The Malaysian contingent at the Commonwealth Games flag-raising ceremony in Gold Coast, Australia. A total of 175 Malaysian athletes are competing in 16 sports at the Games. PIC BY YAZIT RAZALI

AMID the skyscrapers and coastline of Surfers Paradise in Australia’s Gold Coast, one can spot a large surfboard with a digital clock, determinedly counting down.

The Commonwealth Games will descend this week onto the Gold Coast’s beaches, bringing with it the world’s best athletes and nagging questions of relevance, competitiveness and economic effect.

The multi-sport event has gathered various nations of the British Commonwealth every four years since 1930, barring a few wartime aberrations. It was originally known as the British Empire Games, hosting various combinations of countries, with Australia and Britain among the mainstays. The 2018 Games will draw athletes from 71 Commonwealth nations and territories who will compete in 275 events over 18 sports.

Despite the impending glow of an international audience, familiar concerns over the games’ substantial cost and dwindling significance have again come to the fore, this time in the Australian state of Queensland.

There is little doubt the Commonwealth represents a particular, if ageing, type of might — it still represents about a third of the world’s population. Set up in the mid-20th century as Britain allowed for the self-governance of many of its territories, the Commonwealth of Nations have no legal obligations to one another, but instead aim to further shared values like democracy and freedom of speech.

But, in a post-Brexit landscape, and with many countries shrinking further into isolationism, questions have been raised not only of the games’ relevance, but the relevance of the Commonwealth itself.

“The Commonwealth matters to me,” said Jacqui Gooding, a New Zealander who was visiting Surfers Paradise on vacation.

“The queen is our leader — I don’t want a president.”

Gooding’s husband, John, dismissed the idea that the games would be absent of sporting and political relevance.

“It’s about bringing all the nations of the Commonwealth together,” he said.

“It shows the power of sport in diplomacy, and the importance of the Commonwealth.”

Organisers on the Gold Coast said they expected the games to reach a global audience of 1.5 billion. For context, the 2014 World Cup had about 3.2 billion global viewers and the Rio Olympics had about 3.6 billion.

The mood of locals varied from enthusiasm to curiosity to, occasionally, eye-rolling frustration at construction and traffic delays.

Nick Atkins, who runs a co-working space on the Gold Coast, has been an advocate for attracting and retaining talent in the region. He said he was more excited about the government’s spending on infrastructure than the events themselves.

“For me, personally, I don’t know who the Commonwealth’s best javelin thrower is, or table tennis player or swimmer,” he said.

“But, there’s an undeniable positivity on the Gold Coast for it.”

Peter Beattie, a former premier of the state of Queensland, and the chairman of the Gold Coast Games, said that he empathised with those who had reservations about the event.

“I understand that there’s always a bit of cynicism: Is this the remnants of the Empire? Look, it came from the Empire Games, but its relevance and relationship with the Empire Games is very tenuous,” he said.

This year’s games, for the first time, will feature an equal gender split of events. Women will compete for the same number of me-dals as men, a feat that organisers said had not been replicated by any other major multi-sport international event, including the Olympics.

Beattie said that the games would send a message about the advancement of women that he hoped the Olympics would emulate.

Others said the games presented athletes with a rare chance at higher competition like the Olympics and World Championships — and some athletes with perhaps the peak competition of their careers.

“I just snuck into the Commonwealth Games. It was the first major team that I made, representing Australia — they have more relaxed standards,” said Steve Moneghetti, a retired Australian runner who eventually competed in four Olympic marathons.

“It’s a good stepping stone, and certainly for some athletes it will be the only multisport competition that they go to.”

It is easy to see why for certain nations these games may be just as watchable as the Olympics — there’s a far greater chance of seeing a fellow countryman win.

Medal count aside, host cities have faced increasing pressure in recent games to ensure that the economic effect of the event proves both positive and sustainable.

Last year, the South African city of Durban was stripped of the right to host the games in 2022, following a series of missed deadlines and financial shortcomings. The African continent has never hosted the games.

Before that, India’s 2010 Games were marred by accusations of substantial overspend and corruption.

The 2014 Games in Glasgow proved something of a litmus test for the economic and cultural credibility of the event.

There, a large chunk of responsibility fell to an American, David Grevemberg, who had previously been part of a team that secured an agreement that would require Olympic cities to also host the Paralympics.

“Post India, we had a brand that’s relevance was being questioned,” said Grevemberg, who today is the chief executive of the Commonwealth Games Federation.

Under Grevemberg’s leadership, Glasgow 2014 accomplished an elusive feat: finishing under budget.

Beattie said that much of the 2018 Games’ US$1.1 billion (RM4.26 billion) budget had gone toward infrastructure that would continue to be used after the event ends.

He said most of the money had been publicly funded, though these games had attracted more sponsors than any before it. NYT

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