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Canada's long history with Commonwealth Games in danger of being over

Canada has been synonymous with the Commonwealth Games since the event was launched in Hamilton, Ont., in 1930. But Commonwealth Games Canada now needs a fundraising drive to ensure the country’s long-term survival in these major multi-sport Games.

Canadian Foundation needs to raise $800,000 over the next 4 years

Commonwealth Games alumnus Chantal Petitclerc believes the event is the most inclusive and a model to follow. (Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

On the heels of Black Friday and Cyber Monday there is Giving Tuesday.

In the wake of all that consumerism comes a nod to charity and along with it, the hope that a wider community can aspire to share in the collective wealth.

Uncharacteristically, an increasing number of asks from what has become an international movement of benevolence, are coming from sport. 

There are local sports organizations soliciting support as well as major corporations who create opportunity for less fortunate kids on various fields of play. Now there are even a number of requests from Canada's high-performance athletes themselves.

One striking example is the Commonwealth Games Foundation of Canada's initiative, which comes in the form of an athlete-led, public-fundraising campaign hoping to ensure our country's long-term survival in these major multi-sport Games.

If the foundation can't raise $800,000 over the next four years, then Canada's long history with the Games could be over.

Pay to play

The Commonwealth Games were launched in Hamilton, Ont., in 1930 as the British Empire Games, and in the modern era bring together top-flight athletes from more than 70 countries and territories who share a common language and heritage. The level of competition at these Games, which showcases the core summer sports like athletics, aquatics, gymnastics, cycling, and wrestling, is second only to the Olympics.

Commonwealth Games alumnus Chantal Petitclerc, pictured above at the 2014 Games in Scotland, believes the Games are the most inclusive and a model to follow. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

But at the latest edition of the Games this past summer in Gold Coast, Australia, a sizeable portion of the Canadian team that competed was forced to, at least partially, pay its own freight. 

Nearly half of the 282 athletes wearing the Maple Leaf in Australia bought their own tickets in order to get there. And now in light of drastic government funding cuts to Commonwealth Games Canada, the team slated to take part in Birmingham, England in 2022 may be the last.

"The practice of athletes having to pay to represent Canada in international competition began in the depression era but the Canadian economy is thriving today," says Dr. Bruce Kidd of the University of Toronto. 

Kidd won Commonwealth Games gold in Perth, Australia in 1962 in the six-mile race and is also a Lou Marsh trophy winner as Canada's Athlete of the Year. He has written extensively on the power of sport and the Commonwealth Games vis-à-vis international development, inclusion, and gender equity.

Kidd believes the Commonwealth Games have been essential to creating a universal appeal for sport and that Canada, as the founding nation, needs to remain a vital part of the process.

"We should say as a matter of policy that all qualified athletes should have their way paid to those international competitions we value and I would like to think that includes the Commonwealth Games," Kidd stresses. 

"As much as I would like to see more Games staged in the developing Commonwealth we should have another Games in Canada, ideally in 2030 if not before. Sadly, that will be needed to restore funding and respect for Commonwealth Games Canada."

Former athletes shocked

The Commonwealth Games have been held four times in Canada, 1930 at Hamilton, 1954 in Vancouver where England's Roger Bannister and Australia's John Landy both ran sub-four minutes in what became known as "The Miracle Mile." They were also hosted in 1978 in Edmonton, and most recently in 1994 in Victoria.

The countries embodied by the Commonwealth are racially diverse and represent a huge portion of the world's population. The Games have been undertaken in North America, Europe, Oceania, the Caribbean and Asia. They have also broken ground in less developed nations such as India, which staged the 2010 edition of the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.

Canadian Sports Hall of Fame diver Alexandre Despatie is a nine-time gold medallist and has participated at four editions of the Games. He won championships at his last Commonwealth summit in India but arguably his most famous victory was the 10-metre platform gold he captured at the age of 13 while competing at the 1998 Games in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

"As an athlete with a rich history at the Commonwealth Games I simply do not understand that my fellow athletes from a country like Canada are in a position where they have to pay to compete," he says. 

"I have competed in places where conditions are not comparable to Canada, to say the least.  I have never heard of an athlete who is forced to pay in order to compete for their country.  This makes no sense to me and I truly hope that we can find a solution to this."

The Commonwealth Games are also the first multi-sport Games to reach equal participation rates among men and women as well as attempt significant integration of Para or disabled sport into the competitive program.

"These Games from the beginning have made a commitment to inclusion," says Senator Chantal Petitclerc, a 14-time Paralympic champion who won Commonwealth gold in the 800-metre wheelchair race in Manchester, England in 2002, was the flag-bearer in Melbourne in 2006, and served as chef de mission for the Canadian team in Glasgow, Scotland in 2014.

"I competed at my first Commonwealth Games in Auckland, New Zealand, (1990), and will never forget being literally kicked off the track because the official believed the wheelchair would damage the track. Now the Commonwealth Games have become the most inclusive Games in terms of numbers of Para-sport athletes involved but also of gender equity.  That is simply a good sport model to follow."

Canadian Bruce Kidd, pictured crossing the finish line to win a race in Philadelphia in this 1963, has experienced the power of the Commonwealth Games. (Canadian Press)

'Part of our sporting culture'

The chef de mission for Team Canada at the recent Gold Coast Commonwealth Games was Claire Carver-Dias a former synchronized swimmer and winner of two gold medals in Manchester in 2002. 

She is understandably saddened and disappointed by the uncertain future of Canada's connection to the so-called, "Friendly Games."

"These Games have been part of our sporting culture since 1930 and play an important part in our athletes' high performance journey," Carver-Dias notes.

"In these days of political uncertainty there is something to be said about the Commonwealth, a voluntary association of many nations, being held together by shared principles of governance and a commitment by all members to creating a peaceful, equal and prosperous world."

It is unsettling in times of increasing strife and global isolation that sport feels compelled to put its hand out on this Giving Tuesday.

The Commonwealth Games originated in Canada as part of a symbolic movement designed to build international togetherness and prosperity. 

The prospect of our athletes and, ultimately our country, having the lasting bonds it forged with these historic and worthwhile Games severed for good is almost unthinkable.

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