Fireworks at the commonwealth games

The Commonwealth Conundrum: Can the Games Survive in the Modern Era?

Dr Tom Bason, Centre for Business in Society

In August 2022, the Birmingham Commonwealth Games closed to general acclaim. Less than two years later, the future of the Commonwealth Games is very much in question.

What is going on with the future of the Commonwealth Games?

Given the relative success of the Birmingham 2022 event, it is easy to forget that the Games were awarded at very short notice. In 2015, Durban was awarded the 2022 Games, but two years later, the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) stripped the South African city of the right to host the games amid multiple missed deadlines and questions regarding its financing.

Aware of potential issues around the hosting of other events (notably, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) took the unprecedented decision to award both the 2024 and 2028 Olympic Games together before revamping their bid process), the CGF itself created a new bid process with the Commonwealth Games Federation Partnerships (CGFP) to provide more support for bidders.[1] In particular, CGFP was mandated to deliver the following three Commonwealth cycles and started identifying potential hosts for 2026 and 2030, with the potential to award both events together.

The new awarding process has not been entirely successful. The 2026 host was due to be announced at the CGF General Assembly in 2019, but it was not until 2022 that Victoria, Australia, was awarded the Games. With $2.6bn set aside by the Victorian State Government[2], an innovative state-wide approach was proposed to prioritise the use of existing stadia and showcase regional areas of Victoria lacking global profile[3]. However, with costs rising to $6-7bn, these plans lasted just one year, and Victoria withdrew as host.[4]

Finding a host for 2030, marking 100 years of the Games has been equally problematic. Canada was generally expected to host the Centenary Games, in honour of Hamilton, Ontario having hosted the very first Commonwealth Games. Indeed, Hamilton was exploring a potential bid but was not selected by Commonwealth Sport Canada as the country’s preferred bidder. Instead, a bid centred around Calgary/Edmonton was considered the forerunner. However, 16 days after Victoria’s withdrawal, the province of Alberta similarly withdrew its bid, leaving the Games without a host or bidder for either 2026 or 2030.

Given the relative successes of Manchester 2002, Glasgow 2014 and Birmingham 2022, and its prominent position within the Commonwealth, it was thought that the UK might come to the rescue. While it is possible that individual cities may seek to host event (London Mayor Sadiq Khan is reportedly interested[5]), last week’s release of UK Sport’s event hosting target list for the next decade indicates that it is not a strategic priority[6]. Of the 70 targeted events are targeted, the Commonwealth Games is conspicuous by its absence. Should there not be a UK-based Commonwealth Games before 2042, this would be the second longest gap between UK-based Commonwealth Games, after a period that encompassed the Second World War.

Why does no one want to host the Commonwealth Games?

The primary reason is the same one facing other sports events – the costs of hosting significantly outweigh the benefits. Both the Olympic Games and FIFA Men’s World Cup have grown exponentially – Müller et al. estimate that the average Olympic Games (Winter or Summer) and Men’s World Cup is 60 times larger than 50 years ago.[7] This is also the case with the Commonwealth Games – Manchester 2002 featured 3,863 participants in 17 sports. By 2022, this had grown to 5,084 participants in 20 sports. Some of this growth is much needed; both the Olympic Games and Commonwealth Games now have equal numbers of male and female participants, but other elements are driven by less altruistic means; marketing revenues have also increased 160 times.[8]

Crucially, most of these marketing revenues are typically received by the event owner (e.g., the IOC, FIFA or CGF), not the event host. The event host is, instead, left with a 20-fold increase in costs. Despite only building one new stadium, Birmingham 2022 cost twice that of Manchester 2002[9]. Just over one year later, Birmingham City Council issued a section 114 notice, effectively declaring itself bankrupt.[10]

This cost increase comes at a time when the benefits of hosting are becoming increasingly questioned. Birmingham’s bid focused on three legacy outcomes: better health and wellbeing, better prospects, and better lives.[11] These outcomes are indicative of the dominant narratives surrounding legacy, which typically centre on the benefits to residents and citizens, whether through boosting the economy, improving infrastructure or using sport as an engagement tool.

