At the Commonwealth Games, Competing for Medals and Relevance

A temporary stadium for beach volleyball was built at Coolangatta Beachfront for the Commonwealth Games.

GOLD COAST, Australia — Amid the skyscrapers and coastline of Surfers Paradise here, you can spot a large surfboard with a digital clock, determinedly counting down. The Commonwealth Games will descend this week onto the Gold Coast’s beaches, bringing with it the world’s best athletes and nagging questions of relevance, competitiveness and economic impact.

The weekslong multisport event has gathered various nations of the British Commonwealth every four years since 1930, barring a few wartime aberrations. It was originally known as the British Empire Games, hosting various combinations of countries, with Australia and Britain among the mainstays. The 2018 Games will draw athletes from 71 Commonwealth nations and territories who will compete in 275 events over 18 sports.

[READ MORE: The Lure of Australia’s Gold Coast]

Despite the impending glow of an international audience, familiar concerns over the Games’ substantial cost and dwindling significance have again come to the fore, this time in the Australian state of Queensland.

There’s little doubt the Commonwealth represents a particular, if aging, type of might — it still represents about a third of the world’s population. Set up in the mid-20th century as Britain allowed for the self-governance of many of its territories, the Commonwealth of Nations have no legal obligations to one another, but instead aim to further shared values like democracy and freedom of speech.

But, in a post-Brexit landscape, and with many countries shrinking further into isolationism, questions have been raised not only of the Games’ relevance, but the relevance of the Commonwealth itself.

“The Commonwealth matters to me,” said Jacqui Gooding, a New Zealander who was visiting Surfers Paradise on vacation. “The queen is our leader — I don’t want a president.”

Mrs. Gooding’s husband, John, dismissed the idea that the Games would be absent of sporting and political relevance.

“It’s about bringing all the nations of the Commonwealth together,” he said. “It shows the power of sport in diplomacy, and the importance of the Commonwealth.

“And look at what happened with North Korea,” he added, referring to the meeting tentatively arranged between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, which has been largely credited to the afterglow of the Pyeongchang Olympics.

Organizers on the Gold Coast said they expected the Games to reach a global audience of 1.5 billion. For context, the 2014 World Cup had about 3.2 billion global viewers and the Rio Olympics had about 3.6 billion.

The mood of locals varied from enthusiasm to curiosity to, occasionally, eye-rolling frustration at construction and traffic delays.

Nick Atkins, who runs a co-working space on the Gold Coast, has been an advocate for attracting and retaining talent in the region. He said he was more excited about the government’s spending on infrastructure than the events themselves.

“For me, personally, I don’t know who the Commonwealth’s best javelin thrower is, or table tennis player or swimmer,” he said. “But there’s an undeniable positivity on the Gold Coast for it.”

Mr. Atkins added that he felt little emotional connection to the Commonwealth itself.

“In an identity sense, I would like to become a republic — I don’t see the need for us to be part of the Commonwealth, really, anymore,” he said.

Peter Beattie, a former premier of the state of Queensland, and the chairman of the Gold Coast Games, said that he empathized with those who had reservations about the event.

“I understand that there’s always a bit of cynicism: is this the remnants of the Empire? Look, it came from the Empire Games, but its relevance and relationship with the Empire Games is very tenuous,” he said.

Mr. Beattie believed that Brexit and its fallout had given the Commonwealth, and its Games, a unique opening to capitalize upon.

“Brexit, actually, in a converse way, has made the Commonwealth more relevant, not less,” he said. “Britain’s now looking at free trade agreements. Part of what’s happening here is a meeting of all the trade ministers.”

Of course, it is difficult to ignore that the Games are, in a way, a sort of Olympics-lite: an athletic coming together of many nations, to be sure, but with the notable absence of medal-winning mainstays like China, the United States and Russia.

But organizers, including Mr. Beattie, were quick to paint the Games as more nimble and progressive than the Olympics, and several times implied that the latter could do with some evolution.

“The Olympics are just a hard, competitive sporting event — and that’s terrific,” he said. “The Commonwealth is more than that.”

This year’s Games, for the first time, will feature an equal gender split of events. Women will compete for the same number of medals as men, a feat that organizers said had not been replicated by any other major multisport international event — including the Olympics.

Mr. Beattie said that the Games would send a message about the advancement of women that he hoped the Olympics would emulate.

Others said the Games presented athletes with a rare chance at higher competition like the Olympics and World Championships — and some athletes with perhaps the peak competition of their careers.

“I just snuck into the Commonwealth Games. It was the first major team that I made, representing Australia — they have more relaxed standards,” said Steve Moneghetti, a retired Australian runner who eventually competed in four Olympic marathons. “It’s a good steppingstone, and certainly for some athletes it will be the only multisport competition that they go to.”

It is easy to see why for certain nations these Games may be just as watchable as the Olympics — there’s a far greater chance of seeing a fellow countryman win.

“Australians, we’re quite competitive. We’ve either topped or been second in the medal tally for most Games in history. The Australian public really embrace them,” Mr. Moneghetti said. “I know this sounds quite naïve, but Australians kind of go, Commonwealth Games, Olympic Games, if you won a medal, that’s great.”

Medal count aside, host cities have faced increasing pressure in recent Games to ensure that the economic impact of the event proves both positive and sustainable.

Last year the South African city of Durban was stripped of the right to host the Games in 2022, following a series of missed deadlines and financial shortcomings. The African continent has never hosted the Games.

Before that, India’s 2010 Games were marred by accusations of substantial overspend and corruption.

The 2014 Games in Glasgow proved something of a litmus test for the economic and cultural credibility of the event.

There, a large chunk of responsibility fell to an American, David Grevemberg, who had previously been part of a team that secured an agreement that would require Olympic cities to also host the Paralympics.

“Post India, we had a brand that’s relevance was being questioned,” said Mr. Grevemberg, who today is the chief executive of the Commonwealth Games Federation.

Under Mr. Grevemberg’s leadership, Glasgow 2014 accomplished an elusive feat: finishing under budget.

Mr. Beattie said that much of the 2018 Games’ $1.1 billion budget had gone toward infrastructure that would continue to be used after the event ends. He added that most of the money had been publicly funded, though these Games had attracted more sponsors than any before it.

Regardless of how well this year’s Games perform, many involved with the event conceded that it must continue to shrug off predictions of its demise.

Mr. Grevemberg has seen success and failure in large sporting events, including at the now-defunct Goodwill Games, where he worked with some American athletes.

“The Goodwill Games were largely spun off of Cold War tensions — I’m not sure that its narrative matured beyond that,” he said.

Mr. Grevemberg emphasized the power of nonsporting stories the Games have seen, from apartheid-era boycotts, to the Australian runner Cathy Freeman’s decision to drape herself in an Aboriginal, not an Australian, flag as she celebrated a gold medal win.

And, with regard to the five-ringed shadow of the Olympic Games, and any perceived inferiority complex, Mr. Grevemberg playfully brushed cynicism aside.

“You are what you believe you are,” he said.

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