Story: Olympic and Commonwealth games

Page 8. The British Empire Games and Commonwealth Games

All images & media in this story

Empire to Commonwealth

The Commonwealth Games, initially called the British Empire Games, are held every four years. The first British Empire Games took place in 1930 at Hamilton in Ontario, Canada, organised by Canadian Melville Robinson. The games included six sports and drew competitors from 11 countries. By the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games 71 countries were represented in 17 sports.

A precursor to the British Empire Games

The 1911 Festival of Empire was held at the Crystal Palace in London to mark the coronation of King George V. As part of the festivities, an inter-empire sports meeting was held. Teams from Great Britain, Canada and Australasia competed. The Australasian team of nine included four New Zealanders. In running Ronald Opie came second in the 220-yards race and third in the 100 yards while Guy Haskins came third in the mile race. In swimming Malcolm Champion led for the first 11 lengths of the mile race, then fell back to third due to a leg cramp.

The political changes from empire to Commonwealth were reflected in the changing names of the games. The British Empire Games (1930–50) became the British Empire and Commonwealth Games (1954–66), the British Commonwealth Games (1970–1974) and, finally, the Commonwealth Games (1978 onward).

Once largely the preserve of the old ‘white’ dominions, the games expanded to embrace a wide range of African, Asian and Caribbean nations.

New Zealand at the British Empire Games, 1930–38

New Zealand has sent teams to all of the British Empire and Commonwealth Games. At Ontario in 1930 New Zealand won three gold, four silver and two bronze medals.

Aucklander Billy Savidan won the 6-mile gold medal. He began sprinting home after being signalled he was on the final lap, but had to run another circuit after being told the laps had been miscounted. Javelin-thrower Stan Lay and the rowing coxed four also won gold.

Allan Elliott’s false starts

At the 1930 Ontario games New Zealand sprinter Allan Elliott was involved in a telling incident in a heat for the 100-yards race. Elliott made two false starts so he was eliminated from the competition. Despite this decision being in accordance with the rules, the crowd thought it unfair. They made so much noise that the officials were unable to restart the race until Elliott was allowed back in. The incident was seen as illustrating the fact that the British Empire Games were more relaxed and enjoyable than the Olympics. Elliott did not make it into the 100-yards final.

At the 1934 British Empire Games in London, Jack Lovelock brought home New Zealand’s only gold medal after winning the mile race. Harold Brainsby won bronze in the triple jump, as did swimmer Noel Crump in the 100-yard freestyle.

New Zealand took five gold medals at the Sydney Empire Games in 1938. Two were in lawn bowls: the pairs and the fours. In athletics Cantabrian Pat Boot easily won the 880-yards race, along with a bronze medal in the mile. Long-distance runner Cecil Matthews was a games star, with gold medals in both the 3-mile and 6-mile races.

How to cite this page:

Joseph Romanos, 'Olympic and Commonwealth games - The British Empire Games and Commonwealth Games', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/olympic-and-commonwealth-games/page-8 (accessed 19 November 2019)

Story by Joseph Romanos, published 5 Sep 2013, reviewed & revised 16 Sep 2016