For 12 summer days, this year’s Commonwealth Games were a celebration of England’s second city.
Birmingham 2022 had been convened at short notice, with organisers given just five years to prepare instead of the usual seven. They had stepped in when the South African city of Durban withdrew from its duties for fiscal reasons in 2017.
Despite that, the event was an undoubted success. Fans bought 1.5 million tickets - a record for a Commonwealth Games in the UK. Local venues like the Alexandra Stadium found a new lease of life. The vibrant local arts and music scenes were foregrounded in the opening and closing ceremonies as well as the wider presentation, championing diverse communities.
Nevertheless, as the Australian state of Victoria takes the baton for the 2026 edition, the Commonwealth Games concept faces a period of challenge and change.
Some factors are financial. Durban’s difficulties notwithstanding, cities are finding it harder to commit public resources to major multi-sport Games - all the way up to Olympic level. Birmingham 2022 cost £778 million and regional leaders have hinted that while they want to be part of future events, that would have to be in a co-hosting capacity. Victoria 2026 will be staged across four sites in Ballarat, Bendigo, Geelong and Gippsland.
Beyond that, the Commonwealth Games has its own unique questions to answer. It can produce uneven competitive standards, depending on the sport and its importance to those nations participating. More significantly, its roots in the old British Empire mean it must reckon with a burdensome past.
The Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) is trying to respond to this on two levels. Beginning with Victoria 2026, only athletics and swimming will remain as compulsory disciplines on the competitive programme, affording unprecedented flexibility to local organisers.
Outside the arena, the CGF is also thinking carefully about its potential social influence. That means considering the weight of history across the Commonwealth and within its member nations.
Indigenous culture played a central role in the handover between Birmingham and Victoria at the Alexandra Stadium, where elders performed a smoking ceremony and gave message sticks to the organisers. The CGF aims to work with members to find ways of using sport to provide opportunities within Indigenous communities around the world.
There is also scope to use the power of the athlete experience to encourage progress. Olympic champion diver Tom Daley did not compete in Birmingham but did speak out at the opening ceremony about the oppression faced by LGBTQ+ people around the Commonwealth - with anti-gay laws in place in 35 of the 54 member states.
In the UK, Daley fronted the BBC documentary Illegal To Be Me, which highlighted those issues, his own experiences of homophobia, and the complex legacy of empire. The CGF underlined its commitment to inclusion at Birmingham 2022 by creating the Pride House venue in the city, and has pledged to double down on those efforts in the years to come.
With the movement trying to define its place and ensure its relevance, one thing seems clear. If the Commonwealth Games can give athletes a platform to perform - and to express and enjoy themselves in the process - it can go on demonstrating its value.
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