Sport

Following the state’s grim Covid lockdowns, the Victorian government embarked on an ambitious plan to host the 2026 Commonwealth Games in the regions. Was it just playing politics with an event already on a losing trajectory? By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Let the Commonwealth Games be cancelled

Politicians stand behind microphones on a field.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announces the state will no longer host the 2026 Commonwealth Games.
Credit: AAP Image / James Ross

It’s a hard sell these days. The Commonwealth Games glimmers with “the core values of humanity, equality and destiny” and is nobly motivated “to unite the Commonwealth family through a glorious festival of sport”– but you’d have better luck asking cities to store nuclear waste.

For at least a decade now, the bidding process for the Games has been deliciously farcical. In fact, “bidding” is no longer the appropriate word, as it suggests a competitive auction for desirable goods. “Begging” is closer to it.

For the previous Commonwealth Games, held last year, initially only two bids were made in 2015 – from Durban in South Africa and Edmonton in Canada. But Edmonton quickly withdrew, leaving only Durban. A short meeting, then, when the Commonwealth Games Federation gathered in September that year to elect a winner.

The farce intensified. Less than 18 months later, the CGF stripped Durban of hosting rights after suggesting the city had performed a bait and switch. “The Commonwealth Games Federation has completed its review of the final information submitted by South Africa on 30th November, 2016 to determine whether their proposals for hosting the 2022 Commonwealth Games are consistent with their original bid commitments and the host city contract,” the CGF said at the time. “It is with disappointment that the detailed review has concluded that there is a significant departure from the undertakings provided in Durban’s bid.”

And so, another “bidding” process began and another short election held: for the second time, only one formal bidder emerged: Birmingham. Hilariously, the CGF deemed the city’s bid “non-compliant” and extended its deadline to encourage rival bidders. None emerged. Birmingham it was.

For this largely anachronistic, irrelevant and undesirable competition – first conceived in the British Empire’s chauvinism and then, later, resentment about the United States’ Olympic dominance – the writing was on the wall, even for the CGF’s president. “We can’t stay as we are – it’s not sustainable,” Dame Louise Martin said in 2021. “We have to move on, we have to modernise.”

Practically, this meant dramatically scaling the competition back – fewer sports, lower costs. But the silliness of invoking the “Commonwealth family” persisted, as if 56 disparate and far-flung countries comprising 2.5 billion citizens enjoyed some mystical fraternity. And while only 6 per cent of those 2.5 billion people live outside Africa or Asia, cities from those regions have hosted the Games only twice in almost a century – both times in Asia. “These Games have no standard,” the president of the Indian Olympic Association, Narinder Batra, said in 2019. “For me, these are a waste of time and money.”

In 2018, bidding opened for the 2026 Games. There were some expressions of interest, but the pandemic helped reduce formal pitches to zero. By 2022, the CGF was faced with a grand humiliation: not one of its 89 member countries and territories wanted to host. The usual bidding process was replaced with quiet, desperate entreaties to various jurisdictions.

Enter Victoria. Given the CGF’s desperation, the state’s premier, Daniel Andrews, could aggressively dictate terms. And so he did: Victoria would host, he said, but for the first time in the Games’ history, its hosting would be decentralised: spread across four regional “hubs”. “A Games like no other in a place like no other,” was the government’s slogan, though Andrews cheekily admitted the regional location might seem risky to the CGF.

It was an election year and the premier was eager to suggest Victoria’s vitality and promise after two years of punishing Covid-19 lockdowns. Interestingly, the government’s plan for a decentralised, regionally hosted Games – which would be more logistically demanding and more expensive than hosting it in Melbourne – suggested an ambition that ran counter to the CGF’s new era of austerity. But, hey: it was a buyer’s market. “Since awarding Victoria the Games, the [state] government has made decisions to include more sports and an additional regional hub, and changed plans for venues, all of which have added considerable expense, often against the advice of the Commonwealth Games Federation and Commonwealth Games Australia,” the Commonwealth Sport Movement said this week.

