James Diamond

It is a sad indictment of the state of global sports governance that everywhere you look, a bad news story seems to rear its ugly head.

Whether it is the resignation of Japanese Olympic Committee President Tsunekazu Takeda, the Larry Nassar abuse scandal and the subsequent chaos at USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic Committee or allegations of sexual abuse by members of the Afghanistan Football Association against its own women’s team, to name just a few examples, it seems as if the sports administrators of today are hell-bent on providing examples of what not to do.

Off the field, good news stories seem increasingly rare.

Yet if you look hard enough, they are there.

Amid all the chaos, a revolution is under way at the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF), with the body attempting a transformation from an organisation almost entirely focused on running a single event every four years, to a fully-fledged movement, aiming to improve the day-to-day lives of those across the Commonwealth through sport.

By its President’s own admission, the CGF used to be a body which met once a year "and that’s it".

But times are changing.

"We knew we needed to move forward [in 2015]," Dame Louise Martin told insidethegames.

"Everything was changing in the world of sport and we needed to keep up with it, so it was agreed we would have a look at all of our strategy and get the plan working that we thought would be right for the way forward until 2022."

Dame Louise was elected President at the CGF's General Assembly in Auckland that year.

At the same event, their new strategic plan, Transformation 2022, was approved which, as the name suggests, is attempting radical change.

"As I said, we did need it," Dame Louise said.

"We needed to bring ourselves up to the 21st Century and to move forward. More importantly, we needed to take everybody within the Federation with us.

"That hasn’t been easy, don’t get me wrong, because nobody likes change, everyone would like to stay the same, but I can assure you that all 71 of our countries are backing this to the hilt."

Dame Louise Martin was elected Commonwealth Games Federation President at its General Assembly in 2015 ©Getty Images
Dame Louise Martin was elected Commonwealth Games Federation President at its General Assembly in 2015 ©Getty Images

In its own words, the plan is an attempt to set out a vision for the CGF. It is also an attempt to outline its formal mission and values more openly.

"Commonwealth athletes are at the heart of everything we do," its introduction reads. "As they constantly push boundaries and challenge limits to deliver peak performance, it’s our ambition to ensure their high performance on the field of play inspires wide and lasting impact in communities and across the nations and territories of the Commonwealth.

"As a Movement and through our inspirational athletes we are uniquely placed to deliver the transformational leap from impactful performance in sport to performance impact in the Commonwealth.

"We relish the opportunity."

Of course, the idea of using sport to promote positive societal change is nothing new. Neither is the idea of being athlete-centred or respecting equality and it certainly is not a new idea to try to be “one of the best governed and well-managed sports movements in the world”, as the CGF claims it aspires to be.

But the difference here is it appears they mean it.

"What Transformation 2022 looked to do was to take the Federation from running an event every four years to a wider concept of a movement that was alive every day," CGF chief executive David Grevemberg said.

"The vision of the organisation changed, to building peaceful, sustainable and prosperous communities globally, by inspiring Commonwealth athletes, to drive the impact and ambition of all Commonwealth citizens through sport. It is invoking almost a call to action around athletes and citizens, impacting their communities positively."

The plan attempts to invoke change in four key areas: by inspiring “an innovative and inspirational Games", by developing one of the best-governed Movements "in the world", by building on public, private and social partnerships and by championing, "athlete, citizen and community engagement" through their brand.

Crucially, Dame Louise and Grevemberg between them insist every member Federation should have its say on how best to do it and where the priorities should be.

In attempting to drive positive change, giving your opinion on how to do it seems almost compulsory.

They have recently held meetings in Fiji with every Commonwealth nation across Oceania to establish views on what the Movement’s priorities should be. They then travelled to Jamaica to do the same with every country from the Caribbean and Americas.

Following that were trips to Isle of Man to meet European nations and then Zanzibar to meet Commonwealth representatives from across Africa. Once that meeting ended, they moved on to Singapore to meet the Commonwealth countries of Asia. By the time you read this, they will have discussed ways to improve the Federation, in detail, with all 71 member nations and territories.

