The debate about the residual value of the Commonwealth Games as the Queen, the head of the Commonwealth, ages has grown louder than ever in 2018. Some want so-called “minnow” countries to be culled from competition, citing lopsided results (3 Australian teams won by a combined 155 points on Friday across men’s and women’s basketball and netball). Others cite the murky and often violent history of the British Colonial rule. Those in favor of the event cite its ability to unite the members of the Commonwealth in a more positive air, promoting camaraderie among citizens, building better international bonds, and allowing the countries’ athletes to compete on more even footing.
The debate over the politics of the matter is of less concern to me than the debate over whether it is good for swimming. Several of our commenters have expressed frustration with the event, asking ‘what does it count for?” and rolling their eyes over Australians swimming fast, presuming that it will preclude them from speed later this summer at the Pan Pac Championships.
But I’m here to say, that the Commonwealth Games are good for swimming. For starters, in many parts of the world that are largely without a strong bridge to carry elite training between the age group level and the world-class level, the Commonwealth Games can help fill that gap.
For example, Scotland is sending 29 athletes to the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Many of those athletes will never break through and qualify for the broader British roster for the European Championships, World Championships or Olympic Games. The same goes for England’s roster of 39, or Wales’ roster off 15. The subdivision of the teams, and the ensuing national financial support for those athletes, provides an incentive to continue training as they get older. We don’t necessarily know which of those next-tier of athletes will or won’t qualify for bigger stages, but the Commonwealth Games can motivate them to continue fighting for those national roster spots. The rise in Scottish swimming is good evidence of that in action – Scotland’s success at the Commonwealth Games has helped the country grow into a bigger portion of the overall British team.
Beyond that, whether they complain or not, whether you believe it or not, fans do care about the Commonwealth Games. Medals are a point of pride, and for athletes, that fandom gives them new opportunities to market themselves. There was a debate in the comments section recently about whether athletes receive endorsement money for Commonwealth Games medals – and I can tell you, unequivocally, that there are swimmers who earn endorsement money for Commonwealth Games success. That is a 100% fact. There’s of course no good data on how prevalent it is, or what the scope of that money is, but there is good authority that there are swimmers who receive endorsement money for Commonwealth Games medals, and it’s enough to make a difference in their ability to compete professionally.
Fans like resumes with medals – and the broader populace is less-discerning about the nature of those medals than some of the more in-tune swim geeks might be. Giving money back to the athletes is good for swimming.
And finally, the Commonwealth Games create a significant investment in swimming facilities from outside of the sport. The Tollcross Swimming Center underwent a nearly-$20 million (£13.8 million) upgrade ahead of the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Australia’s Optus Aquatic Centre received about $42 million in upgrades before hosting this year’s events – and that’s spent on an outdoor pool, where $42 million goes a lot further than an indoor pool. There’s a laundry list of ‘crown jewel’ facilities around the Commonwealth that were either built for, or renovated for, the Commonwealth Games, and they were built with money that would’ve been hard to find otherwise.
This money could all surely be put to other good in the communities, to some charities or some social programs that would help far more people (though the Commonwealth Games do result in a lot of employment, even if much if it is temporary). We’re not ignoring the broader social impacts of the Commonwealth Games, both positive and negative, in a discussion of whether the event should continue to exist. However, viewed in the narrow lens of “what is good for swimming,” there’s a whole lot for this event to hang its hat on.