Editorial: Two institutions waning away
The 20th Commonwealth Games began in Glasgow yesterday with a triumphantly exuberant opening ceremony. Probably designed with half an eye on trying to outdo the opening ceremony for the Olympic Games in London a couple of years ago, the entertainment was a gloriously uninhibited celebration of all things Scottish. Parts of it may have been as kitsch as a tartan tin of shortbread with a picture of two Scottie dogs on the lid, but it set the games off in the high spirits befitting the sporting gathering traditionally known as the "Friendly Games".
The slogan was adopted years ago, possibly to point up the contrast with the Olympics. Although the Olympics aspired, at least at their re-inauguration at the end of the 19th century, to be the embodiment of all the amateur sporting virtues, they have, probably since they were used in 1936 by Hitler as a showpiece for the hateful doctrines of Nazism, been the occasion for loud and bellicose displays of unappealing national rivalry.
The Commonwealth Games, on the other hand, were originally the Empire Games and bring together countries many of which, at least at the outset, bound together by kinship, language, law and culture. Any rivalries among the sportspeople competing in them have tended to be less coloured by ideological differences.
But where the games once rivalled the Olympics for prestige in the sporting calendar, there are now unmistakable signs that their appeal is waning. World championships organised by individual sports vie to attract competitors. When timetables clash, some athletes are choosing to attend those events, where they will meet the best in the world in their event, and forgo the Commonwealth competition as second-best.
In this the games are reflecting the decline of the Commonwealth, the institution of which they are the most visible public manifestation. The Commonwealth came into existence as the British Empire expired, slowly after the First World War and then more rapidly as Britain's bankruptcy became more evident after the Second World War. Unlike the Empire, though, the Commonwealth has struggled to find a purpose.
The institutions are entirely different, of course - the Empire a number of like-minded colonies or colony-like countries owing loyalty to the mother country that created them in their modern form, the Commonwealth a disparate group of countries with very little common either with Britain or one another.
They are all nominally committed to the idea of freedom and democracy and the like, but the practice of it by some is fitful at best. When a member, such as Nigeria or Fiji, has departed from democratic norms, the capacity of the other Commonwealth members to exert pressure on them to bring them back into line is minimal. Their collective diplomatic clout outside the Commonwealth is practically non-existent.
The Commonwealth does worthy work, no doubt, but the impression that it, like the games it gives its name to, will eventually fade away is unmistakable.