GC2018: A history of the Royal Family and the Commonwealth Games

With GC2018 taking place on the Gold Coast in Australia from 4 April, GC2018 examines the Royal Family’s enduring relationship with the ‘Friendly Games’.

Known as the ‘Friendly Games’ for its atmosphere of good sportsmanship, fair competition and encouragement for all participants, the Commonwealth Games have enjoyed the support of the royal family for many years.

The forerunner of what is today known as the Commonwealth Games took place in 1911.

Held as part of the Festival of the Empire to coincide with the coronation of King George V, the Inter-Empire Championships were held in London with sporting teams from Australia, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

The idea of a sporting event for athletes from across the Empire was established and the first British Empire Games took place in 1930 in Hamilton in Canada featuring seven sports: athletics, boxing, lawn bowls, rowing, swimming, diving and wrestling.

These first Games were opened by the Governor-General of Canada, Lord Willingdon on behalf of King George V and messages were read out from both the King and the Prince of Wales.

Further Games took place in 1934 in London, in 1938 in Sydney, and again after the Second World War in Auckland in 1950.

In 1954, the 5th British Empire and Commonwealth Games were held in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Best known for the ‘miracle mile’ athletics race between Roger Bannister (England) and John Landy (Australia) when they ran a time of under four minutes, the 1954 Games welcomed 24 countries with 662 athletes competing in nine sports.

The 1954 Games was also notable for the first visit to a Games by the Duke of Edinburgh who closed the event at its finale.

It began a long relationship between Prince Philip and the Commonwealth Games and in 1955, he became the President of the Commonwealth Games Federation, the organising body of the Games.

The 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Wales were notable for the Queen’s pre-recorded message being broadcast at the closing ceremony at Cardiff Arms Park when she told the enthusiastic crowds that she had chosen the occasion to announce that she would ‘create my son Charles, Prince of Wales’.

However for the nine-year-old Prince Charles watching on television at prep school with the headmaster and fellow pupils, the news came as a complete surprise – no-one at the Palace had thought to inform the young Prince.

In 1966, for the first time Prince Charles and Princess Anne accompanied their father when he opened the Games in Jamaica, something that the Queen remarked upon in her Christmas broadcast later that year.

The 9th Commonwealth Games, held in Scotland in 1970 saw Queen Elizabeth II attend the Games in her role as Head of the Commonwealth for the first time, although the Games held in Edinburgh were officially opened by Prince Philip.

The Queen later became Patron of the Commonwealth Games Federation. In the 1970s and 80s, the Queen often combined a visit to the Games with one of her many Commonwealth tours.

The Commonwealth Games held in 1974 in Christchurch in New Zealand saw the Queen accompanied by Prince Philip, Prince Charles and the newly married Princess Anne and her husband, Captain Mark Phillips attending the Games while staying on board the Royal Yacht Britannia for a visit to attend the New Zealand Day events at Waitangi.

Prince Philip, who arrived ahead of the Queen, performed the formal opening of the Games while the Queen attended the more informal closing ceremony receiving an ecstatic welcome from the competitors.

The 1978 Commonwealth Games, held in Edmonton, Canada, was the first time that the Queen formally opened the Games and she was accompanied by Prince Philip and the 18-year-old Prince Andrew and 14-year-old Prince Edward.

The visits by the Queen and other members of the royal family to the Commonwealth Games usually include either the opening or closing ceremony, attendance at several different sports events, presentations of winners’ medals and a visit to the athletes’ village to meet competitors from as many different teams as possible.

In 1986, the Commonwealth Games returned to Edinburgh in Scotland but they were marred by controversy when the majority of Commonwealth nations staged a boycott of the Games due the policies of the then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher’s government of keeping its sporting links with apartheid South Africa rather than joining the general sporting boycott that other countries were maintaining.

The controversy caused much anxiety to the Queen, who opened the Games, and it did little to help the strained relations between Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street at the time.

The 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland coincided with New Zealand’s sesquicentennial celebrations and saw the Queen’s youngest son, Prince Edward represent her at the opening ceremony for the first time.

Prince Edward had succeeded his father as President of the Commonwealth Games Federation the same year, a role that was later changed to that of Vice-Patron and since then he has played an active role in the Commonwealth Games and its many other events. Prince Edward was accompanied by Sophie, Countess of Wessex and his children, Lady Louise Windsor and James, Viscount Severn to the most recent Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014.

The Queen’s Baton Relay

An integral part of the Commonwealth Games is the Queen’s Baton Relay.

First started at the 1958 Commonwealth Games, it was originally a baton relay around the host city for competitors.

However, the Queen’s Baton Relay has grown into a major part of the Games and it now travels around all of the participating countries and territories of the Commonwealth in an epic journey covering thousands of kilometres.

The baton is carried by many hundreds of people from all walks of life and helps to promote the forthcoming Games.

The Queen’s Baton is designed especially to represent the host nation of the Games with many unique designs over the years and it carries the personal message from the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth to the opening ceremony to be read out by Her Majesty or the Queen’s representative.

The opening of the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, England took on an added significance as it coincided with the Queen’s Golden Jubilee celebrations.

The Queen’s Baton was carried into the stadium by footballer David Beckham and seven-year-old Kirsty Howard, who was born with a rare and incurable condition and raised millions through her charity work.

The arrival of the Queen’s Baton at the opening ceremony is always a significant moment of every Games.

With the reduction in long-haul overseas travel for the Queen and the retirement of Prince Philip from official duties, it was announced in July 2017 that they would not be attending GC2018.

However, the royal couple played a very active part in the launch of the GC2018 Queen’s Baton Relay which took place on Commonwealth Day 2017 in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace and the Queen sent her message on its way to the opening ceremony.

The Gold Coast 2018 Queen’s Baton Relay is the longest in Commonwealth Games history as it will cover 230,000 km over 388 days.

The 2018 Queen’s Baton has been made using macadamia wood and reclaimed plastic, sourced from Gold Coast waterways, and is inspired by the region’s vibrant spirit and indigenous heritage.

Buckingham Palace announced that the Queen will be represented by the Prince of Wales in Australia where he will open the Games and read out the Queen’s customary message, calling on athletes to come together in the spirit of friendly competition.

Prince Charles will be accompanied by Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall as he was in 2010 when they both attended the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi, India.

His visit will also be the seventh time that he has attended the global sporting event and Prince Edward will also attend the Games in his role as Vice-Patron of the Commonwealth Games Federation.

The Commonwealth Games has evolved and grown over the years and the royal family have continued to play an active role in the promotion and success of the ‘Friendly Games’.


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