Commonwealth Games in search of 2026 host, and the way forward

Commonwealth Games President Dame Louise Martin Barrington Coombs/Getty Images for Commonwealth Games Federation

The 2026 Commonwealth Games is barely five years away, and still doesn't have a host on paper. The next edition, nine months from now in Birmingham, could be the last of the kind of Games as we know it. Wholesale changes - co-hosting, downsizing number of events, hosts being offered the prerogative of choosing sports, among others - are set to be put into motion to equip the quadrennial event to survive the pangs of time and the question of its relevance.

The "2026-2030 Strategic Roadmap" is geared toward not just cutting the flab off the existing 19-sport, 270-medal event but also incentivising hosting the Games. Hosts being able to pick sports of its choice and playing to their strength could skew medals in its favour. It's a willing barter for CGF. "The pandemic has highlighted the need for hosts to have more flexibility in shaping the event. We feel it is an exciting move to allow hosts the ability to propose entirely new sports, relevant to their nation or culture," Dame Louise Martin, Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) president told ESPN. "Clearly, the size, scale and costs of the Games are key concerns for any potential host."

With the Ontario government already committed financially toward Canada co-hosting the 2026 FIFA World Cup together with Mexico and the U.S. and the pandemic making economic burdens harder, in April this year Hamilton abandoned its plan to host the 2026 Games. The city is now bidding to host the 2030 Games - the centenary edition - which was in fact its original plan. Hamilton had, a year ago, shifted its focus to 2026 instead of 2030 on the request of the CGF since the edition had found no bidders. Among the interested cities/countries who'd dropped out of the 2026 host race earlier, primarily over the unwieldy size and cost of the Games, include - Perth, Sydney, Liverpool, Cardiff, Kuala Lumpur, Edmonton and Calgary.

"We would like to see more countries hosting the Games," says Martin, who was elected in 2015 and is the first woman president of the CGF. "The roadmap promotes concepts such as co-hosting, it could be multiple countries in Africa or in Asia or a regional Caribbean proposal."

Next year's Commonwealth Games is only 33 days apart from the Asian Games. It's one the reasons cited by Hockey India for not sending its teams over for the event - the lack of time to peak for the Asian Games which will also act as a qualifier for the 2024 Paris Olympics. Martin says that the CGF, together with Birmingham 2022 and other Games partners, "have reached out to Hockey India to understand and alleviate any concerns" with a view to supporting the teams' participation at the Games."

Unlike the Commonwealth Games - consisting of former British colonies -- the Asian Games acts as a clear marker of continental supremacy. Despite forming the majority of the Commonwealth, Asia and Africa have hosted just three Games. Miffed over shooting being dropped from the 2022 programme, the Indian Olympic Association president had threatened that the country would boycott the Games altogether before the CGF was pressured into provisioning two sports - archery and shooting - to be hosted in Chandigarh as part of the Games next year. After the pandemic struck, there was a seismic shift in circumstances and both the events that were to take place in India were cancelled. "The way things have turned out (cancellation of shooting and archery events), has left a bitter taste," says a senior Indian administrative functionary. "We were earlier considering hosting the 2026 Games but then that too fell through."

Martin, however, is confident that India features prominently in its future. "I got to see first-hand the positive impact that the 2010 Games had on Delhi in terms of investment and infrastructure as I revisited some of the world class sporting venues that were built for the event," she says. "We know India has ambitions to host major sporting events, of which we are one. I am hopeful that India takes note of the recent roadmap we have laid down, and the opportunity to host future Games, including sports such as kabaddi. As the largest and most populous country in the Commonwealth, we would love to see the Games return to India soon."

The Commonwealth is home to 2.4 billion people (more than 60 per cent of whom are under 30 years of age), and Martin is looking to elicit greater hosting interest from Asia and Africa, who form its majority. To tap into the younger demographic majority and greater fan engagement, the CGF in 2020, entered into an 'exploratory partnership' with the Global Esports Federation. The Olympic Council of Asia has taken it a step ahead. Esports is set to be a medal event at the 2022 Asian Games in China, across eight games - FIFA, PUBG Mobile, Arena of Valor, League of Legends, Dota 2, Street Fighter V, HearthStone and Dream Three Kingdoms 2.

Martin meets the question on relevance and future of the Games in business-like fashion. She looks at the roadmap as course-altering for the Games. "I think we will look back it as the catalyst in creating an exciting blueprint for the future of our event," she points out. "We have a proud history stretching back over 90 years with 21 editions and an exciting future ahead that can bring innovation and creativity to our Games as well as enabling more countries to host. The Commonwealth is more relevant than ever and our future is bright."

It will have to begin with finding a willing host for 2026.