by Ruth Craggs, Lecturer in Human Geography, King’s College London

The 20th Commonwealth Games will open in Glasgow on Wednesday. Riding a wave of interest in athletics following the London 2012 Olympics, this summer’s events look set to be a sell out. Yet, previous Commonwealth Games have not fared so well. Partly a function of a lack of knowledge and interest about the Commonwealth (something this project is hoping to address!), audiences have also been affected as the Games have become embroiled in the complicated politics of the post-colonial Commonwealth.

Since their inauguration as the British Empire Games in 1930, processes of decolonisation have made huge changes to the character and make-up of the Commonwealth, and to the Games themselves. Politicians, protestors and competitors have utilised the competition to contest the dominance of Britain and the ‘old’ Commonwealth, to campaign against the UK government’s policies towards apartheid South Africa, and to assert their own independence.

Glasgow 2014 will not be Scotland’s first Commonwealth Games, with Edinburgh hosting on two previous occasions, in 1970 and 1986. The fact that Scotland is now hosting for a third time illustrates the predominance of ‘Northern’ hosts in the history of the Games, which have been held outside of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK on only three occasions: Jamaica in 1966, Malaysia in 1998, and Delhi in 2010. Malaysia’s bid for the 1998 games was in part a challenge to this pattern, as well as an attempt to boost Malaysia’s international profile, issues discussed by the country’s former Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir, and one of his ministers, Datuk Noor Farida Ariffin in soon-to-be released interviews for this project.

A look back at the 1986 Edinburgh Games reveals a different issue that dominated Commonwealth politics from the 1950s to the 1990s – that of the struggle against apartheid. Dubbed the ‘Unfriendly Games’, the 1986 Games were boycotted by 32 Commonwealth countries, mainly from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, as a result of the British Government’s intransigent attitude towards imposing economic sanctions on South Africa.

This boycott was the result of longstanding disagreements within the Commonwealth over policies towards white minority regimes in Southern Africa, many of which manifested themselves in sporting relations. The 1974 Games in Christchurch New Zealand came perilously close to being boycotted by African nations because of the Rhodesia issue, something discussed in depth by New Zealand diplomat David McDowell in a recently completed interview as part of this project.

The Commonwealth’s 1977 Gleneagles Agreement on apartheid in sport which barred sporting contacts with South Africa was an important contribution to the fight against the apartheid regime; the impact of this agreement (and the furore surrounding subsequent sanctions-busting rugby and cricket tours) are also reflected on by those involved – such as Commonwealth Secretariat staff from Britain and New (Chris Laidlaw, Stuart Mole and Sir Peter Marshall) – as part of the project.

It’s a different politics that may dominate the Games this summer: that of Scottish independence. The Games have long been utilized to strengthen national identity and, as we saw with Malaysia, to make claims about a country’s role in the Commonwealth and international community. As a result of the Commonwealth’s imperial past, member countries have often made great play of their (hard fought) independence from London. This summer, with England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland competing separately (as they always do), perhaps support for Team Scotland and Glasgow 2014 will provide a pre-emptive performance of Scotland’s independence prior to the referendum in September.