(ATR) The Commonwealth Games come to a controversial close April 15 in Gold Coast, Australia.
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Opinionist Michael Pirrie says the storm of controversy over the omission of the athletes during the ceremony parade at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games highlights key challenges facing Olympic and world sport. He says it could impact a bid by Australia for the 2032 Olympic Games:
Major multi sport, multi venue, and multi nation events are as much a challenge of endurance and planning for organizers as for the athletes involved. With viewers tuning in worldwide, and the host nation’s international reputation and billions of dollars of government funding and investment on the line, there is minimal margin of error for organizers. Their performance must be as precise as the athletes themselves.
After 10 days of successfully coordinating and completing hundreds of sporting events in dozens of venues for more than 5,000 athletes from more than 70 nations, organizers of the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast were almost over the finish line. Then they tripped at the final hurdle in spectacular fashion.
The arrival and reception of athletes in the stadium for the final farewell parade is a highlight for host nation and international viewers. But the customary parade was held prior to the televised portion of the Games closing ceremony, sparking a wave of anger in Australia as intense as the sporting competition.
It was an error in judgment of a magnitude seldom seen in the made-for-TV and digital screen experience era of global sporting events. The decision not to include the athletes arrival in the Gold Coast closing ceremony broadcast is a major embarrassment for Australia’s reputation as a major events destination and sporting capital.
Peter Beattie, chair of the Gold Coast organizing committee, did not run away from the tsunami of criticism. The former Queensland premier admits “we got it wrong”.
Usain Bolt performs with Borobi at Gold Coast 2018 closing ceremony (CGF)
These Commonwealth Games highlighted key issues confronting world and Olympic sport. The Commonwealth Games, like the Olympics, are competing for relevance and respect in the increasingly crowded international sports calendar chock full of events. The games came immediately after Australia’s greatest contemporary sporting scandal involving the deliberate tampering of a cricket ball to gain an unfair advantage over opponents.
The role of sport in geopolitically turbulent times is up for debate. More cities question the value and cost of hosting mega sporting events meaning a decline in public and government support and funding. Then there’s the ‘win at all costs’ culture responsible for sports greatest scandals – from Russia’s covert state sanctioned and administered doping program to the Salt Lake City Olympic Games vote buying scandal.
The controversies in world sport highlight the poor corporate governance and administration standards that continue to damage sport at local and elite levels. Lessons abound for the Paris and Los Angeles Olympic Committees.
We’re learning the international tender process designed to select the company that produced the Gold Coast ceremonies was mired in controversy from the outset.
The appointment of US-UK events branding and experience company, Jack Morton Worldwide, over several of Australia’s internationally acclaimed major events and theatrical producers, such as Ric Birch, who pioneered the blockbuster special effects ceremonies that have become central to the Olympic Games experience, immediately triggered inquires into the selection process and criteria.
The public, political and media anger directed at Australian cricket team members involved in the ball tampering plot and at Gold Coast ceremony organizers, is part of a growing post Brexit, post Trump protest movement against global and national sporting elites.
The increasing fallout from sporting controversy has created an unprecedented public relations crisis for world sport, which is reshaping government and corporate funding decisions and priorities. In the countdown to these Commonwealth Games, the New South Wales State Government was recently forced to abandon politically unpopular construction plans for a major new sports venue to replace the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games stadium. Public opinion said funding should be allocated instead to infrastructure to help meet the city’s growing population needs.
The growing movement against sporting elites is demanding a harder line against corruption. Better community legacies and returns from sport are needed. Accountability of sporting executives as well as athletes that reflects the scale of the corruption is a must.
For example, the IOC’s ban on Russian Olympic Committee officials and athletes from the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games for doping might have been muted by the way Russia was sanctioned. Allowing the OAR Olympic Athletes from Russia contingent to compete as a neutral team was perhaps too subtle for critics, allowing them to dismiss the sanctions as too soft and lenient.
The Gold Coast closing ceremony debacle could also set back embryonic plans for a bid by Australia to host the next available Olympic Games.
With world sports leaders observing the Games, the $A2 billion Gold Coast spectacle provided Australian Olympic Committee president John Coates with a critical opportunity to test support for a possible bid to host the 2032 Olympic Games in Brisbane and surrounding regions, including the Gold Coast. In the audience in Gold Coast were WADA President Craig Reedie, IAAF President Sebastian Coe, Olympic sprint legend Usain Bolt, and IOC members.
The overall success of the Gold Coast Games – driven by the home team’s top of the table medal haul – initially suggested that mega sporting events may no longer be the sole preserve of major cities. That may be welcome news for the IOC as it seeks to expand the pipeline of possible Games hosts to include smaller city locations.
Despite growing opposition to expensive sporting facilities and mega events, the strong broadcast viewing figures, television ratings, ticket sales, and venues filled with atmosphere and crowds for the Gold Coast Games, also demonstrated continuing popularity for mega multi sport events.
On the other hand, crippling transport delays suffered by spectators and visitors at the opening ceremony, along with the closing ceremony controversy exposed gaps in planning, and cast doubts about the capacity of smaller regions to host such large-scale events.
That might lead to support for a 2032 triple east coast Olympic Games cities bid, comprising Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.
The gaps in Gold Coast Games planning however are not insurmountable for smaller cities with the right international experience. Manchester demonstrated that with the 2002 Commonwealth Games, which produced sporting and city experiences that served as the launching pad for London’s successful bid for the 2012 Olympic Games.
Often the victim of sports snobbery, the Commonwealth Games, which includes many Olympic and world champions such as Adam Peaty, Chad Le Clos, the Brownlees, Johan Blake, Matt Horton - helped to provide a much needed new narrative that ran counter to the toxic win at all costs culture threatening sport.
The athletes who participated at the Commonwealth Games performed with goodwill and demonstrated grace under extreme pressure, win or lose, and again showed the unique power of sport to bring highly diverse nations and delegations of people together in uncertain geopolitical times.
For this, the athletes deserved the opportunity to be properly recognized and applauded in the closing ceremony grand finale. It’s a situation that must never be allowed to happen again, certain to be a topic of interest and discussion in the corridors and meeting rooms of the SportAccord convention in Bangkok this week.
Michael Pirrie is an international communications consultant and commentator on the organization and marketing of major sporting events, including the Olympic Games, and served as Executive Adviser to London 2012 Olympic Committee Chairman, Sebastian Coe. He also led the international media campaign for London’s successful bid to host the Olympic Games in 2012.
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