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Soup of This Day #387: The Tracksuits Are Old

July 28, 2014

Arc Health and Wellbeing Facility
The hanger-like structure that dominates this photo is Glasgow Caledonian University’s Arc Health and Wellbeing Facility, home to Glasgow Roller Derby – Photo: Knwwsss, 2009. Knwwsss is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

Last night I saw a tweet that asked whether roller derby should be included as a sport in the Commonwealth Games. This informal proposal drew out some conflicting feelings from me – Predominantly excitement and doubt. On the one hand, I’m thinking, hell yes, because roller derby is some kind of awesome. The part that I’m doubting isn’t roller derby.

It’s the Commonwealth Games.

Which is awkward because the Commonwealth Games are a reasonably significant sporting occurrence and as it happens they are currently upon us – This time around in Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow.

Some background might be required – The Commonwealth Games are a multi-sport festival, sort of like the Olympics. They are more exclusive than the latter though because they are only open to the nations who are, or who have at one time been, members of the Commonwealth of Nations (Formerly the British Commonwealth) and who haven’t totally annoyed Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, Queen of Australia and Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, or her predecessors.

To be accurate, it isn’t just nations who are eligible to compete – Currently there are 53 of those but there are 71 teams. The difference is explained by the inclusion of dependant territories, such as the Isle of Man.

The Queen of Australia is also the Lord of Mann. She gets around and she needs to as the 53 member states (and dependant territories) of the Commonwealth of Nations together field almost a third of the world’s total population.

Which is a lot of people, however the Commonwealth Games don’t resonate as heavily with me as those weighty numbers would suggest. As an Australian this could maybe be seen as sacrilegious thinking on my part – I grew up as an Aussie kid steeped in a culture of sporting excellence. My earliest memory of any sporting Games was that of the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games, and specifically of a inspired kangaroo mascot called Matilda. For the opening ceremony a 13m tall Matilda was powered around Brisbane’s Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Sports Centre, powered by a modified fork-lift truck and winking at the crowd.

Sidebar: The map formed by participants in that ceremony, while ‘I Still Call Australia Home’ is played, is missing Tasmania. Which is awkward*. Also, yes, Matilda is a trojan kangaroo with what now looks to be a lascivious wink. The concept of using such a vessel to infiltrate Australia’s hearts will appear somewhat ironic later in this post.

So the Commonwealth Games should be a special occurrence for me. That they’re not, that the resonance just isn’t there for me, is down to some core reasons:

The first is that, sporting wise, the Commonwealth of Nations doesn’t exactly punch it’s weight. In the most recent Olympics, the 2012 London edition, Commonwealth member states won just 179 of 962 medals on offer. The four biggest member states by population (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nigeria), who together account for 1.7 billion people (~77% of the Commonwealth), won just 6 medals between them.

Or between India actually. Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nigeria won nowt.

True, there were some stand-outs in there for the Queen – 56 of 302 gold medals went ‘Her’ way. Pitch a Commonwealth Games contingent from the likes of the island nation of Niue, whose total population is around the 1,600 mark, against those kinds of World’s best performances and you could argue that there is a real David verses Goliath struggle going on.

A contest between David and Goliath is something most of us enjoy. As a parable anyway. There are certainly some David’s and Davinia’s in the 2014 Commonwealth Games – Apart from Niue, the Falklands Islands has a population of not much more than 2,000, while others such as Nauru and Tuvalu have only around 10,000 citizens to choose their sporting stars from.

Nauru’s most popular sport, Australian rules football, isn’t even played at the Commonwealth Games and they don’t have a competition-standard swimming pool or athletics track.

The commensurate Goliaths though are few and far between. Mostly what we have are lower-league Goliath’s – Decent athletes to be sure, but not tall enough that a sporting slingshot between the eyes is as memorable for the neutral.

This is not the primary reason that I feel uncomfortable when it comes to the Commonwealth Games though. That dubious honour goes to the heart of the Commonwealth of Nations, and in particular how that grouping came about. A clue to this can be found in the name of the Commonwealth Games when they first began in 1930. Then, they were the Empire Games, celebrating the glory and fostering understanding of what was then the British Empire.

Australia was seen at the time as a prime example of this great cultural movement. The British had arrived around 150 years before that first Games and had in the intervening time settled and civilised this wide land.

Except that the land had already been settled for at least 50,000 years before they’d arrived and across that age had consequentially got a whole lot civilised in such a way that it’s inhabitants had forged an extraordinary kind of relationship with their lands. This harmonious enterprise was then royally buggered up by the invasion of the British, a tale sadly replicated across a number of Commonwealth nations and something we’re now tacitly celebrating via a sporting festival.


Imagine if we’d applied that ethos to other empires. We could have the Vandal Games, named for the people who were seen as so barbaric in their acquisition of territories that we remember them today as a byword for mindless destruction. Or we could have the Viking Games, honouring the Norse seafarers who raided and invaded large parts of Europe, and who, thanks to Leif Erikson, also made it across to North America. Such a Games would then involve the powerful US team, surely leading to a greater sporting spectacle.

Yep it’s all fun in the friendly Viking Games until some beserker pokes an eye out with a höggspjót and then it’s, what a heavy, pointy, ramming thing you have on the prow of your longship.

And that’s just the historical bastardry we’re referencing. Now in 2014, 42 of the 53 participating nations have laws that make it a crime to be gay. In Uganda for instance the parliament passed a law in 2013 offering life imprisonment for those found to have engaged in homosexual acts. That sentence is even on the lenient side – They were not far off making it death.

Ian Thorpe is arguable Australia’s greatest ever male competitive swimmer. At the 2002 Commonwealth Games he won an astonishing 6 gold medals. He’s also gay and so if he were to live in four out of five Commonwealth nations he’d be a criminal. Were he to live in Nauru, he’d face up to 14 years hard labour for being open about his sexuality.

Even if he’d kept it hidden he’d still have been stifled by the lack of a swimming pool.

So after some thought I’ve come to the conclusion that the Commonwealth Games is no place for the progressive and awesome roller derby. Think big I reckon, and that rules out the Commonwealth Games, because ‘thinking’ is stifled and the ‘big’ just isn’t big enough.

Oh, and @#$% you, Parliament of Uganda. Royally.

*Not half as uncomfortable as it now is looking back at Rolf Harris. Evil.

The Tracksuits Are Old

  1. I have long been familiar with the Commonwealth Games but am a true newbie to the statistic you offered up about how many of the participating countries have anti-gay laws…and to the extreme at that. Roller Derby has been making a bit of a comeback in these parts lately on a local level. Philadelphia was represented by a franchise in the sport when it was “big” in the 70’s. Matches even on TV. However, much like wrestling there were many questions about the events being scripted. Actually…there weren’t that many because anyone could see the competition was for amusement purposes only. The sport now, on a much smaller scale, appears to being competed for real.

    • I don’t get scripted sport so I’m glad that roller derby is moving away from that. Meanwhile at the time of writing, at the Commonwealth Games the top 10 medal-winning countries so far have won 422 of 481 medals. Australia alone has 101 while England has 96. If only we could turn those efforts towards human rights…

      Thanks for reading and commenting – Tis much appreciated and a highlight of posting.

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