Michael Pavitt

The Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) has effectively opened the door for prospective hosts to design the event whichever way they please, after a strategic roadmap was approved at the organisation's General Assembly last week.

The changes look somewhat drastic, but were not unexpected. It came after CGF President Dame Louise Martin acknowledged earlier this year that the Games would downsize after Birmingham 2022.

A push towards a smaller, easier and less costly event was promised, as well as ensuring that the Games appeal to a younger audience.

Time will tell as to whether the CGF can achieve this, but, ultimately, the organisation's roadmap will be judged on whether it can deliver future hosts and secure the Games' long-term future.

The most eye-catching part of the roadmap was the decision to reduce the number of core sports to just two, with only athletics and swimming enjoying protected status due to their "historical place". Both have appeared on the programme since the first Games at Hamilton in 1930.

Broadcast and spectator interest, in addition to Para-inclusion, were also cited as reasons for the sports remaining compulsory.

It would be unthinkable for any major multi-sport event not to feature both, and in the Commonwealth Games' case, their absence would have stripped away much of the interest from the participating countries.

CGF President Dame Louise Martin has said the Games need to
CGF President Dame Louise Martin has said the Games need to "adapt, evolve and modernise" ©Getty Images

However, there is understandable cause for concern over what this means for the remaining sports and the Commonwealth Games itself as a concept.

Jamaica Olympic Association President Christopher Samuda, for instance, claimed the changes would be a "body blow" to some sports.

Several will now be left crossing their fingers in the hope that an upcoming host favours them for inclusion, particularly with the recommended number of sports being 15.

Certainly, there is a risk that several sports which view the Games as an essential part of their calendars could be the hardest hit. Non-Olympic sports such as netball and squash, for example, enjoy significant time in the spotlight.

It is hard not to look at lawn bowls as another possible casualty. Compulsory status has protected one of the most traditional sports on the Commonwealth Games programme, but many hosts would no doubt discard it in favour of newer and more youthful events.

Lawn bowls is often viewed as a quaint and quirky affair, but its most recent outing at Gold Coast 2018 provided rare medals for Norfolk Island and Malta and a maiden podium for the Cook Islands.

The CGF does potentially face losing some of the charm and charisma that makes the Games a different and welcome change of pace in the sporting calendar, due to the potential absence of some of its most recognised sports.

With future hosts likely to remain the largest and wealthiest nations, it is also not impossible to imagine a scenario where these countries stack the programme with events they are strongest in. This could possibly deny fans the rare successes from the smallest members of the Commonwealth.

Lawn bowls is among sports no longer compulsory at the Commonwealth Games ©Getty Images
Lawn bowls is among sports no longer compulsory at the Commonwealth Games ©Getty Images

This is a criticism that has been made about the Southeast Asian Games in the past, with hosts accused of adding sports to the programme simply for the purpose of boosting their medal hauls.

Arguably, this has already been done on a lesser scale at the Commonwealth Games through optional sports, but the compulsory events have maintained balance. 

As the CGF has pointed out, the changes do allow for a greater flexibility for host nations to choose previously optional sports such as T20 cricket, beach volleyball and 3x3 basketball, while both sport climbing and lacrosse were mentioned.

The organisation claims this will ensure the programme remains relevant to the host nation and its culture.

This is not dissimilar to what other organisations have considered.

Panam Sports, as recently as 2018, spoke of reviewing the Pan American Games programme, with questions lingering over whether certain sports were relevant to nations in the region.

The continental body ultimately maintained all of the  Olympic sports, perhaps through necessity rather than choice. But there was a thought towards potentially removing some sports to ease the strain being placed on host nations.

A bulging and expensive sports programme is clearly more of an issue for organisers which are limited either regionally, or by membership to the Commonwealth, than it is for an organisation like the International Olympic Committee which has potential opportunities worldwide.

Some have suggested that the CGF's latest changes amount to a desperate act by the organisation, with a host yet to be secured for the 2026 Games.

The changes do seem to be a reaction to its current predicament, with Dame Louise saying last week that the Games need to "adapt, evolve and modernise" to ensure the event maintains its "relevance and prestige".

While the CGF has expressed confidence a host will be secured by March next year, amid claims of discussions with a number of potential host countries, it is worth noting that a year has now passed since Hamilton 2026 was informed by the Ontario Government that it would not provide support for the Games, with the Canadian city instead told to focus on a later date.

I wondered then whether the struggle to find a host could lead to the CGF being forced into embracing different hosting models, including the possibility of multiple hubs or host cities.

The latest roadmap has outlined the organisation's openness to a new way of hosting the Games, with co-hosting and multi-site Villages cited as possible ways to help potential hosts.

It remains unclear who Birmingham 2022 will pass the hosting baton to ©Getty Images
It remains unclear who Birmingham 2022 will pass the hosting baton to ©Getty Images

New Zealand Olympic Committee President Mike Stanley offered a promising comment in a statement shortly after the changes were confirmed.

"This plan strikes a nice balance between retaining the core values and history of the Commonwealth Games, while allowing future host cities and countries to have more say on what the Games will look like," Stanley said.

"This is also a really positive step towards New Zealand hosting another Commonwealth Games in the future.

"The flexibility of both a tailored sports programme and a multi-city approach would be really positive for a New Zealand Commonwealth Games proposal."

New Zealand feels like the type of nation the changes are aimed to attract. The three-time host last welcomed the Games in 1990 when Auckland staged the event.

Just 10 sports featured on the programme then, compared to the 20 which are due to be contested in Birmingham next year.

Should a nation opt to have only 15 sports it would make the 2026 Commonwealth Games the leanest since Kuala Lumpur hosted in 1998, with Malaysia another country the CGF would surely be thrilled to return to.

Given that there has only been one edition of the Games held outside Australia or a part of Great Britain this century, another nation raising its hand for 2026 would render the CGF's changes an instant success.