Patrick Burke ©ITG

It was a day which started with the Commonwealth Games organisers hoping to put its issues securing a host for future editions of its events to one side for the duration of Trinbago 2023 here. 

Within hours, Alberta in Canada had withdrawn its bid for the 2030 Commonwealth Games and the sense of crisis the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) is currently facing only seemed to deepen. 

"We had a Board meeting two days ago where it was discussed as fully as we could and we discussed the options," CGF President Dame Louise Martin said of the shock cancellation by Victoria 2026 on the eve of the Commonwealth Youth Games in Trinidad and Tobago.

"What we said was as far as we are concerned, that is a Commonwealth Games of the future.

"We are concentrating now on this one here, and I certainly won't be talking about it any more because I need to concentrate on the youngsters here. It's their Games and they need to have the full attention."

Victoria's Premier Daniel Andrews has blamed spiralling costs for pulling out of the contract, claiming staging the Games in 2026 would now require a budget of AUD$6 billion (£3.1 billion/$4 billion/€3.6 billion). That has been disputed by the CGF, whose vice-president Kereyn Smith suggested to insidethegames Victoria's figures "would have paid for the last three outstanding Games". The cost to Victoria of exiting its agreement also remains to be seen, with discussions with the CGF ongoing.

However, in a further blow on Thursday (August 3) when officials were looking forward to the start of the Commonwealth Youth Games, the only known bidder for the 2030 edition of the Commonwealth Games in the Canadian province of Alberta withdrew its interest. 

Commonwealth Sport Canada admitted "the recent decision by the Victorian Government to withdraw from the 2026 Commonwealth Games was a significant factor in Alberta’s decision".

Critics have long viewed the event as an outdated relic of the British Empire. Since 1970, the British Isles has held the Games five times, Australia three times, and New Zealand and Canada twice but not since 1990 and 1994, respectively. Beyond that, Malaysia and India are the only other hosts at Kuala Lumpur in 1998 and New Delhi in 2010.

Developments in recent weeks have amplified questions for the CGF over how it can provide multi-sport events with feasibility and relevance in the modern world.

Cities in the United Kingdom and Australia have flirted with the prospect of stepping in for 2026. It is possible one or multiple may come to the rescue in a similar manner in which Birmingham did for last year's Games when Durban was stripped of the event in 2017 due to financial issues. That is far from certain, but even if it were to materialise, it is clear it would be, at best, a sticking plaster solution for the much bigger problem.

A decision by Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews, right, to withdraw from hosting 2026 Commonwealth Games has caused the CGF, led by Dame Louise Martin, right, anger and shock ©YouTube
A decision by Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews, right, to withdraw from hosting 2026 Commonwealth Games has caused the CGF, led by Dame Louise Martin, right, anger and shock ©YouTube

Many believe the Commonwealth Games now faces an existential crisis.

In many ways it is something of an enigma. The CGF points to its "Games Value Framework" which it claims shows economic and social benefits to hosting it events. Birmingham 2022 was widely considered a success in terms of the quality of sport on display, the changes it drove in the West Midlands host region and the conversations it prompted on issues such as LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning) rights in the Commonwealth.

Leading CGF officials insist they already offer a flexible bidding process for potential hosts, pointing to the recent reforms in its 2022 to 2026 roadmap which made athletics and swimming the only two compulsory Commonwealth Games sports and the launch of the "Commonwealth United" strategic plan outlining its aims through to 2034. This includes a pledge to assess the feasibility of hosting in new regions and considering a multi-country Games.

"I'm 18 months into the role and I spent the first 10 months actively listening to what people's hopes, aspirations and thoughts were, the good, the bad and the ugly and the amazing opportunities of the Commonwealth Sport Movement and Commonwealth Games and why it was special or not special," CGF chief executive Katie Sadleir told insidethegames.

"In any movement, you have the people who are absolutely passionate about it, the people who get really passionate about it for that one month and then the people who will knock it, but overall it was an ideal time in the lead-up to Birmingham [2022] which was such a success to take the time to reflect of where we were,

"I talked about an organisation that is nearly 100 years old, and I turned that around to saying how do you make that 100 years young in terms of reflecting and reframing for the future, and I think those words are really important in terms of where we're at.

"We've made this commitment as part of that process to be open and up for doing things that are different."

Victoria and Alberta developments have hastened the need for solutions to broaden the scope of the Games, and Sadleir believes "now we're in a situation where we can accelerate some of that thinking".

