Just over a week ago, the premier of Australia’s Victoria state announced their inability to host the 2026 Commonwealth Games due to spiralling costs.
Doubts have been raised over the viability of hosting the Games, which witness former colonies of the British Empire competing for glory, due to escalating costs and a dwindling level of competition as top athletes from traditional powerhouses often stay away from the Games.
Even the last edition of CWG had to be moved from Durban, South Africa to Birmingham, UK, as the original host-city could not raise the funds required.
The shift to Birmingham had left India’s shooters high and dry as the discipline was dropped from the Games program for “logistical reasons”. It led to an unsuccessful protest from the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) that included a threat to pull out of the 2022 edition.
The extreme reaction was understandable, as shooting had contributed to 63 of India’s 181 gold medals till 2018 and that success had led to an exponential growth of the sport in India. Today, shooting may not depend on the Commonwealth Games for glory any longer, as many Indians are succeeding on the world stage. But that can’t be said of many other sports disciplines. And those players will be hit hard if the 2026 Games don’t find any new host.
India’s top ranked table tennis player and two-time team gold medallist Harmeet Desai points out that the gold medal winning performance of Achanta Sharath Kamal (2006, 2022) in men’s singles and Manika Batra (2018) in women’s singles made them stars overnight.
“CWG has been really important for Indian Table Tennis. We have won many medals in CWG and that has led to more visibility for the sport and sponsorship for the players. Now that the sport’s profile has grown, CWG is also a good preparation for other events like the Asian Games and Olympics and I hope if not Victoria, some other country will come forward to host the Games in 2026,” Desai said.
Nitu Ghanghas, the 2023 world boxing champion in women’s 48 kg category, echoes the same sentiments, and fondly remembers her gold medal winning performance in the 2022 Birmingham Games.
“Before the Commonwealth Games, I had only won gold in one other senior international event. But I managed to win three good bouts at the Commonwealth Games to win the gold medal and that gave me the confidence that I can win many more titles. I took that confidence to the World Championships next year and that helped me win in New Delhi,” she said, adding that multi-discipline sports like CWG give Indian sportspersons much-needed visibility and attention.
At the Commonwealth Games, the level of competition in athletics, swimming and to some extent hockey, boxing and squash is better than the Asian Games. The competition in wrestling and weightlifting, however, is ordinary compared
to the continental Games. Also, Lawn Bowl players’ chance to win medals in multi-discipline events starts and ends with the Commonwealth Games.
This is why in the past, even the country’s top wrestlers like two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar had skipped the Asian Games and opted to participate in the Commonwealth Games.
The weightlifters don’t even have that choice because barring the likes of Tokyo Olympics silver medallist Mirabai Chanu, not many can hope of winning a medal at the Asian Games or earn a qualification for the Olympic Games.
Sanket Sargar, India’s first medallist at the 2022 Commonwealth Games, insists that the silver medal in Birmingham changed things for him drastically outside of the weightlifting arena.
The son of a tea-stall vendor in Sangli, Sargar received prize money of Rs 20 lakh for his silver winning effort from the Union Sports Ministry and Rs 30 lakh from the Maharashtra government.
“I wanted to desperately win gold in Birmingham and hence I went for a third lift (in clean and jerk) despite injuring my elbow,” said the 22-year-old who was out of action for over six months after that and is now working hard to make a comeback to the national team.
“The prize money has ensured that I don’t have financial difficulties and can focus on my rehabilitation and training,” he said, adding the cancellation of the 2026 Commonwealth Games could hurt players like him a lot.
As things stand now, the Commonwealth Games Federation is determined to find a new host country for the 2026 Games. But it would be easier said than done. Fans in India were hoping that the country could take the mantle of hosting the next edition but there seems to be little interest in the official circles.
The Indian establishment is now geared up towards hosting the Olympics in the near future as the aspirations of the country have now moved beyond the Commonwealth Games or even the Asian Games.
Under these circumstances, how do those given the responsibility of shaping the future of Indian sports look at the current conundrum of the Commonwealth Games and its relevance to the India story?
Former national badminton champion and 2006 CWG team bronze medallist Trupti Murgunde, who is now a member of the Mission Olympics Cell of the Sports Ministry, insists that the importance of CWG hasn’t diminished for Indian sportspersons.
“When I played in the CWG, we had the aspiration of winning medals as we were not that strong as a sporting nation. Now the aspiration is to dominate the medals tally,” Murgunde said.
On the relevance of the Games, Murgunde pointed out that the country was able to unearth talent in new sports through the event. “Earlier, we saw Dipa Karmakar putting up a special performance in Glasgow and then the Lawn Bowls team winning medals in the last edition,” she said. “Barring a few sports, CWG performances are a good indicator of where we stand before the Asian Games or Olympics come around.”
No one really knows the future of the Games if funding remains the primary concern. But there is no doubt in the mind of Indian sportspersons that the CWG are still an important pit-stop in their quest for Asian and Olympic glory.