Protests ‘part of’ Commonwealth Games, insists chief

Protesting is “part of” the Commonwealth Games, a leader has said following criticism around the Birmingham 2022 event’s association with the UK’s colonialism.

New images of the revamped Alexander Stadium have been released as part of its planning application - image courtesy of Birmingham City Council
New images of the revamped Alexander Stadium have been released as part of its planning application - image courtesy of Birmingham City Council

David Grevemberg, chief executive of the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF), has said the organisation has had “regular” conversations around the games’ connection with the empire.

He said there will be a “truth and reconciliation” action plan for Birmingham, as was put in place for the Gold Coast event in 2018 – but details of what this will involve are yet to be announced.

Concerns have been voiced that the Games – originally called the British Empire Games – are a “metaphor for empire” and a reminder of a “bloody past”.

Mr Grevemberg said: “This is a conversation we have been having on a regular basis.

“When you start to go back through the history, past industry and products, you start to go into a much deeper and darker past; obviously the link with legacy of slavery and the remnants of colonialism.”

Speaking about the Glasgow Games in 2014, he referred to work Glasgow City Council had done along with the Empire Café – a programme of events to discuss the city’s connection with the slave trade.

Around the Gold Coast Games in 2018, Patricia O’Connor and Ted Williams, elders of the Yugambeh people of the Gold Coast, attended a pre-event at Buckingham Palace while the Games mascot has since been used as a champion for the Yugambeh language.

Both events saw protests from activists. In Australia, indigenous people held protests before and during the event, branding it the “Stolenwealth Games” due to the colonisation of the continent by the UK.

Meaningful difference

On the Birmingham event, he said: “With recent discussions on racial inequality, this is a discussion that needs to be had, and one that we are welcoming of, supportive of and [we feel is] necessary.”

Mr Grevemberg said the CGF is conducting conversations across the Commonwealth with the aim of “learning how we can make a meaningful difference”, and that there would be a “complex conversation” of how to apply the theme of reconciliation to the Birmingham event.

Asked what he would say to people in Birmingham who may not want there to be a Commonwealth or Commonwealth Games, he said: “What I would hope that we can encourage people to do is to have conversations.

“It’s important that we recognise people have the right to activism and protest peacefully. Protests are a part of society. It would be good to know what people don’t agree with.

“How do we use Birmingham 2022 to amplify conversations which would otherwise not be happening?”

Mr Grevemberg said “protests are part of it”, and that he had had meaningful discussions with protest leaders which have been incorporated into what the CGF is now doing, including its transformation strategy.

Critical

Dr Nathaniel AdamTobias C-, a Birmingham-based researcher and former research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, is critical of the strategy.

They said measures taken to discuss the Commonwealth’s history at Glasgow were “roundly criticised by grass roots, anti-racist, largely African- and Asian-descended activists”.

Dr Nathaniel questioned why plans around building work such as the Alexander Stadium development have already been announced but nothing has yet been said about what the Games will do around addressing colonialism.

They said: “Why are we half way from the Gold Coast to the Birmingham event with a reconciliation action plan yet to be announced?

“Why is it difficult to think about truth and reconciliation in terms not only for indigenous people and colonialists, but also for people racialised as white British and people racialised as other than white British? Why is it difficult to transfer that?”

They said “of course” there would be protests in 2022, as there have been at Glasgow, the Gold Coast and the Olympics.

Dr Nathaniel added: “There will be protesting over the next two years because nothing has changed since the June 2020 protests. Huge international sports events see a massive ramping up of policing.”

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