As I write this, thousands of people are having a whale of a time in Birmingham. They are the Commonwealth athletes, and there are over 5,000 of them. Add to that the supporters of the 72 teams involved, either arriving with their team or living in Britain, and you’ve got an awful lot of happy, excited people.
It’s called the Commonwealth Games but it started out as the British Empire games. One John Astley Cooper first proposed the games in 1891, as a “Pan Brittanic, Pan Anglican Contest every four years as a means of increasing goodwill and understanding of the British Empire”. They started as the British Empire Games, then became the British Empire and Commonwealth Games, and now the Commonwealth Games. Some call them ‘The Friendly Games’.
If you watched the opening ceremony on TV you’ll have been impressed by the show put on and the quality of its presentation on the B(ritish) BC. These were the descendants of those once ruled by Britain (or more exactly England), and if you can think of a better example of soft power, let me know.
It wasn’t always like this. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, thousands of British families made massive fortunes through the slave trade. In Kenya, Britain established concentration camps (yes, long before the Nazis, Virginia) with one and a half million Kenyans imprisoned in them. In India, several famines killed over five million people, even as grain exports left the country. In Tibet, the British Indian army with its machine guns faced Tibetan insurgents with ancient muskets. In one typical clash, over 700 Tibetans died while 12 British soldiers were wounded.
In Cyprus during the 1950s, 3,000 ordinary Cypriots were rounded up, interned for years without trial, during which time they received beatings, waterboarding and summary executions. In Iraq in the 1920s, the RAF carried out night-time bombing raids on civilians, following up with chemical weapons and gassing whole groups of insurgents.
Iraq, of course, is not a member of the British Commonwealth. But, to take one example of a country that is – Kenya. When Kenya asserted its right to independence, thousands were flogged, raped, castrated and/or hanged.
You’ll find no mention of any of these appalling crimes in the presentation of the Commonwealth Games. The story they present is of a civilizing British Empire/British Commonwealth bringing the benefits of civilization to far-flung corners of the world, and the people of these grateful countries coming gladly to the mother country to celebrate their historical relationship.
Does it work? Do the competitors see Britain as their kindly mother and Queen Elizabeth as their much-loved monarch? Probably not.
For the great majority of the athletes competing, history can take care of itself – they’re here to have a good time and if possible win medals. Who could blame them? The same applies to players with Newcastle United football club, which is owned and financed by Saudi Arabia, or Manchester City by Abu Dhabi. To say that the human rights record of these countries is imperfect is like saying that Hitler liked to visit other countries.
It’s called sportswashing, and just as Britain was using concentration camps decades before Dachau or Belsen, so too Britain has for decades led the field in sportswashing through its Commonwealth Games
Oh come on, you old sourpuss. We’re all friends now and don’t mention the Empire.