On Monday, the Victorian government’s media advisers went to ground. Something strange was brewing. And then, on Tuesday morning, Premier Andrews stood before reporters and announced the government was tearing up the contract: three years out from the Games, Victoria was withdrawing as host. This wasn’t a difficult decision, Andrews said. “It was all cost and no benefit.”

Andrews said the original costings – which the CGA says were the state government’s “own homework” – had significantly, and unjustifiably, blown out. The government had originally budgeted $2.6 billion – which included broader community sporting upgrades and social housing – but it was now looking at something closer to $6 billion or even $7 billion. “It’s too much for a 12-day sporting event,” he said.

It might not be a popular decision, Andrews said, but it was the right one. No apology was necessary. The numbers had changed, and so, necessarily, had the government’s commitment. The budgeted $2.6 billion would still be spent in the regions, he said, on community infrastructure and “affordable and social housing”, albeit spread more widely than the four regional cities that would have hosted the Games.   

Almost as soon as the premier and his deputy, Jacinta Allan, finished their press conference, the CGF released a tart statement: “This is hugely disappointing … The reasons given are financial. The numbers quoted to us today of $6 billion are 50% more than those advised to the Organising Committee board at its meeting in June.

“These figures are attributed to price escalation primarily due to the unique regional delivery model that Victoria chose for these Games, and in particular relate to village and venue builds and transport infrastructure … We are disappointed that we were only given eight hours’ notice and that no consideration was given to discussing the situation to jointly find solutions prior to this decision being reached by the Government.”

Victoria’s opposition leader, John Pesutto, was not alone in describing the shock withdrawal as a grave “humiliation” – though humiliation is also borne, once again, by the CGF. Within hours of Andrews’ press conference, successive state premiers emphatically ruled out stepping in. “Hell no” was the resounding reply from Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland, New South Wales and then Tasmania. WA’s new premier, Roger Cook, added that hosting the Games would be “ruinously expensive”.

Several important questions remain. For one, how much has this cost Victoria already – and how much will it cost to withdraw? The premier was coy about this. Second, what precisely were the original costs? Who calculated them, and why do the new, prohibitive estimates vary so dramatically from the earlier ones (and from the costs of previous Games)? On this, Andrews said the books would be publicly revealed at a later date – but for now, his team were still negotiating with London and it would be unwise and impolite to share those details. Finally, why did it take this long for Victoria to arrive at a conclusion that seemed obvious to Western Australia and South Australia some time ago? Comparing state budgets is not like for like – and Victoria’s “unique regional model” complicates comparisons further – but how much magical thinking or political expedience influenced the original commitment?   

In 2020, Commonwealth Games Australia commissioned the now scandal-riddled consultancy firm PwC to conduct a feasibility study of Adelaide hosting the 2026 Games. Unsurprisingly, the report was flatteringly supportive of the proposal – the benefits outweighed the costs, it said. The South Australian government called bullshit, and said its own estimates on cost were significantly more than PwC’s.

And last year, then WA premier Mark McGowan ridiculed the Andrews government for its seeming profligacy. To be fair, there was a bitter context – the recurring dispute about revised GST distribution, which Victoria believes unfairly rewards WA. “Maybe they should make different decisions,” McGowan said of the increasingly indebted eastern state. “We decided not to go for the Commonwealth Games because I didn’t want to, in an uncertain world, go and spend $2.5 billion on something that is a ‘nice to have’ while what we want to do is fund our hospitals properly, deal with important health issues, pay down debt [and] diversify the economy.”

This week, Daniel Andrews artfully framed the issue as one of simple, humane pragmatism – the idea was sound, until it wasn’t, and he would not now deny funding to schools and hospitals just so he might save some face.

It is, of course, more complicated and mysterious than that. It also asks Dame Louise Martin to consider, once again, the sustainability of the Games themselves – and for that, Daniel Andrews is not solely to blame.

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