In the summer of 1978 Edmonton, Alberta, was host to the biggest sporting event – perhaps the biggest any-kind-of event – ever staged there. The home team’s successes delighted and obsessed the city and its newspapers.

“Gold, gold, gold!” purred the Edmonton Journal. “We win again!” “Yet another triumph!” The Journal had committed its broadsheet front page to this story for the duration. That posed a problem if something important happened anywhere else in the world.

It did. Very attentive readers may just have spotted the tiny box at the bottom of the right-hand column one day: “On other pages – Pope Dead.”

This week in Turin they are clearing up after one huge but slightly weird sporting contest, the Winter Olympics. Ten thousand miles away they are preparing for another, the 18th renewal of the gathering that transfixed Edmonton all those years ago: the Commonwealth Games, which start in Melbourne on Wednesday week.

There are quite a few regional games round the world, like the Asian and Pan-American versions, that are epic in scale and within their own region but never get an ounce of attention anywhere else. The Commonwealth Games girdle the globe in a way that would baffle a Martian.

The world’s second-biggest country (Canada) is there, along with the second most populous (India) plus a fair number of the world’s sub-Olympic microdots: Guernsey, Montserrat, Norfolk Island, Niue. About 70 nations and quasi-nations will be there – no one else will even notice.

The link is historic. These are the places the British colonised, with one anomalous addition, Mozambique, allowed into the Commonwealth as reward for its role in the anti-apartheid struggle, and a few minuses – the Republic of Ireland and Burma, who never joined the Commonwealth, and Zimbabwe, kicked out for governmental obnoxiousness in 2003. Oh, and the US who opted out of all this 230 years ago.

Well, more fool them, because the Commonwealth Games are rather nice. They are nicknamed “The Friendly Games”, which is a bit double-edged, because the phrase tends to get invoked at the merest hint of raised voices. If a spectator has a mild quibble with a steward, he will usually stomp away saying: “The Friendly Games! Huh!”

However, there is something in it. There are now 17 sports – mostly Olympic ones but also bowls, netball, rugby sevens and squash. For some competitors, like the bowlers and the microdot-representatives, this can be the biggest moment of their lives even if they have no hope of a medal. For the true Olympians, it may be a stroll in the park. So the atmosphere in the village is more celebratory than intense.

Occasionally, on the track especially, the competition is world class. But the field events are often low-grade by global standards as are sports such as gymnastics and weightlifting, where Commonwealth countries are infrequent Olympic medallists for cultural and, on occasion perhaps, chemical reasons.

The homogeneity helps. Almost everyone (except the Mozambicans) grew up speaking or at least learning English.

But this is not the homogeneity envisaged by the founding fathers. These began in 1930 as the British Empire Games. It was a way for the white man to relax from his burden of running the planet for everyone else.

Britain’s extrication from empire
has not always been easy and the lingering problems of southern Africa have often impinged horribly on the post-imperial sporting heritage. Cricket and rugby endured bitter disputes in
the apartheid years.

Yet the Commonwealth Games adapted very cunningly. Only one event (Edinburgh 1986) was wrecked by politics, and it will be the Queen of England, who remains Queen of Australia and head of the Commonwealth, who performs the official opening in Melbourne.

This poses some problems for the Australians, who are split to the point of political paralysis between monarchists and republicans. There has been a splendidly obscure dispute rumbling on there about whether
“God Save the Queen” should be played or just their own anthem, “Advance Australia Fair”. The word yesterday
was that a neat compromise had
been devised – “a few bars” of
Britain’s anthem will make it into the opening ceremony.

One thing seems certain: none of that will deflect Melbourne’s enthusiasm.
It is one of the world’s most sports-mad cities and was royally hacked off to see its bitter rival, Sydney, get the Olympics in 2000. The Commonwealth Games
are a mere consolation prize, but Melburnians will be doing their utmost to outdo Sydney.

Also, Australia loves these games.
The British are also enthusiastic but the 11-hour time difference and the strange season will dull the event’s impact this time. Australians never care where or when they are held: they got 82 gold medals in 2002, ahead of the field for the sixth time running, and they loved it.

The people and their newspapers will go crazy over every medal this time too. Let’s hope the Pope stays healthy.

Simon Kuper is away

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