When I heard that Kenyan teams were heading to Australia’s Gold Coast for the quadrennial Commonwealth Games, I assumed that they would be returning with a rich harvest of gold medals, as usual. Well, things do not seem to be working out exactly as expected.
It may still be “in the family” when Joshua Chepteget and Stella Chesang win the 5,000 and 10,000-metre gold medals. But then, there is that small “border” snag over Mount Elgon. I tried to console myself with the thought that it was a Jamaican “sister”, Aisha Praught, who “stole” Kenya’s 3,000-metre steeplechase heritage from Celliphine Chespol. But somehow the books do not read quite right.
So, I thought I would turn my mind away from the medals and reflect on sports generally and on the Commonwealth Club and my long association with it. The participants at the Games come from every continent on the globe, and from many far-flung islands in the oceans. This is because the Club, previously called the British Commonwealth, had its origins in the former British Empire, over which “the sun never set”, as the boastful claim went.
Britain’s former territories, the dominions, colonies and protectorates, on gaining independence, joined the old coloniser in the loose voluntary union that became the Commonwealth. The use of English and the acceptance of the British Monarch as its titular head were some of its distinguishing characteristics. But as previously non-Anglophone countries, like Rwanda and Mozambique, were drawn in, the “British” label had to be dropped.
Anyway, the lure of the Commonwealth never ceases to amaze. It started as a cultural and mutual assistance organisation. Thus it was that most of us who studied abroad in countries like Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand did so on Commonwealth scholarships.
My own adventures of residence, teaching and marriage in Scotland, back in the early 1970s, started with a Commonwealth scholarship to the University of Sterling. I have also told you of the Club’s poetry and literary competitions, where I have been prominently active since the 1980s, though more as a “judge” than as a creative competitor.
Today, the Commonwealth also wields enormous economic and political influence. It has, for example, been prominent in the advocacy of democracy and good governance, even forcing non-compliant countries to either quit or suspend their membership.
Anyway, we were talking sports, and the Commonwealth Games are one of the biggest show windows of the Club’s unity and variety in exemplary friendly competition and cooperation. This year, we are “down under”, in Australia, at the Gold Coast. Strangely, the Gold Coast that most people my age knew is what is today called Ghana, which shed the colonial label on gaining independence in 1957.
But the Commonwealth Games gathering at the Gold Coast was sadly overshadowed by a dreadful scandal in a sport not even represented at the event but closely associated with Australia and sportsmanship in the Anglophone tradition. Cricket and the Aussies are inseparable and one of the highlights of the country’s sporting calendar is the biennial “Ashes” Test series played between Australia and England.
I will not take you through the intricacies of cricket, partly because of lack of space and partly because of my abysmal ignorance of the sport. But all of us in the English-speaking world know that cricket is the quintessential symbol of “gentlemanly sportsmanship”. I put the phrase between quotes because today ladies, too, play even at the highest levels of the sport.
Anyway, the point about cricket is that, apart from its being an elegant display of performance, it is founded on strict expectations of good manners, generosity, fairness and honesty. The “blokes” (Brit for “guys”) who founded the British Empire, now the Commonwealth, might have been brutal, ruthless and beastly to us “natives”, but among themselves they had a strict code of conduct that enabled them to run their show with a certain amount of efficiency and reliability.
This is why they used to say that their Empire was “built on the playing fields of Eton, Rugby, Arundel” and the other so-called public schools. “Sportsmanship” and “being a (good) sport”, meaning honesty and fair play, became ingrained in the culture and permeated all aspects of society, from parliamentary democracy through business and trade to personal relationships.
But just imagine a cricket player being caught red-handed (flagrante delicto, as the learned lawyers say) cheating on the pitch! That is exactly what happened to Australia’s bowler Cameron Bancroft on a pitch in South Africa last month. He was detected trying to tamper with the ball in a Test match in order to enhance his performance. It turned out that the cheating ruse was not an individual act but a broad conspiracy, known to Cameron’s captain, and maybe several other members of the Australian team.
Well, that was the nadir, the lowest moral point, for sport-loving and sport-winning Australia, and in cricket at that! Bancroft was ethically bankrupt, and so were all those who were colluding with him in the nefarious act. Indeed, one cannot help feeling a pang of sympathy for Cameron Bancroft, a poor 19-year-old budding player, perverted and corrupted by older men who ought to know and behave better.
But for them, whether captains, coaches or team managers, winning, and winning at all costs, is what mattered. This would be evil enough if it were a one-off malefaction. But unfortunately, sports cheating in various forms is becoming an endemic and disgustingly widespread phenomenon.
We have heard of not only individual sportspeople but whole nations being banned from action because of habitual use of performance-enhancing drugs. Then you hear of people installing electric motors in their bicycles in order to facilitate their cycling “prowess”. Recently in Miami, a top tennis player had her performance ruined by abuses, intimidation and threats to her and her family members.
Winning is certainly good. But winning at all costs is not what sport, or life, is all about.
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and Literature. [email protected]