It’s a lot of money for an event we aren’t – and maybe never will be – ready for.
Before I begin, let me say that I like watching the Commonwealth Games. So much so that I went and watched them in person in 2018 when they were hosted by the Gold Coast. I had a great time, regretted not buying a fun mascot plush, and thought it was all very well executed. But I paused when news circulated that New Zealand was mulling a bid for the 2034 Commonwealth Games. So I say all of this as someone who enjoys a large-scale sporting event but also hopes to live in a country that doesn’t hamper its own development in the pursuit of a global (or partially global) moment.
Hosting major multi-sporting events is, more often than not, a money-draining exercise. The Olympics are famously an event that leads to crippling debt and a spate of uneconomical infrastructure in the host city. And while the Commonwealth Games aren’t near as big, they come with all the same risks for a small country.
Nobody else wants to do it
Hosting the Commonwealth Games is not a coveted honour. In fact, it’s now being pitched as an obligation more than anything. In 2015, Durban was announced as the host for the 2022 Games. Two years later, it was stripped of its hosting rights after financial issues arose. By the end of 2021, the federation was still searching for a host for 2026 and ended up with Victoria (Australia) agreeing to host but without committing to one city. Instead the Games will be hosted across four regions in the state. When that new set-up was announced in April 2022, a Commonwealth Games Australia spokesperson called out New Zealand for not hosting.
“The fact you haven’t hosted the Commonwealth Games since 1990, that doesn’t sit well with me,” he said on Newstalk ZB. Like family Christmas, hosting the Commonwealth Games is now just a thing that everyone has to take turns doing and nobody really wants to.
Wayne Brown already said no
Unsurprisingly, when asked during the campaign last year whether New Zealand should put in a bid to host now that the focus was less on cities and more on an area, Auckland’s mayor showed little interest.
“Most Aucklanders are in financial distress, and we’ve got to finish what we’ve got going before we start anything new. There are too many things to fix – we’ve got the City Rail Link, the eastern and western busways, and central government has given us a light rail project that makes no sense.
“I’d be more interested in bringing individual sports events here.”
We’re too small
But we’ve hosted the Games before! Yes, New Zealand last hosted the Commonwealth Games in 1990, where teenager Nikki Jenkins won a shock gold medal in the gymnastics. The 1990 Games, held in Auckland, featured 2,000 athletes competing in 213 events across 10 sports. For scale, The 2022 Games in Birmingham featured 5,000 athletes competing in 280 events across 20 sports. If nothing else, it is unlikely that any city in New Zealand (with Auckland being the obvious choice) could comfortably host that number of athletes (plus coaches, managers, administrators, media…) and that many sports without a major overhaul of the city.
New Zealand could go against “host city” tradition and choose to host as a country instead, like Victoria. But that goes against the structure of the Games which includes hosting all athletes and squads in one athletes’ village (the centre of the 2026 Games will be Melbourne) that is close enough to all the sporting venues. Where would we put an athletes’ village? Will that be where Kiwibuild finally reveals itself?
We don’t have good sports infrastructure
Gold Coast built a 15-court indoor sports complex for the 2018 Games to accommodate a number of sports. Our most recent example of building a large stadium in a major city resulted in the Christchurch stadium omnishambles (that isn’t done yet) now tagged at nearly $700m. But maybe it will be done by 2034 and then can host 15 spor- oh no, it will only be the fifth biggest stadium in the country and will only be suitable for outdoor sports and concerts.
We are not a 24/7 country
While we may do well hosting second-tier (in terms of size) sports events like the Rugby World Cup, these Games are a completely different beast. Rugby games are played with a simple draw of limited teams and always in the evening or on the weekends across a full month. During an event like the Commonwealth Games, everything is happening all the time for two weeks. Transport needs to be able to withstand high volumes at all times, not just for two hours before and after a match. Venues are running simultaneously all over the city at the same time, meaning resource has to be spread widely and at scale. The city is awake for 14 days straight. Considering it’s currently near impossible to buy a coffee after 3pm or catch a bus after 10pm, this seems like a big ask.
Spotlight moves don’t work
There’s an allure of attention that comes with hosting a big event. It bring visitors and viewers from around the world and puts us on the map for a moment. But putting all our eggs in the exposure basket doesn’t work. We are currently paying a lot of money through the Screen Production Grant, trying to get massive production companies to film here, partly because we want exposure on the world stage. Never mind the hundreds of millions of dollars in cost – the short-term jobs and exposure! Hosting the Commonwealth Games will be similar amounts of money for what will, in real terms, be a marketing exercise for New Zealand. We can market ourselves equally well by investing properly in the athletes so that they can perform well in a black singlet.
Not the biggest reason but one nonetheless. Why does a group of countries still recovering from the trauma of colonisation come together to compete with the British? There’s still a King’s (formerly Queen’s) Baton relay that leads up to the Games, and even the federation itself has questioned its own relevance, with a spokesperson in 2018 saying, “The Commonwealth Sport Movement reached a challenging chapter in its existence – when the very word and purpose of the ‘Commonwealth’ was questioned and the negative impacts of a Games on a host community were highlighted.”
Evidently the Games as they have historically been conducted are no longer fit for purpose. Maybe New Zealand could be part of a changing format and execution, or maybe it’ll be caught in the last gasps of a dying event.
One good reason
Hosting costs a lot of money that is dizzying to think about during a “bread and butter” election year. One thing it does supposedly do is speed up much-needed infrastructure like public transport, roading and third places. But even then, Auckland Transport went into hyperdrive before the 2011 Rugby World Cup and still shat the bed on the first day. And yes, a lot of transport projects should be well finished by 2034 but adding event-specific work and costs on top of them will only muddy the progress. Back in 2011 when rugby fans were sitting on stalled trains in Britomart, about to miss the first match of the tournament, I’m sure many of them were thinking that it could only get better. Twelves years on, is our transport system any better?
Like Wayne Brown said, New Zealand and its cities are far better catered to single-sport events. We can adapt to a set venue and, fingers crossed, we’ll prove a valuable partner in co-hosting the Fifa World Cup with Australia in three months. We get the benefits without needing to shoulder the full weight of hosting alone. The Rugby World Cup in 2022 was a success (largely due to the players rather than the organisation) but showed that New Zealand could be a destination for women’s global sporting events.
In reality, if New Zealand ends up hosting the 2034 Commonwealth Games, I will buy tickets and merch and all the rest because I enjoy watching sports and I would like to cry while watching local athletes succeed. By then I’ll be 40 and maybe wiser. For now, I’d rather watch the Games on TV than wait for the inevitable ballooning costs and short-term fixes that come with hosting.