The great irony about the Commonwealth Games is that Britain almost did not participate in the first-ever edition, the British Empire Games, in 1930. Now its existence is an irony in the post-colonial world of 2022. The stale stench of the residue about it.

But its origin story is a fascinating tale of American arrogance; The trauma of one man, one Canadian, transformed it into a grand vision; Persistence during the Great Depression; Jugad grace and pride.

It was all kickstarted by a sports journalist but before we get to that extraordinary person, Canadian author and athletics coach Melville Marks Robinson (better known as Bobby Robinson), let’s take a look at the possible scenes from the trailer if the sports were made into a movie. .

Maybe, three scenes will work. An overhead drone shot over a statue in Vancouver captures the dramatic moment from the 1954 Games known as The Miracle Mile, when leader John Landy looked over his left shoulder at the same moment Roger Bannister overtook him on the right, just yards from the finish. Both finished in 4 minutes, once thought impossible. A photographer, Charlie Warner, who effortlessly positioned himself in that exact spot to capture one of the sport’s greatest images, became a legend. A statue based on that photo still stands in Vancouver today. “When Lot’s wife looked back, she was turned into a pillar of salt,” Landy would say in biblical mythology. When I looked back, I was turned into a pillar of brass!” Incidentally, this was the first race in which two athletes ran the mile under four minutes.

The second scene can be a terrifying scene. A terrifying close-up of Emmanuel Ifejuna, Nigeria’s first international sports hero, bare-chested high jumper in the face of the death squad at the 1954 Olympics.

After leaving the game, he co-led a military coup and, according to the disputed though official version, assassinated the country’s first prime minister, then tried to end the civil war, but died, shot dead at close range.

With his head resting on his chest, hundreds of hysterical onlookers chanted ‘shoot them’, Ifejuna allegedly muttered that his death would not end the fear that federal troops would enter Enugu city and fight anyway. for a ceasefire. He was shot, and he was right, within hours, federal troops invaded and his name, to this day, remains controversial in Nigeria.

A third, at least for the film’s Indian release, could be a scene of a man driving an ambulance during World War II in the UK. A closer look reveals that it is wrestler Rashid Anwar, who won India’s first medal in the event, a bronze medal at the 1934 Games, the first time India participated. A railway worker from Lucknow, and known for his ‘swinging Boston crab move’, he moved to the UK after the 1936 Olympics, wrestled professionally and died in Camden, London in 1983, a few months before India won the Cricket World Cup. That city.

But none of this would have happened without Bobby Robinson and his ‘American arrogance’.


The Empire Strikes Back

Bobby’s displeasure began at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. Robinson was covering the Games as a journalist for the Hamilton Spectator in Canada, which would later host the first British Empire Games. He served in the First World War, was manager of the national athletics team and was known as an ‘aggressive campaigner of agriculture’ in Canada where he fought for the rights of individual vegetable and fruit sellers against price cuts. Wholesale buyers.

Robinson had reasons to be disappointed with the Americans at the 1928 Olympics where Canada even filed an official complaint. Canada’s great sprinter Percy Williams, who decades later would blow his own head off with a shotgun, didn’t have a Canadian flag when he won his 100m medal.

After that, Americans were allowed to train on the track but Canadians were not. A controversial judge’s decision went in favor of an American in the women’s 100m after the Canadians thought their woman had won it beyond doubt. And to top it all off, Avery Brundage’s direct insult to the then-influential American, Canadian team official in the Olympic movement. All hell broke loose.

In his delightful book ‘The Commonwealth Games: Extraordinary Stories Behind the Medals’, Brian Oliver notes that the Toronto Star newspaper wrote about ‘serious problems between the Canadian and US teams, Canadian representatives and the IOC’. At one point, Robinson took out his anger on Siegfried Edström, the IOC official who would form the presidential bridge between Henri de Bellet-Latour and Brundage. “We know the Canadians are running here and we don’t like it!”.

After some time, there were more serious consequences in both countries. As the economy slumped during the Great Depression, the US would announce tariffs on Canadian goods, sparking a trade war and strengthening Canada’s ties to the Empire.

A loyalist of the Union flag, Robinson decided enough was enough. Aware of Englishman Jay Astley Cooper’s unworkable plan to organize a ‘Pan-British Festival’ of culture and sport in the 1890s, Robinson decided the time was right to make it a reality.

Britain also needed it at that time. As sports historian Catherine Moore has said: ‘Great Britain’s world political dominance was a fast-fading memory, and it was no longer even a major sporting power. The Empire needed to reaffirm the Games in the 1930s and redefine its unity. can be seen as a step towards re-establishing their declining prestige … as the various imperial countries matured and flourished in their own right.’

Teething problems

With the economy slumping everywhere, funding proved to be a problem. Robinson asked leaders of the host city of Hamilton for $25,000 to run the games and $160,000 to build the stadium. Things got worse when the US stock market crashed.

Other countries started dragging their feet. Robinson offered $5000 to send a team to Australia, and similar funds were given to some other countries, such as New Zealand, which arrived in the steamer “Orangi”, picking up Australians along the way. The trip to Scotland was paid for by Scottish singer and comedian Henry Lauder.

Eight countries were roped in with travel subsidies but surprisingly Britain was unmoved. They were concerned on two fronts: finances and the potential of the Empire Games to overshadow the Olympics. Robinson sent himself to England to persuade them, and Britain raised £8,000 through a public appeal.

In his newspaper The Hamilton Spectator, Robinson appealed to the patriotic hearts of citizens. A public notice ran thus: “… the protection of games must be considered in the light of duty. What is really to be regretted is the man who is indifferent in his approach to this grand undertaking. He does not have the fire of patriotism.

All track events were sold out as people heeded the call and shelled out 35 cents to $5 for boxing matches for passes to all track events. Nearly 20,000 people turned up for the opening ceremony. More than one lakh people watched the rowing event. The games were a hit at the box office.

The 1930 Games were officially inaugurated by the Governor-General of Canada, Viscount Willingdon, who said, “The greatness of the Empire is due to the fact that every citizen has instilled in him a love of sports and sports.”

Perhaps, therefore. Every citizen has an innate desire for freedom. A year later, Willingdon would be sent to India as Viceroy, and would become known as the man who imprisoned Mahatma Gandhi and other Indian nationalists during the Salt Satyagraha. A pinch of salt that shook empires.

Robinson conceptualized the medal ceremony as a tiered podium, an athletes’ village (more than a dozen athletes were housed in a room at the school), used volunteers to run the games, and issued travel grants for athletes. None of these existed in the Olympics until then, and they would all be copied in its later versions.

Perhaps, the best tribute to Robinson’s will came a few years ago in 2017 when Donald Trump expressed interest in a British proposal to join the Commonwealth as an “ally”. Games that began with American insolence by a Canadian and now seem like a relic of the past can stand Americans on the Commonwealth podium. Irony is blowing in the wind.