Sports and culture have never been as relevant in the modern world and are increasingly influential elements of foreign policy. They’re now a global commodity used to promote diplomacy worldwide.
This summer, the Commonwealth Games and its unique set of sports, will be held in the host city of Birmingham in the United Kingdom.
The Olympics, Paralympics and Commonwealth Games bring together athletes and audiences of different social and economic backgrounds, ethnicities, faiths, ages and countries of origin. International games can be a powerful platform for cultural exchange; however, they require the support of cultural programmes to truly enhance the games’ cultural impact and celebration of diversity.
In the front room of my family home, three generations, oceans apart, came together from across the Commonwealth.
We entertained, ate and socialised. Space was at a premium, and we communicated in four different languages. In equal measures, it was both chaotic and compelling. This early environment helped me develop a sensitivity to the needs of other people, an ear for accents and a deep appreciation for diversity in the places we live.
Civil, social and community cohesion are at the heart of my work.
My lived and professional experience focuses on access, social mobility, intergenerational initiatives, and opportunities in arts and culture in its broadest context. I’ve spent most of my life bringing people from different countries, cultures, and communities together through artistic creations, festivals, and creative partnerships, across the UK, Europe and beyond.
Birmingham has a super diverse and creative makeup, with its roots reaching back to the start of the Industrial Revolution.
Birmingham has continually changed and evolved; it’s now a city of young makers, innovators, serial entrepreneurs and creators.
As a host city, Birmingham is more than just a city of business. It’s an amalgamation of all the communities, cultures and backgrounds that call it home. People from over 200 nationalities speaking 300 different languages live in Birmingham, which has been referred to as a city where its ethnic makeup will soon be “majority minority”. It’s a city where green space, culture and heritage meet the business of modern life.
Birmingham, similar to many evolving global cities, is radically redefining both the economic and cultural landscape, facing both opportunities and challenges: changing demographics, social and neighbourhood segregation, neighbourhood deprivation, education disparities, high unemployment, marginalised and disadvantaged young people and gender inequality.
I believe with the right leadership, International sporting events and the cultural programmes around these events, can help us overcome some of this complexity, fragmentation and inequality.
First presented in 1930, the Commonwealth Games takes place every four years and involves athletes from the Commonwealth of Nations. The games reflect the Commonwealth Games Federation’s core values of friendship, equality, and fair play. Athletes from the Commonwealth compete on a level playing field in a spirit of friendship, fair play, inclusivity and respect for each other:
— Disabled athletes are full members of their national teams when they compete, making the Commonwealth Games the first major international multi-sport event to become fully inclusive.
— For the first time in 2018, the Commonwealth Games featured an equal number of men’s and women’s medal events.
The cultural programme alongside the games, the Birmingham Festival 2022, has the potential to not only celebrate the cultural diversity of nations taking part but to also support local communities.
A decade ago, Nutkhut’s Bollywood Steps by Simmy Gupta, a large-scale ambitious outdoor production as part of the West Midlands Culture Programme for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games injected a thirst for outdoor work in Birmingham and the region and we can see the legacy of this production in the city, a decade on.
Indeed outdoor performances such as Bollywood Steps in public spaces can transform areas of a city. I’ve seen first-hand how multicultural, multi-disciplinary festivals and installations in outdoor, public spaces can rejuvenate inaccessible places and enthral unengaged communities.
Nutkhut’s schools programme and the work of the George Dixon Academy in Smethwick is a perfect example of how young people from underserved communities can reach out to young people across the 54 member states with optimism, by focussing on key issues of our time, such as Climate Change and small islands states, of which many of the young people have diaspora connections.
Sport, art and culture are all soft powers that are used to strengthen relationships by bringing people together through shared experiences of celebration and striving for improvement. They provide opportunities to involve people, to reach out to unite, socialise, educate and communicate with people worldwide.
And therein lies the focus and opportunity – involvement – what does Birmingham’s involvement look like?
Who benefits once the managers, producers, and creative decision-makers move on to other jobs, projects, and cities.
From what is emerging, it’s clear to see in the public domain, a dysfunctional structure, where perhaps the leadership has missed the fundamentals needed when bringing people together. As one year 9 child at George Dixon said to me 2 months before the games begin:
Nobody in the city cares about the Games.
What a sad reflection even before the games or the cultural programme begins, what has gone wrong for a child to feel this way about one of the most important events in the city’s life, in recent times?
Examples from previous recent cultural and sporting programmes suggest legacy is an afterthought. Let us see how deep the levels of engagement go with this Birmingham opportunity. Let’s ensure we all hold to account the cultural impact the games can have on a cohesive society and a genuine cohesive legacy, and of course, let’s win some medals along the way.
Ajay Chhabra is a Civil Society Advisory Governor of the Commonwealth Foundation and serves the Europe region.