CGF chief executive Katie Sadleir says the organisation is
CGF chief executive Katie Sadleir says the organisation is "reflecting and reframing for the future" ©Getty Images

Discussions have taken place at Executive Board level regarding what the future may look like, and Sadleir has promised a full update at this year's General Assembly. With an election to succeed Dame Louise as President following the conclusion of her maximum two four-year terms and the situation regarding hosts for its future events, November 11 to 14 in Singapore could be the most crucial gathering in the CGF's history.

"My commitment to the Movement was we would have a plan in place by the time we hit our General Assembly this year, and we are currently looking at all sorts of options for that, but it would be fair to say we are quite flexible for that, so if we need to alter the dates," Sadlier said.

"An Australian Games was early in 2026, whether that means we need to give a potential host a bit more time to move that by 12 months, we're open to that because clearly it is not a long time away, but whether it is a traditional Games like you saw in Birmingham or something that's a little bit different and a bit special, it's probably too early for me to say. But what we are doing is evaluating all options, and we will have something in place."

Smith, the former chief executive and secretary general of the New Zealand Olympic Committee, is among the officials who is optimistic a solution can be found for the 2026 edition of the Games.

She believes the "huge shock" of Victoria's cancellation can make "people regroup and think about things hard".

"We were well aware of the need to modify and be flexible, and you've seen that in other multi-sport events over time, so I think we were on that pathway," Smith reflected.

"What you now have with Victoria is a scenario whereby we just need to reset again and think how do we move this forward and that timeframe.

"The Federation is very committed to getting the Games up and running.

"These things are not insurmountable. What you find is sometimes that it brings out opportunities that you didn't know about before, so we're just working our way through that.

"Certainly the idea of flexibility, sustainability in terms of carbon footprint, the notion about cost and making the Games accessible to many countries is really high on the Federation's agenda."

Despite the success of Birmingham 2022, the CGF has been left scrambling for a host of its upcoming events, including the 2026 Commonwealth Games after Victoria withdrew with less than three years remaining ©Getty Images
Despite the success of Birmingham 2022, the CGF has been left scrambling for a host of its upcoming events, including the 2026 Commonwealth Games after Victoria withdrew with less than three years remaining ©Getty Images

Sadleir has insisted the CGF is open to all proposals, and wants to make pan-continental bids, for example in Africa or the Caribbean, feasible. In theory, staging the Games in multiple countries would split the cost burden, and is considered a realistic prospect in the medium-term.

"When I went to the Commonwealth Sports Ministers Conference they always have prior to the Commonwealth Games, that was one of the challenges that we had from the African countries saying you are committed to the Commonwealth but you've never brought anything to the Commonwealth in terms of a major event, so when it is our turn?" Sadlier revealed.

"To take something like a major Commonwealth Games to Africa is a significant challenge in the more traditional way that a Commonwealth Games was, so I said to them at the time we will start thinking about what would that look like and how could you do that.

"Would it be something run across countries rather than in one country? How about we sit down and do a feasibility study and do some real reflection on what would an African Commonwealth Games look like, because it could look quite different in terms of understanding where sports policy fits inside some of those countries and what their hopes and aspirations are in terms of the wider good of having a significant major event are.

"Thinking about where they want to be in the next 10 years and how could we work with them to create an event or a series of events that would help them with that. I kind of got to the stage in all of those workshops to say nothing is off the table."

Some believe the Commonwealth Youth Games, taking place in this Caribbean dual-island until Friday (August 11), offer a tailor-made solution for the CGF.

Former Trinidad and Tobago Olympic Committee (TTOC) President Brian Lewis, an influential figure in securing the Commonwealth Youth Games for the country, subscribes to such a view. 

He argued the event for athletes aged 14 to 18 "must become the flagship" and must be treated seriously and not a sideshow", insisting it provides a way for the CGF to "embrace in particular the small island states".

"As I shared when we made the original bid presentation, I made the point to the Executive then that the Commonwealth Youth Games is the flagship event of the Commonwealth Games Federation and the Commonwealth Sport Movement," Lewis told insidethegames.

"But a lot of the conservative, traditional, colonialist thinking see the Commonwealth Games as the flagship."

Former TTOC President Brian Lewis believes Trinbago 2023 can be a
Former TTOC President Brian Lewis believes Trinbago 2023 can be a "defining moment" for the Commonwealth Games Federation, insisting the Youth Games should be "the flagship event" ©Panam Sports

Lewis is convinced that focussing on an event with youth at its core would help the CGF distance itself from accusations that the Commonwealth Games is an outdated remnant of Britain's colonial past. 

