comparisons with the Olympics are inevitable. How can the so-called 'friendly games' – an anachronism of Empire – ever compete with the International Olympic Committee's multi-billion dollar sporting monster? The smart answer is not to copy the Olympics, but instead to lead the way when it comes to multi-sports innovation.
Like all large institutions the Olympics has its weaknesses. Decision-making is slow; innovation is difficult to deliver and the rules governing the exploitation of commercial rights are incredibly strict. The event is also characterised by its rituals and formality: the honouring of flags, the solemn pledges and the treatment of senior IoC officials with a reverence that is usually reserved for royalty. This opens-up a brilliant opportunity for an agile, fleet-footed, creative challenger – a dissident thinker willing and able to embrace new sports, new ideas, new forms of partnership with commercial sponsors and new ways of connecting fans with athletes. The Commonwealth Games can never be bigger than the Olympics, but it can be smarter and more innovative. It can positively challenge the establishment or orthodox approach as personified by the IoC.
It is a philosophy that I helped Commonwealth Games England put into practice when planning and delivering our leg of this year's Queen's Baton Relay in England. We were faced with a pretty obvious challenge. How could our event hope to match the amazing spectacle of the 2012 Olympic Torch Relay with a fraction of the budget? The dissident solution was to focus on the one weak element of the Torch Relay: it was more about watching than doing. Millions of people turned out to watch the Torch's highly stage-managed progress across the country, but ultimately they were standing around and cheering whilst someone else – a local celebrity or community champion – did all of the work. As a platform to encourage sports participation, the Torch Relay was largely ineffective.
Instead of closing streets to allow the public to passively watch someone jog through their neighbourhood, we (supported by Sport England) challenged local authorities across the country to stage mass sports participation events, to which the baton would be taken, accompanied by an inspirational elite athlete. By the end of its two-week stay in England, around a quarter of a million people – especially children – had participated in some form of grassroots sporting activity organised by the local authorities and sporting bodies. For a fraction of the cost, we delivered something that was truly different rather than simply a poor imitation of the Torch Relay.
This is the type of dissident, creative thinking that should characterise future Commonwealth Games, underpinned by a willingness to question every facet of the event. Just because the IoC does things in a particular way, it doesn't mean that the CGF has to follow suit. The Commonwealth Games is already at its strongest when it goes its own way - such as showcasing sports such as netball and squash that have been hitherto ignored by the IoC - or combining the Opening Ceremony with a multi-million pound fundraising initiative for UNICEF, which was one of the more interesting innovations introduced during the Glasgow Games.
A dissident begins by asking 'Why do things have to be this way?'. I would encourage the Commonwealth Games Federation to embrace this line of questioning and challenge the orthodoxies that underpin the event. Why should the Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony copy the flag waving, pledge-giving, speech-making pomposity of the Olympics? Why shouldn't new and exciting sports, such as skateboarding, surfing and roller hockey – be included in the schedule? Why can't the fans be connected more closely with the athletes? Why can't elite and mass participation events take place side-by-side – as is the case with the world's leading city Marathons – which means allowing host cities organise a fun run and mass cycle ride on the marathon and road racing courses after the elite athletes have started their races?
Having asked the question 'why?', the dissident then asks 'why not?', which means applying a structured and analytical approach to reviewing and then enhancing every facet of the athlete, spectator and sponsor experience. As is the case with most major sports events, this needs to include new ways of leveraging the power of technology, enhancing the social and economic legacy of the event, encouraging new, more spectator-friendly sporting formats and establishing more effective, mutually-beneficial partnerships with commercial sponsors.
If it thinks like a dissident the Commonwealth Games has a bright future: not only as a standalone event, but also as an incubator for new ideas on the staging and marketing of elite sport. If it breaks free of the shackles of orthodox or conventional thinking it can become a beacon for innovation, a paragon of transparency and a showcase for the transformative power of sport. It can engage new audiences, attract new sponsors and convince athletes and their performance directors that it represents an appropriate stage for their talents. It can positively challenge the sporting establishment and redefine the role of sport within society. It is an exciting opportunity. Let's see if the Commonwealth Games can meet the challenge.
Martin Thomas was writing for The Sports Think Tank in a private capacity and not in his official role as non-executive director of Commonwealth Games England