Saturday 16 July 2022

Birmingham Beckons

When I mentioned several years ago that I was abandoning research into lgbt Paralympians to concentrate on Olympians I didn’t abandon parasports completely. One of my other sporting interests is the Commonwealth Games which, for several decades, have included various parasports.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Commonwealth Games here’s a brief explanation and history. What we now call the Commonwealth Games began in 1930 as the British Empire Games. It was actually first suggested in 1891 but nothing came of it, though it was one inspirations behind Pierre de Coubertin’s creation of the modern Olympics. The Commonwealth Games have been held every four years (except during the war) ever since 1930. The next games will be held in Birmingham, England, later this month, so I thought I’d write about the various lgbt contributions in its history to add to my previous articles on previous games – Gold Coast 2018 and Glasgow 2014. I’ll give the full list of lgbt Commonwealth athletes next month after the games have finished.

First of all, let’s get some facts straight. The Commonwealth not the British Empire under a different name. It originated during imperial times, that’s all. Many former British colonial possessions are not members of the Commonwealth (Ireland and the Arab states), and several nations that were never part of the British Empire are (Rwanda, Mozambique, Cameroon, and many others who are waiting to join). On a side note, Portugal and France have similar international games based on their own former colonial ties.

Just as the Olympics are preceded by a torch relay, the Commonwealth Games are preceded by the Queen’s Baton relay. The first baton relay was held in 1958 for the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, Wales. The baton relay was relatively small compared to the Olympic torch relay, but since 1998 it has gone to all Commonwealth nations and territories before reaching the host city. It is now bigger than the Olympic torch relay.

I’ve seen the baton relay twice. The first was in 1990 when it visited Gainsborough Old Hall, Lincolnshire, where I worked at the time. The second time was last Sunday, when it was carried on a canoe being paddled along Nottingham Canal and on to Nottingham Castle.

More often than not the relay has begun at Buckingham Palace. So far, only two lgbt athletes have been the baton bearers at the Palace. The first was Dame Kelly Holmes who was the first baton bearer in 2009 (for the 2010 games in Delhi). At the time, Dame Kelly was President of Commonwealth Games England. For the current baton relay the third baton bearer at the Palace was Lauren Price, an Olympic boxing champion from Tokyo 2020/1.

Sadly, the person who attended the start of the 2018 baton relay, proudly displaying the Pink Jack flag outside Buckingham Palace (pictured below) wasn’t there this year.

One of the Commonwealth Games I mentioned in one of my previous articles, the ones held in Melbourne in 1996, were one of my favourite. In particular, I thought the opening ceremony was the best I’d seen. This may have been because of the staging, but probably more because the athletes’ parade was split up into continental sections which made it feel shorter, even though it wasn’t. I shouldn’t have been surprised about liking the ceremony because so many of those involved in its creation also went on to be responsible for my favourite Olympic opening ceremony – Sydney 2000.

Starting off the 1996 Melbourne ceremony was a sequence directed by Nigel Triffitt (1949-2012), the openly gay co-founder of Tap Dogs, a tap dancing troupe who became very popular in the 1990 and 2000s. Triffitt’s segment for Melbourne didn’t involve a lot of dancing, but it did introduce people to Melbourne quite effectively, including starting with the entrance of an actual tram car with wings flying in from the top of the stadium.

Australia has done very well at the Commonwealth Games. It tops the medal table with a grand total of 2,415, which includes the top lgbt athlete, swimmer Ian Thorpe, who has 10 gold and 1 silver Commonwealth medal. Australia has also hosted the games more than anyone else (bearing in mind that England, Scotland and Wales are separate sporting nations). Australia has hosted the games five times, and will host it again in 2026.

Hosting an event like the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics has become increasingly expensive. Many host cities have withdrawn their bids for both games because of the cost, or because of opposition from local populations. Support from the local city council is, of course, crucial.

In 2007 Glasgow was chosen as the host of the 2014 Commonwealth Games. The leader of Glasgow City Council helped to launch the bid in 2005. His name was Steven Purcell, and he was one of the first openly lgbt council leaders in Scotland. He was instrumental in raising awareness, funds, and support for the games. Sadly, however, the pressure of the job forced him to resign in 2010. Other issues cause further stress and he resigned as council leader.

The Glasgow games followed the example of the London 2012 London Olympics by promoting and encouraging lgbt inclusion in all of its sports and events. It was also the first Commonwealth Games to have a Pride House.

Finally for today, the Commonwealth Games Federation set up the Commonwealth Sports Pride Network last December. This is a voluntary network of organisations and individuals who are bringing lgbt athletes and supporters together to enable sport to be more inclusive. This will be vital work in the campaign to influence change within the Commonwealth where many nations are still homophobic.

I hope you can watch some of the media coverage of the Commonwealth Games if you can’t get there in person. There’ll be plenty of top class elite sports on view. The games with end on 8th August, and I hope to complete the full list of athletes, medals and statistics about a week later.

Until then, Birmingham beckons.