ANYONE who believes politics should be kept out of sport will have their patience tested over the next fortnight as the Commonwealth Games take place in Birmingham. 

The event, held every four years, and which opens tonight is possibly the clearest example of the interlinked nature of politics and sport, bringing together Great Britain with its former colonies that are willing to stay on good terms. 

Known as the Friendly Games they are also, undoubtedly, an important event for Wales – as the only major multi-sport games in which the country competes in its own right. 

For the next two weeks we can watch Welsh sportsmen and women – in events from the showpiece track and field, boxing and netball to lawn balls – test themselves against much of the rest of the world. 

Almost like an alternative Olympics, we can imagine Wales taking her place on the world stage – alongside the very best of the best – admittedly in a parallel world where the United States and most of Europe either don’t exist, or at least aren’t interested in sport. 

But it isn’t only historical political connections that are relevant to the Birmingham games. 

Last week the head of the Commonwealth Games Federation announced countries where is it illegal to be gay are less likely to host the games in the future. 

In Birmingham’s Gay Village, only 100 yards from the beach volleyball, basketball and wheelchair basketball venue, Pride House has opened to create a welcoming venue for athletes and spectators and ensure “challenging and difficult conversations” take place in a safe space at the Commonwealth Games. 

The National Wales: Sarah Connolly of Wales (in blue) competes with Ashlea McManus, of Scotland, during the wrestling freestyle 67 kg women qualifications in Delhi, 2010. Picture: Huw Evans AgencySarah Connolly of Wales (in blue) competes with Ashlea McManus, of Scotland, during the wrestling freestyle 67 kg women qualifications in Delhi, 2010. Picture: Huw Evans Agency

The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) says the Games can highlight where inequalities persist, pointing out that 35 of the 54 Commonwealth countries continue to criminalise same-sex relationships. 

Much is also being made of the decision of organisers to “allow” medalists to waive the Rainbow or Pride flag from the podium. You don’t need to hold a doctorate in the Pride, or wider liberation movements, to know that those who push against prejudice are unlikely to believe that rights are gifts to be granted from above. 

The Commonwealth Games has history with “unofficial flags”. 

On a sporting scale the event can provide a glimpse of emerging talent. The 1994 Games in Victoria, Canada introduced a future athletics star and offered a preview of what would be one of the most iconic moments in Australian history. 

Cathy Freeman celebrated her first championship gold, in her favoured 400m event, in Canada by clutching the Aboriginal flag, as well as the official Australian flag, for her lap of honour. 

In her biography, Cathy: Her Own Story, the quarter miler recalled: “I wanted to shout, ‘Look at me. Look at my skin. I’m black, and I’m the best.’ There was no more shame’.”  

But her celebration would prompt a backlash. Australia’s Chef de Mission for the Games, Arthur Tunstall, issued a statement publicly reprimanding her use of the Aboriginal flag. 

“She should have carried the Australian flag first up, and (we should have) not seen the Aboriginal flag at all,” he told media. 

The old order could not hold back the tide however.  

Australia’s then prime minister Paul Keating acknowledged Freeman’s right to hold her flag and, he said, a desire for reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.  

The following year the Australian government officially recongnised the Aboriginal flag, with the minutes and days after Freeman’s 50.38 second lap of the track in Canada credited as having encouraged it to take the step. 

Six years on from Freeman’s triumph in Canada she would fulfill her athletic promise at her home Olympics in Sydney with one of the most commanding 400m performances ever seen. 

The National Wales: Cathy Freeman, in her all in one body suit, crosses the line to claim 400m gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Picture: Mike Powell/AllsportCathy Freeman, in her all in one body suit, crosses the line to claim 400m gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Picture: Mike Powell/Allsport

As she celebrated Olympic gold, clad head to toe in a body suit in Australia’s gold and green (and silver), she once again waved the Aboriginal flag with pride. Though technically a breach of the Olympic rule on “unofficial flags” there would be no distracting from this symbolic, national moment – as history, politics and sport all came together on a joyous September evening. 

The moment was, in part, born in those Commonwealth Games in Canada where sport’s power for good and how it can drive change was demonstrated. But it was change that came from an athlete and her connection with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of ordinary people in her home country. 

Real change wasn’t pushed by the blazer brigade who believe they can sanction what flags and symbols can be carried and their meaning. 

And as the initial row over Freeman’s decision in 1994 showed the Commonwealth is, whatever its modern connections, born of colonialism. 

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While moves to make the games inclusive and to break down barriers are obviously welcome, care is also needed in who is delivering messages and who their audiences are. 

The National Wales: Carys Parry won silver in the hammer for Wales at the 2010 Games. Picture: Huw Evans AgencyCarys Parry won silver in the hammer for Wales at the 2010 Games. Picture: Huw Evans Agency

When Scottish born, Canadian raised, New Zealand Olympian Katie Sadlier delivered the Games Federation’s warning on future host cities it was hard not to think it was the old order setting down new ground rules. 

“I think one of the things that is really important about the Commonwealth Games is its values - humanity, destiny and equity are embedded in most of the things that we do," the chief executive of the Commonwealth Games Federation said. 

On a purely practical level Sadlier’s comments have very little carrot or stick. Only on three previous occasions in 1966 (Jamaica), 1998 (Malaysia) and 2010 (India) have the Games been held away from the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, with that trend set to continue as they return to 2018 host Australia in four years time. 

But what much of the Commonwealth Games’ new found Pride is in danger of overlooking is how so much of the homophobic legislation it now recoils at is rooted in the British Empire and colonial era “sodomy laws”. 