"But, given the modern and contemporary issues and challenges bedevilling the Commonwealth Games and the Commonwealth Sports Movement because of its incontrovertible history originally as a sports washing event for the British Empire and its connections to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, that enhancing the relevance of the Commonwealth Games and the Commonwealth Sport Movement, the young people and the youth of the Commonwealth need to be brought in under the tent so they will get to appreciate and understand the history of sport in terms of the Commonwealth," he told insidethegames.

"Notwithstanding the history of the Games and its ties to colonialism, Empire, slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, the Games and sport in the Commonwealth has still been more of a bridge builder rather than a divider and the power of sport to make a positive difference in the lives of youth and young people was authentic and not contrived, and the way to do build a positive emotional connection to the Commonwealth sport movement is with the Commonwealth Youth Games.

"I believe that this Commonwealth Youth Games, Trinbago 2023, is a catalyst and will turn out to be in the history of the Commonwealth sport movement and the Commonwealth Games Federation a defining moment, because none of us in the Commonwealth sport movement can deny that this Games is taking place at a critical juncture in Commonwealth Games Federation and Commonwealth Games Movement history given the reality of what is happening with 2026 and 2030."

Lewis and Sadleir both pointed to workshops on emancipation staged for participants at the Commonwealth Youth Games in conjunction with the Liverpool Slavery Museum.

The former TTOC President believes the CGF "needs to be upfront and honest about the history of the Commonwealth Games, and we need to be upfront, open and honest about a conversation".

To safeguard the future of the Commonwealth Sport Movement, Lewis also believes the CGF "can’t approach solving this crisis with the traditional, colonial, European mindset", and must "think outside of the box" and "be much more flexible".

Lewis described Dame Louise as CGF President as a "breath of fresh air" with her efforts to transform the organisation, although claimed, "I don't think she was supported enough by the Executive", and believes the General Assembly in Singapore will provide a "critical election".

Lewis, warned, "I think depending on who is in the leadership, it will either make or break the Commonwealth Games Federation. What it can't have is conservatism, so I think that's going to be an interesting aspect."

He concluded, though, "I am confident that it's not a hopeless situation and just as we would have done with making Trinbago 2023, where there is a will there is a way."

CGF vice-president  Kereyn Smith insisted
CGF vice-president  Kereyn Smith insisted "these things are not insurmountable" ©Getty Images

Sadleir extoled the potential of the Commonwealth Youth Games too. 

She described it as "much more than a sporting event", pointing to workshops which provide forums for learning and discussion on interesting and important topics.

"Traditionally we've had a Games that happens once every four years and a Youth Games that happens once every four years and they’ve been of certain size and scales," she said.

"But you may decide once every eight years you have a more dispersed model which is regional and smaller and then something more like a Birmingham.

"Youth Games, how often should you have them? The Youth Games is really important for the Commonwealth. For a lot of these young girls and boys, I've already had some of the leaders saying that person is going to be the next Olympic medallist. This is a really good opportunity to test what a global competition at an age group level is and inspire people in terms of a feeder to other major global events.

"So I think something like this is really important, and at this stage a lot of our Commonwealth countries have said they want to be involved in the Youth Games, because they see the Youth Games as something that's seven sports and they see the Commonwealth Games as something that's more than 20 sports.

"But there's no reason you couldn't adjust the number of sports into the Commonwealth Games. At this stage, it's about reflection and reframing and it's the right time to do that."

Smith is another key official who believes widening hosting opportunities should be high on the CGF's agenda.

"You see this event here and this is the first time a global multi-sport event has been held in this region, and you see the potential and power of it," she said. "There is a real awakening.

"The Commonwealth is unique because we have such huge diversity and we have a lot of knowledge and information to share amongst each other, so part of what you're saying is about moving the Games out of the same nations, that's also about people feeling confident and supported to put their hands up, and I think that's something we have to think about as a Federation - are we making that an encouraging opportunity and ambition for many countries to start to realise their potential?"

The Commonwealth Youth Games began on Friday in Trinidad and Tobago, and their importance has been underlined with the Commonwealth Games' future under threat ©Getty Images
The Commonwealth Youth Games began on Friday in Trinidad and Tobago, and their importance has been underlined with the Commonwealth Games' future under threat ©Getty Images

There is a will from the CGF and the Commonwealth Games Associations (CGAs) to find a solution.

TTOC President Diane Henderson is remaining upbeat about the prospects for 2026.