Commonwealth Games Federation chief executive David Grevemberg has been travelling the world, along with President Dame Louise Martin, to hear what is important to Member Federations ©Getty Images
Commonwealth Games Federation chief executive David Grevemberg has been travelling the world, along with President Dame Louise Martin, to hear what is important to Member Federations ©Getty Images

"That’s one of the reasons why we’re doing these regional visits, so we can have their comments and discussions with them, so that we can listen to exactly what they are suggesting," Dame Louise said.

"A lot of them have got really good ideas and we will incorporate them [into the plan] and rather than doing it at a General Assembly, where you have some countries that talk a lot and other countries that don’t like to say anything because they are too small, this is giving every country a chance to discuss and debate. In Fiji, it was very good."

Both Dame Louise and Grevemberg as an example, discussed how Pacific nations highlighted climate change as their primary concern, with Kiribati, they both agreed, "nearly underwater".

"I recognise we’re not the panacea but if we turned a blind eye to it, you know, we actually need a plan for these challenges and to support our members with their realities," Grevemberg said.

But going back to the General Assembly point, holding all these regional meetings means travelling across the globe, often with very small gaps between trips.

We conducted our interview over the phone with Dame Louise and David sat in a Heathrow Airport hotel, as they had just landed from Fiji and were flying to Jamaica the next morning.

Clearly very tired, Grevemberg warned me early on that things they said might not immediately make sense.

Why, I asked, are they bothering? Why not just leave the discussions to the CGF General Assembly? If representatives from the smaller nations don’t want to speak, is that not their prerogative? Why be so insistent they must give their views?

"We’re all equal," Dame Louise said. "We’ve all got one vote and if somebody’s got to have a vote, they have got to have a voice as well.

"When you have 100 to 200 people in a General Assembly and people are trying to discuss things… it’s the vocal people who are normally heard first and then somebody will think, ‘I’ve heard that already, I don’t want to do it’… you don’t want to have this ‘oh I can’t ask that because everybody will listen to me’, it’s encouraging them to talk to us, to speak to us.

"And if we do it in the regions like this, I guarantee that by the time we get to the General Assembly [in Rwanda in September] they will all be vocal about it."

Dame Louise added that speaking openly at a CGF General Assembly could be a daunting prospect.

"I can assure you sometimes it’s intimidating in General Assemblies, when you’re having to stand up and speak and you’re thinking, 'what’s going to happen next?'

"But we’re trying to get away from that so that if we can do these regional meetings… it will just be a really good General Assembly, pass the motions et cetera, because they will all have been discussed."

The next Commonwealth Games Federation General Assembly is due to take place later this year in Rwanda ©Getty Images
The next Commonwealth Games Federation General Assembly is due to take place later this year in Rwanda ©Getty Images

Adding to Dame Louise’s point, Grevemberg gave his view that the new approach would help to improve the Commonwealth Games Movement’s inclusivity.

"It’s actually giving people the respect they [deserve]," he said. "They are the ones on the ground. They are the ones who are working with the athletes and the communities and we need to support. We are at the service of sport and communities and that’s it. The community and athletes are not at the service of us."

Summing up, Grevemberg suggested they were attempting to strengthen their ability "to positively impact the world and deliver our vision".

When at one stage I suggested their vision sounded very idealistic, both took issue with the word.

Grevemberg suggested that the plan is idealistic "without being naïve", before Dame Louise gave her own opinion.

"When you use the word idealistic, it sounds as if its been put on such a high pillar that we’ll never achieve it,” she said. “It’s how you portray that word."

And that, really, is the point.

Sporting bodies the world over have, for decades, proclaimed themselves to operate in the pursuit of lofty ideals such as fairness, equality and peace, but an increasingly small number seem to remember what they mean.

Fewer still appear to be making an active effort to implement them across their own structures, even if they claim as much every time the athletes take to the field.

But at the CGF, things are different.

While elsewhere the aim of many in sports governance today appears simply to gain power, at the CGF real governance is still the order of the day.

As Grevemberg said: "We’re still humanising sport and not politicising sport. We take that responsibility to be a force for good very seriously."