The medal tally has historically been one of the most dominant manifestations of Australia’s involvement in the Commonwealth Games. But this has not been the case at the 2018 Gold Coast Games, even though Australia topped the medal count with double the medals of great rival and second-placed England.
The Commonwealth Games has lost its standing for a number of interrelated issues, including the lack of success by Australian athletes in major events, declining grassroots participation in Commonwealth Games sports, and a growing unease towards commercialised sport.
There has also been a loss both of what the Games symbolised, as well as outside political factors. The 1938 Empire Games were held in Sydney on the eve of World War 2, while the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games were held during the Cold War. Australia is also a much more diverse nation in 2018.
Regardless of how well Australia does at the Commonwealth level, the gold standard in sporting excellence for Australians is the Olympic Games. At the 2000 Sydney and 2004 Athens Olympics, Australia emerged in the top five and we gloated at surpassing nations with much larger populations and strong sporting traditions such as the British, Germans, Russians and even the Chinese.
Excellence both in Olympic competition and in hosting Sydney 2000 gave Australians legitimacy on the world stage, and it was clear that sport could unite Australians like no other cultural institution.
Rightly or wrongly, and for whatever reasons, this devastated Australians’ perception of themselves on the world stage. Coming first at the Commonwealth level is no substitute for success at the Olympic Games – the pinnacle.
Winning gold in more than one-third of the Commonwealth Games events is impressive, but the only medal tally that counts is the Olympic one, where Australians can more authentically measure themselves against the world.
Australia’s Commonwealth Games success has also not occurred in flagship sports, particularly athletics. Australia again dominated in the pool, as they have done since 1930. But Australia has had little success in recent Commonwealth Games in athletics, with the exception of Sally Pearson and Dani Stevens.
In blue ribbon events such as the 100 metres or marathon, success has largely eluded us. In the public’s perception, a gold medal in squash does not have the same significance as a gold medal in the 100 metres sprint.
There is a clear disconnect between success at elite sports and sport’s meaning and relevance to Australians’ lives. Take, for example, the five gold medals won by Australia in the lawn bowls competition. While the sport and local “bowlos” have a long and distinguished existence in Australian social history, their numbers especially in metropolitan cities have been dwindling, and the sport has lost some of its cultural meaning.
In fact, according to Roy Morgan, a host of Commonwealth Games have seen huge declines in participation since 2001, including netball, table tennis, volleyball, field hockey, squash, and rugby.
Finally, there is the emergence of cynicism towards commercialised sports, amid a growing sentiment that big business has too much of an impact on sport.
For many there is no point rejoicing in the success of Australian Commonwealth Games athletes while there has been a decline in sport at the grassroots level. Sport funding models prioritise elite competition but have failed to provide the necessary infrastructure and opportunities for many to participate in Commonwealth Games sports.
Put these together and you begin to understand why at these particular games, the medal count has been greeted with far less exuberance than before.