But, just like any mega-project, this is rarely successful — who really believes that London 2012 “inspired a generation” or that the displacement of East London locals was worth building a stadium that has cost taxpayers more than the private Premier League football club who have almost exclusive access to it?[12]

The less cynical may point to a lack of awareness amongst event boosters, who mistakenly assume that legacies will occur as a natural byproduct of the event. On a more practical level, the fixed deadlines and intense scrutiny often ensure that pre-event focus is almost entirely focused on the management of the event itself, often at the expense of planning for post-event outcomes. But as repeatedly shown, successful post-event outcomes require careful planning, nurturing and, crucially, funding throughout the entire event management process and beyond. Even the innovative United by 2022 Official Charity of the Games, charged with delivering a sustained post-event legacy is only funded for another 12 months.[13]

A more cynical viewpoint may argue that legacies were never really a realistic factor in the first place, but rather are part of a narrative propagated by event boosters to gain support and funding, knowing that there is often little post-event accountability. Further, as Grix notes, these boosters often represent a “coalition of beneficiaries” who stand to profit regardless, and so have little incentive to ensure the event has a meaningful impact in local communities.[14]

While the concept of legacy has long been questioned in academia, it has now reached mainstream discourse, as seen in the series of local referendums turning down the opportunity to host for a series of reasons, including spiralling costs and the social and environmental damage caused by the events.[15] When coupled with a global cost of living crisis, the opportunity cost of hosting these events is becoming more extensive, as Daniel Andrews, Premier of the Victorian government that cancelled the 2026 Games, articulated:

What’s become clear is that the cost of hosting these Games in 2026 is not the $2.6 billion which was budgeted and allocated. I will not take money out of hospitals and schools to host an event that is three times the cost estimated and budgeted for last year.[16]

It is noticeable that Victoria has since allocated funding to other areas. The initial bid promised that the Games would deliver a housing legacy,[17] but this is more likely to be delivered through a $1 billion Regional Housing Fund to build 1,300 new homes.[18]

The place of the ‘Commonwealth’ in today’s society

Clearly, there is a question regarding the Commonwealth Games itself. First, hosting is limited to a relatively small number of countries within the Commonwealth. Many nations known for hosting global events, including traditional hosts such as the USA or France, as well as emerging hosts such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are automatically ruled out. Without interest from the UK, Canada and Australia, the list of potential hosts becomes increasingly limited.

Further, countries and athletes available to participate may diminish the prestige of the Games. While the Commonwealth Games prides itself on fostering a more inclusive sporting environment (medalists in 2022 represented countries such as Nauru and Vanuatu), the absence of athletes from countries such as the USA may limit its prestige and, perhaps more importantly, its commercial viability. It could be argued that the biggest sports event to take place in Birmingham in 2022 was the World Games in Birmingham, Alabama.

These challenges arise amidst increasing scrutiny regarding the Commonwealth itself. The Hamilton 1930 Games were named the ‘British Empire Games’, and even the rebranded ‘Commonwealth’ Games still carries connotations of imperialism and slavery. With the passing Queen Elizabeth II and the ascension of King Charles III to Head of the Commonwealth, several states are assessing the transition to becoming republics.[19] To the CGF’s credit, it has recognised this place in history, and its Commonwealth Sport Foundation Transformation 2022 strategy includes “historical injustice” and recognises the “challenging history linked to colonial roots”.[20] Further, the event is arguably more progressive than the Olympics, with e-sports an exhibition event in 2022 and including para-athlete events within the competition rather than separately.

However, the future of the Commonwealth Games, once celebrated for their spirit of international cooperation, now appears to hang in the balance, caught between the pressures of financial viability, societal expectations, and finding its place in a changing world.

Through understanding the impact of organisations’ activities, behaviours and policies, the Centre for Business in Society at Coventry University seeks to promote responsibility, to change behaviours, and to achieve better outcomes for economies, societies and the individual.







[7] Müller, M., Gogishvili, D., Wolfe, S. D., Gaffney, C., Hug, M., & Leick, A. (2023). Peak event: the rise, crisis and potential decline of the Olympic Games and the World Cup. Tourism Management, 95(May 2021), 104657.

[8] Muller et al. (2023)






[14] Grix, J., Brannagan, P. M., Wood, H., & Wynne, C. (2017). State strategies for leveraging sports mega-events: unpacking the concept of ‘legacy.’ International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics, 9(2), 203–218.

[15] Chappelet, J. L. (2021). Winter Olympic Referendums: Reasons for Opposition to the Games. International Journal of the History of Sport, 38(13–14), 1369–1384.