"Sport is about humanising not politicising," says Commonwealth Games Federation CEO

22 May 2018

By: Sport Industry Group

David Grevemberg, CEO of the Commonwealth Games Federation, says it is the responsibility of the organisation to encourage conversation around important global issues such as human rights, climate change, LGBTQ rights and gender equality, rather than try to hide them. 

Speaking at the Sport Industry Breakfast Club at the BT Centre, his comments follow last month's Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, dubbed 'The Games of Firsts', with highlights that included an equal number of medals for men and women awarded for the first time, as well as the largest ever fully-integrated para-sport programme seen in Commonwealth and world sport.

“People would ask me ‘why are you politicising this moment?" said Grevemberg. "I’d say ‘well, actually we’re humanising it, because this is a very relevant conversation for the rest of the world.’ You cannot go to a Games with this many countries and not raise questions around human rights or safeguarding, for example, and the only way you can do that is to become open and transparent around that conversation yourself."

During the on-stage discussion with sports broadcaster James Pearce, Grevemberg discussed the relevance and positioning of the Games, reflecting on ‘The Games of Firsts' last month and looking ahead to Birmingham 2022, as well as the challenges for building the movement with tangible change.

“We use the Games as a vehicle for advocacy, creating long-standing conversations such as ‘what is the Commonwealth?’ It’s our shared history, it’s reconciliation,” said Grevemberg. “And with vigour and honesty and openness and truthful discussion, we can really capture people’s imagination. It also encourages people to be courageous and use the Games as a platform to reflect on the number of different issues facing countries in the past and in the future.”

Last month's Gold Coast 2018 also featured a new Reconciliation Action Plan, delivered with the help of the Indigenous Working Groups and local Yugambeh Advisory Group, who continue to support and raise funds for the Yugambeh community long after the athletes have departed.

Opening up to a senior industry audience at the Sport Industry Breakfast Club, Grevemberg also explained how certain challenges have only become applicable over the last few years: “We represent one third of the world’s population – 2.6bn in the Commonwealth – and almost 60% of those are under the age of 29. It’s a very youthful Commonwealth, so these are the questions being raised to us right now. You can either engage it or push it away, but if you ignore it, it will catch up with you. If you don’t use sport to manifest these conversations, and engage marginalised groups, then you are failing.”

The Commonwealth Games - often refered to as the 'Friendly Games' - promotes elite level sport with a social conscience

As the FIFA World Cup heads to Russia next month, Grevemberg continued: “Each context is different of course, but it’s everyone’s responsibility to uphold, respect, protect and promote human rights. If you’re going to create a stable and sustainable brand you need to ensure that you are able to champion these elements with sincerity and formidable impact. FIFA has done a tremendous amount across human rights in the last few years…and the football community can use the FIFA World Cup 2018 as an opportunity to highlight some of these points.”

Now in the process of identifying host cities for 2026 and 2030, the former-wrestler-turned-administrator explained he was willing to work with a number of potential locations around the world, regardless of their current laws around global issues: “It’s not about criticising, it’s about engaging. Every country is on a journey. My home country the United States, for example, has issues with safeguarding right now, and many other countries have their reasons for different decisions – be it political, economic or legal. Every country has a different human rights record, so we have to take it contextually. Then look at how we can use an event to shift the dialogue and have positive impact. We are more connected and better informed than ever before, so we either embrace it, or it will catch us out.”

Grevemberg networks with guests at the Sport Industry Breakfast Club

On Durban’s ill-fated bid to host the 2022 Games, Grevemberg admitted it was not an easy process: “We had to make a decision not to run a Games at any cost…and we did a lot of soul searching to restructure how we support these deliveries.

“The conversation with Africa hasn’t ended with Durban. We need to embrace the possibility of hosting an event that is truly representative of the Commonwealth, and we need to support that [to make that happen]. We will do that by making it more affordable.

“When we received the Durban bid the first two pages were on how the Games were going to be a catalyst for achieving sustainability goals. The timing wasn’t right in the end, but that doesn’t mean the bid was not good. It was a great bid with great potential, but it still needed resources and funding. So what we need to ensure is that we learn from that situation, and we go again. It’s a postponed ambition, rather than a cancelled one, and under our new delivery model we can support that moving forward.”

After Durban, Birmingham was selected as the next host city of the Commonwealth Games, with Grevemberg excited at the prospect of the event arriving in the city.

“Birmingham is so different to other cities. It’s diverse, it’s young, it’s ambitious, it’s relevant, it’s urban. It’s how a city should use something like the Games as a business platform and beyond, to highlight its connection with the rest of the world. It has so much potential to tap into.

“The seasonal differences of a southern-hemisphere event are always challenging [for athlete calendars]…so an event in July/August timeline for Birmingham is a fantastic time to host a multi-sport event in the UK.”

The Commonwealth flag is presented to Anne Underwood, Lord Mayor of Birmingham, during the Closing Ceremony of Gold Coast 2018

“We have to be more involved in the delivery, it is our brand," added Grevemberg. "In previous years it is like giving the keys of our car to someone who has never driven before and asking them to bring it back in better condition…so now, with the creation of CGF Partnerships, we’re in the car with them. We’re taking on the commercial responsibility because there are longer-term opportunities, and we’re going to be there to support and advise. Birmingham is the first true partnership that will benefit from this.”

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