Not that a historical shield for present day lawmakers is of any comfort to those in Commonwealth countries denied their rights and dignity, but the issue cannot be divorced from history. 

Are Britain, or any of the, on the whole, more wealthy 'white Commonwealth' countries, the advocates needed for driving this change? And does the debate even recognise that some steps in some countries are being taken to address these colonial era laws as they disentangle themselves from a complicated history entwined with the former imperial power and royalty? 

There is also the issue of how Britain, the mother country, responded when the Commonwealth was otherwise united in support of the human rights of the black majority in apartheid era South Africa.  

Where the Commonwealth, led by countries in Africa and the Caribbean, wanted a firm line with the increasingly pariah state it was Britain, led by Margaret Thatcher, that resisted and insisted it should be allowed to engage with it politically – and crucially – financially. 

That would lead to African, Caribbean and Asian nations boycotting the 1986 Games in Edinburgh. Though the city council was actively opposed to apartheid the British Government’s stance undermined Scotland’s Games. Pre devolution there was no national power in the city as a counter balance, able to stand up to the central government in London. 

The National Wales: Branding in the city centre, ahead of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. Picture: Isaac Parkin/PA WireBranding in the city centre, ahead of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. Picture: Isaac Parkin/PA Wire

Birmingham’s Games should have been held in Durban, South Africa – which having only become a democracy in the same year that Cathy Freeman won her first Commonwealth Gold has strong LGBT protections – but it failed to meet contractual obligations. 

That the Games are now taking place in the political and spiritual seat of the empire at the same time the Anglican Church, holds its Lambeth Conference – a gathering of bishops from across the Anglican world – has a certain irony. 

Wales, is also represented in its own right at the Conference, as the Church in Wales is, as Welsh football fans would put it, an ‘Independent Anglican Nation’. At the conference the Welsh bishops say they are seeking to support LGBT members amid voices from the more conservative branches opposed to same sex unions. 

Britain’s (read England’s) fading empire appears to be attempting to hold itself together in the face of divisions sown as it set out to conquer the world.  

From a purely Welsh perspective the loss of the Commonweath Games would be a huge blow. That this year’s event is somewhat devalued by the unfortunate, unintentional timing of it taking place just a week after the World Athletics Championships, meaning more top stars than usual have withdrawn, is disappointing. 

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A lesser Commonwealth Games would reduce Wales’ visibility on the world stage. We may be one of 72 “countries and territories” competing - and that Wales is one of only six to have entered all 22 editions gives you an understanding of Wales’ place in the Commonwealth pecking order – but it a rarity which allows Wales to hold its own as an international equal. 

Historian Peter Stead told BBC Wales, in 2012, that the first edition of the Empire Games to be known by the title Empire and Commonwealth, held in Cardiff, in 1958, helped lay the foundations for a new sense of nationhood in Wales. 

Those games also saw 23 of the 35 competing teams winning medals, which Stead thinks gave smaller nations a new found confidence at a time the British Empire was breaking apart. 

"There wasn't the same sort of secessionist spirit here as you had from many of the African and Caribbean nations, but it did give Wales a sense of confidence in our own identity, starting a process which led to the establishment of the National Assembly, and which is still on-going today,” said Stead. 

The National Wales: Giant pin badges of Commonwealth flags, including Y Ddraig Goch, are seen on a gate outside Baskerville House in Birmingham city centre ahead of the Commonwealth Games. Picture: Bradley Collyer/PA WireGiant pin badges of Commonwealth flags, including Y Ddraig Goch, are seen on a gate outside Baskerville House in Birmingham city centre ahead of the Commonwealth Games. Picture: Bradley Collyer/PA Wire

Cardiff council last week published a strategy that includes staging more major events but it appears to have lost interest in again hosting the Games which had been an ambition since the 1980s. 

Of course 1958 is now chiefly remembered not as the, as yet and possibly, only time Wales hosted the Commonwealth Games but for the country's run to the quarter finals of the FIFA World Cup in Sweden. 

While Wales have travelled across the Commonwealth every four years since 1958 it is only now, 64 years, later that we are returning to football’s World Cup finals. 

In those six and half decades the world has changed and the World Cup is now undoubtedly its biggest stage and one in which Wales will be showcased like never before. 

The Football Association of Wales and the Welsh Government have made initial comments on how they wish to use the opportunity to promote the nation. 

Though the devolution settlement minimises the Welsh Government’s role in international relations, it is engaged through trade and sport. 

The Welsh Government’s commitments to equality and human rights could be tested by what in some ways will be Wales’ true debut on the world stage, in the contentious host country of Qatar. 

The National Wales: Dai Greene celebrates his gold medal for Wales in the 400m hurdles in 2010. A year later, running for Great Britain and Northern Ireland, he won the world title in the event. Picture: Huw Evans AgencyDai Greene celebrates his gold medal for Wales in the 400m hurdles in 2010. A year later, running for Great Britain and Northern Ireland, he won the world title in the event. Picture: Huw Evans Agency

Mark Drakeford has told the Senedd “we should not look the other way from the reservations that we would have as a nation from some of those human rights issues that we see” in a country which has discriminatory laws impacting women and LGBTI people and where migrant workers face labour abuses. 

In reality Wales, and the Welsh Government, will have little sway over FIFA or Qatar. The Welsh Government may also feel gagged by its pandemic disrupted deal with Qatar Airways which it was hoped would be the saviour of Cardiff Airport. 

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Sport has long been the most prominent platform for Wales to make its mark internationally. Among old friends and certainties, the Commonwealth Games has been one of the most comfortable settings. How long those ties will remain is perhaps uncertain. 

In November Wales will enter a truly global stage and how it choses to use the platform also remains to be seen. 

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