Athletic feats at Commonwealth Games cannot distract from Britain’s colonial sins

At 8.30 on Friday morning, with the sun up over Birmingham, the Commonwealth Games action will begin. Even in a competition contested by a limited pool of countries with notable athlete absences, there will be great performances and heartwarming moments. Supreme exhibitions of athleticism will be complemented by breakthroughs from those with few opportunities to shine on such big stages. It may just be enjoyable enough for some to forget about the organisation the Games represent.

These were once known as the British Empire Games, the British Empire and Commonwealth Games, and then the British Commonwealth Games. What initially stood as an event for Britain and its colonies is now a helpful tool for Britain to divert attention from its ills of the past, presenting itself as a more compassionate nation compared with other former imperial powers, the country that dismantled its empire to become friends with former subjects.

The royal family, with Queen Elizabeth II still head of the Commonwealth, is often positioned as graciously bringing together nations under one roof. A transformation pulled off without ever fully addressing the lasting impacts of slavery and colonialism on many of the countries within it.

The wealth, of course, is not common. The vast majority of the Commonwealth countries are former colonies and 14 excluding Britain are still officially headed by the British royal family. The relationships between the nations are hierarchical, with major power imbalances within. Canada, Australia and New Zealand are of far more interest to Britain than any African or Caribbean country.

Even since the last Commonwealth Games just four years ago, the world has shifted enough that this is a particularly notable time for the Games to return to Britain. So many of the Commonwealth realms are reckoning with and seeking to redefine their relationship with the country on their terms. Barbados’s decision to become a republic last year set off a chain reaction of change, with Jamaica, St Kitts and Nevis, and Antigua and Barbuda all openly discussing the possibility of following suit.

The ill-fated Platinum Jubilee royal tours only strengthened those sentiments. As the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge toured Belize, Jamaica and the Bahamas in March, their presence inadvertently gave centre stage to protesters and other citizens endeavouring to expose the lasting damage that colonialism has inflicted on their countries. Others stressed that the wealth and luxury that allows the royal family to saunter around their countries was built off the backs of their ancestors.

Then came the tours of Antigua and Barbuda, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and St Lucia by Prince Edward and Sophie, Countess of Wessex, with protests demanding acknowledgment, apologies and reparations from Britain until they were gone. When Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, calmly explained to Prince Edward why they are seeking reparational support to address the long-term effects of colonialism, Edward responded with a pitiful quip and laughter.

The betrayal of the Windrush generation remains at the forefront of minds. As the flags of Commonwealth countries fly at the Alexander Stadium, it will be hard not to think about the treatment of former citizens of those countries and their descendants, who were beckoned to these shores for their talents and skills. They settled down and lived full lives, yet Britain spent much of the 2010s endeavouring to deport them. Only public shame led the government to alter aspects of its cruel immigration policy, by which time many lives had been permanently altered and it was far too late.

There are other issues at play as well, such as more than half of the countries at the Games criminalising homosexuality, which will be the source of protests on Thursday in Birmingham. Those laws and attitudes were initially implemented by Britain itself, homophobia imported through colonisation, another branch of the colonial legacy.

On the pitches, swimming pools and track, the Commonwealth Games will thrive. Whether played in front of crowds or not, contested by a small, selective group of countries or the entire world, there is always tension and jeopardy in sport. There are also other positive, distinguishing features, from the integration of athletes with disabilities to the gender balance in the medal events and even just the spirit of congeniality among athletes.

But this is a time when the relevance of the Games have long been in doubt for various reasons, particularly due to the costs of holding such an event. The consequences of this year’s edition included moving homeless families housed in Birmingham hotels at short notice.

Its relevance should also be scrutinised because of the weight of history. It is particularly notable in Birmingham, a city home to many African, Caribbean and Asian immigrant communities that originally arrived here from Commonwealth countries and over the decades have experienced ample reminders of the fragility of their Britishness in the eyes of the government. It is not possible to separate the Commonwealth, and its Games, from the memory of the British Empire out of which it has grown.