"I am confident the Commonwealth Games Federation will find an alternate host and all our athletes across the Commonwealth will have the opportunity to have it on their calendars and be able to perform at the Games somewhere else very suitable," she told insidethegames.

"I always say what is supposed to be will be, so [I'm] not bothered about it and I think we just need to move on and be positive, and I think all will be well."

Commonwealth Games England chair John Steele pointed to the importance of the Games for sports such as netball, squash and lawn bowls, for whom it represents the pinnacle. He also noted the event has served as a "launch pad to countless glittering careers", including Commonwealth Games England President Dame Denise Lewis, winner of an Olympic heptathlon gold medal at Sydney 2000 after back-to-back Commonwealth Games titles at Victoria 1994 and Kuala Lumpur 1998.

"The essence of the Commonwealth Games is unique," Steele reflected to insidethegames.

"The Games have bound Commonwealth countries in nearly a century of history and in an increasingly volatile world, the Commonwealth is a band of nations that can stand together, and support each other.

"Commonwealth sport captures this spirit, and its importance should not be underestimated or taken for granted.

"Nationally it provides an integrated team where Para athletes compete alongside non-disabled athletes, and Team England at Birmingham 2022 was the most diverse England sports team ever.

"At a time where society is looking for so much more from sport than just performance success, the Commonwealth Games answers that challenge. Given a chance the best is still to come."

The consensus among the countries and territories that compete in the Commonwealth Games is that it is an event worth saving ©Team Scotland
The consensus among the countries and territories that compete in the Commonwealth Games is that it is an event worth saving ©Team Scotland

Zambia's team leader at Trinbago 2023 Susanna Dakik underlined the importance of the Youth Games for her country's athletes, and hopes solutions can be found to preserve the Commonwealth Sport Movement.

"I think it's not just for Zambia, I think it's for most countries that are part of the Commonwealth Games," she told insidethegames.

"These Games are quite important because they are on the amateur platform, so it gives them the opportunity and a platform to grow from it. It opens up new friendships for them, new visions, it opens up a lot of new opportunities for them in terms of networking or knowledge. Today, my athletes attended two safeguarding sessions. It also brings a lot of diversity.

"So for Zambia it's important we look forward to the Commonwealth Youth Games and to the main Commonwealth Games.

"I really hope it doesn't come to an end. It brings a lot of diversity, it brings a lot of people together, it brings a lot of nationalities. Bringing in so many colours in one place and creating a lot of magic out of it, so I really hope it doesn't end."

National Olympic Committee of Zambia secretary general Boniface Kambikambi shared his perspective and underlined the importance of the Youth Games as an opportunity for his country's athletes to compete on the global stage.

"When they come to a place like here, they see the different diversity and culture in terms of competitions as well and where they are," he told insidethegames.

"Sometimes when they are at home, you can only tell them theoretical situations, and I think they are not there or at their best until they meet their friends and then they begin to aspire towards senior competitions.

"Having created this platform, I think it's great for young athletes when you tell them there is a future in the sport. 

"When they are at school they don't see it, but when they come to here, it is an opportunity."

The election in Singapore in November to succeed Dame Louise Martin as CGF President as seen as crucial to the future of the Commonwealth Games ©Getty Images
The election in Singapore in November to succeed Dame Louise Martin as CGF President as seen as crucial to the future of the Commonwealth Games ©Getty Images 

The CGF wanted the spotlight to be on Trinbago 2023, and have pointed out it is a Youth Games of firsts in many ways. 

With the onus on doing things differently, several of the unfamiliar features so far are worth carrying forward. The Opening Ceremony's focued on a carnival-style party and celebration proved popular, and staging it from 4pm to 6pm local time rather than the usual finish close to midnight and grandiose firework celebrations was a big plus.

It has been a pretty torrid few weeks for the CGF and the broad issue of how it moves forward in the absence of known bidders for its upcoming events is tough to address and has no clear answer. 

Little is being ruled out at this stage, but elections, for which Smith is expected to be one of the candidates, in November are likely to prove pivotal to the Commonwealth Games' direction.

In the meantime, Trinbago 2023's timing could hardly have been more apt. 

It offers a window into how a future Games could look, with the possibility of a quadrennial event on the scale of Birmingham 2022 or Gold Coast 2018 looking increasingly fanciful. 

It also provides a reminder of the necessity to embrace all of its member states instead of a select few, and offer athletes with the stage to compete while confronting the Commonwealth's murky history, the effects of which can still be seen to this day through institutional racism, sexism and homophobia.