Well done, Singapore, for rejecting the chance to host Commonwealth Games - an expensive, outdated relic

It will struggle to find any returns of investment, unlike Taylor Swift concerts or exhibitions matches by top Premier League clubs

Singapore table tennis player Feng Tianwei (right) receiving the award for best athlete at the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games. Singapore has declined to bid for the 2026 Commonwealth Games.
Singapore table tennis player Feng Tianwei (right) receiving the award for best athlete at the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games. Singapore has declined to bid for the 2026 Commonwealth Games. (PHOTO: Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

AND breathe. Relax. Singapore did the right thing. The nation dodged a bullet and avoided bidding for a second-tier, sporting relic that Usain Bolt once famously described as “a little bit s**t.” The 2026 Commonwealth Games are not coming to the Little Red Dot.

It was a concern for a while there. Singapore, like our regional neighbours, is not immune to the attractions of a grand project, a major chest-thumping exercise that might throw a global spotlight onto a tiny island. We’ve been here a few times before. Who can still remember Singapore 2010, the first-ever Youth Olympic Games? Exactly.

Indeed, there was a period when we appeared to be particularly enamoured with the year 2010 in a sporting context. There was Goal 2010, the football World Cup qualification campaign that launched a thousand coffee shop giggles. At the time, Singapore were struggling to topple the mighty Myanmar in the SEA Games. But a few bucks and a fancy logo would surely be enough to take care of Spain and Brazil at the World Cup.

Funnily enough, it wasn’t.

But the fear remained that Singapore would be unable to resist the temptation to throw a hand in the air, like an eager-to-please class prefect, and insist on taking a punt on an unfixable problem like the Commonwealth Games. We've done it before. Who can qualify for the 2010 World Cup? … Me, sir, me sir! … Who can launch the Youth Olympic Games into the global consciousness? … Me, sir, me, sir! Who can kidnap Taylor Swift for a week and make a fortune whilst irritating the neighbours? … Me, sir, me, sir!

And therein lies the real problem. Singapore’s batting average is improving all the time. Taylor Swift, like the night Formula 1 Grand Prix, were tremendous examples of the country’s strategic move towards developing its soft, cultural power, through being boring, essentially. In the age of the polycrisis, Singapore has made boring cool. A bit like Coldplay. And as the island positions itself as the Chris Martin of event hubs – inoffensive, reliable and profitable – there’s always a risk of being perceived as a gullible cash cow.

Discernible shift in demands of paying spectators

Heaven knows, it has happened in the past. Every half decent English Premier League and international football outfit has long perceived Singapore as a chance to get a haircut, sell a few shirts and make off with a bag of cash without dealing with the neighbours’ less organised infrastructure and Manila’s traffic (Chris Martin wrote a song about it. Bless him.)

But there has been a discernible shift in recent years from Singapore’s paying punters. A half-empty National Stadium struggled to watch lightweight versions of Brazil and Senegal play out a dull 1-1 draw back in 2019. The rest stayed away. Expectations were changing. You want to charge top dollar? Then put on a top show or Singaporeans aren't turning up anymore. It was great.

And Liverpool, Tottenham, Manchester United, Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars and Coldplay were some of the beneficiaries of both Singapore’s elevated status as a safe, organised venue and Singaporeans’ demand for a greater collaboration between performer and punter. In other words, we’ll give you a great location as long as you give us a great show (and a profitable one at that).

The Commonwealth Games just do not tick enough of those boxes. Let’s start with the cash. In 2022, the Birmingham Games cost around £778 million (S$1.3 billion). In 2018, the Gold Coast Games cost around A$1.6 billion (S$1.4 billion). The sporting anachronism buys a bit of international exposure, mostly in Commonwealth countries, strangely enough, and some decent goodwill. But it does not guarantee a profit.

Victoria knows this. The Australian state pulled out of hosting the 2026 edition, after its then-state premier Daniel Andrews suggested that the cost could reach A$7 billion, way above the original estimate of A$2.6 billion. Despite Victoria essentially being able to negotiate its own terms and plan a four-city regional Games – as no one else was seriously interested in bidding - the state’s accountants still couldn’t make the numbers work.

And nor could Singapore. Last week, a joint statement by Sport Singapore and the Commonwealth Games Singapore said that the two sports bodies “have studied the feasibility of hosting the 2026 Commonwealth Games, and have decided not to make any bid to host the Games”.

Games may no longer be fit for purpose

And that’s only the financial elephant. The historical elephant is a little older, a lot uglier and still skulks around in the shadows, waiting for woke writers like this one to give him a reluctant tug into the spotlight and suggest he may no longer be fit for purpose. Clues are still found in titles. The event began as the British Empire Games, a name wisely dropped a long time ago, but its participants are essentially countries once colonised by the British Empire. And while its difficult colonial roots have been addressed by organisers over the years, the issue of relevance remains.

In a congested sporting landscape, is there still room for the Commonwealth Games? Does there even need to be? With China, the United States and Russia not involved, there’s always been a credibility factor when assessing the international competition. In aquatic sports, medals can come with patronising caveats. Great effort, but the Americans were missing. Still, well done, Australia, for consistently dominating a weird, lopsided spectacle.

And even then, the Australians have no interest in bankrolling another two-week bullying session.

Commonwealth Games advocates may swat away the irrelevance argument by focusing on the event’s integral role in an athlete’s development. But it’s a shaky claim at best. Every nation hosts domestic competitions and participates in regional, developmental tournaments (the SEA Games) and then progresses to continental events (the Asian Games) before hopefully reaching their sport’s respective pinnacles (the Olympics and/or world championships.)

The Commonwealth Games are a strange outlier, like a cash-strapped, aristocratic second cousin who still expects a seat at the top table of a family wedding, thanks to his once regal name. He may have a role to play (Singapore’s magnificent athletes won four golds, four silvers and four bronzes at Birmingham 2022.) He may even be a popular family member (Birmingham 2022 sold 1.3 million tickets). But that doesn’t mean we’ve got to pay for his seat because he can’t pay for his own.

Singapore was wise to step away. The rules of Swiftonomics dictate a return of investment, financially and culturally. The Commonwealth Games cannot guarantee either. The 2026 edition has simply had too many false starts.

Singapore was wise to step away. The rules of Swiftonomics dictate a return of investment, financially and culturally. The Commonwealth Games cannot guarantee either.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 28 books.

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