India won three medals at the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, surpassing by two its previous best at an Olympics. One of the medals in Beijing was a gold—the first ever in individual sport at the world’s biggest sporting stage. Compare this to India’s achievement at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, where India won 50 medals—22 gold, 17 silver, 11 bronze. But doesn’t this 22-17-11 haul seem a rather lopsided figure, more so beside the more decidedly modest 1-0-1 at Beijing?
To get a perspective on the sporting standard you are likely to witness at the CWG next week, compare India’s position on the medals table in Melbourne to that in Beijing—fourth in the 2006 CWG, but way lower at 50th in the 2008 Olympics. (Roughly, a third of the Olympic nations  participate in the CWG .) The staggering fall in India’s fortunes has a simple reason: the CWG are bloated by the detritus of world sport, pitting the greats, and often the commonplace, against weaklings.
It’s like a kid wrestling with his dad—there can be only one result. For instance, India’s 22 gold medals at Melbourne included 17 in shooting, a feat caused by the virtual absence of CWG countries in the world of shooting. In Beijing, there were 15 gold medals to be won in shooting. Of these, only one came to a CWG country—to India’s Abhinav Bindra. Of 45 medals available, only one other was won by a CWG nation—that’s a total of 2 out of 45. “The Olympic Games are the supreme event,” Bindra told Outlook. “It’s actually not fair to compare the Olympics with events like the Asian Games or the CWG.”
India’s three other gold medals in Melbourne came in weightlifting (3, all in the women’s competition), table tennis (2) and boxing (1). In all these events, the Commonwealth cupboard is quite bare—for instance, CWG countries didn’t win a single medal out of 135 on the table at the recent World Weightlifting Championship in Turkey. In table tennis, there is no player from the CWG countries in the top-40 of the men’s rankings; among the women, there is none in the top-100. This is what makes Vijender Singh so special—he was the only winner from amongst the Commonwealth country sportsmen at the World Boxing Championship in Milan last year. In the recent World Wrestling Championship in Moscow, only three of the 84 medals were won by CWG countries—Canada, Nigeria and India (gold by Sushil Kumar).
But this isn’t to say that CWG is a sodden walk-over...it certainly is not. The concept of the Commonwealth—nations bound by ties of colonialism that, in reality, were broken decades ago—may not have geopolitical significance. But in sport, they are not without champions, but essentially from Australia, England, Kenya and, more recently, Jamaica. Real progress for India in the CWG, if it’s made, can be gauged by the number of medals it wins in events dominated by these nations—not in shooting, boxing or wrestling.
On track, water and wheels, several CWG countries rock the sporting firmament. At the athletics World Championship in Berlin last year, among the top-10 on the medals tally were five Commonwealth nations—Jamaica, Kenya, Great Britain, South Africa and Australia. In the world Aquatics Championships last year, Australia was fifth with 19 medals, Britain sixth with nine. In this year’s World track cycling championships, Australia was the best with 10 medals, Britain second with nine and Canada fifth with two golds. Of the 57 medals available, these three took 21, including 11 golds.
But in reality these stars of the sportsworld have no competition at all at the CWG to measure their skills against; the field, often, is hopelessly lopsided. P.T. Usha, who’s training Tintu Luka, a rare world-class Indian in athletics, agrees that the CWG provides a real test only in certain disciplines. “The level of competition is quite high in athletics,” Usha told Outlook. “The middle distance events, especially, are world-class, so winning a medal in them is akin to winning at the Olympics.” She says Tintu, on current timings, would be fourth in her 800m event at the CWG, though “of course, she’ll do her best to win a medal”.
The CWG have also suffered heavily from the marquee names—world and Olympic champions—pulling out of the Delhi event. One argument for the existence of the CWG—to give bit-players like, say, Grenada, a taste of a “world event” in an era of megabucks-fuelled Olympics—is undermined by the best athletes opting out of Delhi, and by the rich countries dominating this ‘colonial club’ event.
Indeed, the CWG does face a crisis of identity—it seems irrelevant in a world dominated, in both geopolitics and sport, by non-CWG countries. Big money at the more lucrative world championships and grand prix events has made CWG expendable for athletes, for they fall between the Olympics and several world championships, which are the real deal. Sports writer and academic Novy Kapadia says, “The CWG started out as friendly games which, while being competitive, had an aura of amateurism. Before the athletics World Championships, which started in 1983, the CWG were more relevant.”
Kapadia points out that the CWG has been the first sighting grounds for great champions in the past—Kip Keino, Daley Thompson, Steve Cram, Roger Bannister and our own Milkha Singh, for instance. But now it seems it is relegated to the background, especially if the best choose to sit out. “They prefer to prepare for big events or rest, rather than being here. It’s a pity that athletes like the best Caribbean sprinters, for instance, would be missing,” he says.
The CWG may still turn out to be a coming-out party for young men and women who’ll win the world. But the Games are struggling to find relevance. And, worse, the playing field is skewed—success in CWG must be met with a proportionate celebration.