Expert opinion: Dr Stuart Whigham on Victoria withdrawing from hosting 2026 Commonwealth Games

Dr Stuart Whigham of Oxford Brookes University
Dr Stuart Whigham, Senior Lecturer in Sport at Oxford Brookes University. Credit: Dr Stuart Whigham

As the city of Victoria in Australia announces it is withdrawing from hosting the Commonwealth Games in 2026, Dr Stuart Whigham, a Senior Lecturer in Sport at Oxford Brookes University, says the prestige of the Games is diminishing.

By Dr Stuart Whigham

Whilst yesterday’s announcement that the Australian state of Victoria will no longer host the 2026 Commonwealth Games caught many by surprise, for scholars of the Commonwealth Games movement such as myself this development is unsurprising given the growing costs of hosting major international sport events, and the relatively diminishing returns of the Commonwealth Games in comparison to other sporting events.

There are a number of factors which continue to threaten the Commonwealth Games’ long-term status within the hierarchy of major international sporting events which have been identified by academics and commentators alike.

Firstly, the growth of broadcasting hours of major sporting events and tournaments over recent years has led to a saturated market, with numerous sporting competitions and leagues on both a national and international level constantly jostling for viewers’ attention. This has undermined the appeal of the Commonwealth Games as a quadrennial event which already has limited international appeal, with little to no interest or knowledge of the Games outside of the Commonwealth nations.

Secondly, the potential short-term and long-term economic benefits - or ‘legacy’ - of hosting the event have equally diminished across recent years. Given that host nations and regions need to be able to justify the considerable up-front costs and investments in hosting the Games in economic terms, the risks of spiralling costs and budgetary mismanagement are higher for events where the economic and financial returns of the Games become more marginal.

Thirdly, despite the best efforts of the Commonwealth Games Federation to encourage potential hosts to consider more cost-effective and sustainable approaches to hosting the event, the tendency of host governments and political parties to over-promise and under-deliver will continue to create problems for the long-term sustainability of the Commonwealth Games movement. This tendency to devise over-ambitious and undeliverable ‘legacy’ aims for major sporting events is not isolated to the Commonwealth Games movement, with similar problems evident for hosts of the Summer and Winter Olympics and the Men’s FIFA World Cup. However, the huge scale of those ‘mega-events’ mean that they arguably deliver more intangible geopolitical benefits in comparison to the Commonwealth Games.

However, it is not necessarily all doom and gloom with regards to the Commonwealth Games movement, despite recent concerns that Victoria’s withdrawal from the hosting of the 2026 Games is a potential ‘death knell’ for the event’s long-term future.

For example, as evidenced in the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, which made more use of existing sporting facilities rather than costly new-build sporting stadia, there remains scope for the Commonwealth Games to adopt a more sustainable hosting model which minimises the costs associated with hosting the event.

Throughout the Commonwealth there are a significant number of sporting stadia that could host the flagship events, like athletics, by incorporating creative repurposing of the stadia itself. An example of this was a temporary athletics track at Hampden football ground in Glasgow for the 2014 Games. Such innovative use of existing space in stadiums can help keep costs low. 

Furthermore, there is scope to identify a number of recent and post host cities throughout the Commonwealth which could regularly host the Games on a rotating basis - such as Auckland, Birmingham, Delhi, Glasgow, Kuala Lumpur, London, Manchester, Melbourne and Sydney - thus ensuring that the existing sporting facilities in these cities can be used on repeated basis to maximise their long-term use. This could ‘kill two birds with one stone’ by providing regular hosts for the Games and also avoiding unused ‘white elephant’ sporting facilities, as has burdened many recent sporting event hosts, most notably Montreal, Athens and Rio after their hosting of the Summer Olympics in 1976, 2004 and 2016, respectively.

In the short-term, the Commonwealth Games Federation now faces a scramble to save the 2026 Games at relatively short notice, having had to also do so for the 2022 Games when Birmingham stepped in to host after the original host city of Durban, South Africa, ran into financial difficulties.  

Although there have been no immediate expressions of interest to host the 2026 event, one potential option would be for London to host the event given its excellent sporting infrastructure following on from its hosting of the 2012 Olympic Games. This option would clearly align with the aforementioned principle of re-using existing infrastructure to minimise hosting costs.  However, given that England was the most recent host of the Games, the optics of doing so would perhaps further undermine the portrayal of the event as a truly pan-Commonwealth celebration beyond the ‘white dominions’ which have dominated its hosting in the past.

In summary, the coming weeks and months will undoubtedly become a pivotal moment for the Commonwealth Games movement.  The success of the next steps will be crucial to place the Games movement on a sustainable and secure footing as it aims to reach the centenary of its inaugural event in 1930 in seven years’ time.  Whether it does so on a sure footing remains to be seen.