Owen Evans asks outgoing CGF (Commonwealth Games Federation) CEO Mike Hooper to give his assessment of the health of the Commonwealth Games.
Mike Hooper was angry when I met him at CGF headquarters in London last month. In front of him he had a story printed off with yellow highlighter marks scrawled over it.
“I didn’t say any of this,” he said about a story originating from a UK website where he is quoted as questioning whether or not the Commonwealth Games will exist after the 2018 edition in the Gold Coast, Australia.
The article also stated that, “according to Hooper”, the best method of survival for the Commonwealth Games is to take its sports strategy ‘back to basics’ and reduce the programme to just 10 sports.
“I was asked ‘if nobody bids for the 2022 Commonwealth Games, what would happen?’ – so I said, ‘well, it wouldn’t take place’,” he told SportBusiness International. “It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to work that out, does it? I’ve no doubt there will be a Games in 2022.”
It was not the sort of combative reaction you would expect of a CEO who is leaving the CGF this summer after almost 14 years leading the Commonwealth Games through the successes of Manchester (2002) and Melbourne (2006), in addition to the controversies of Delhi (2010) and the potential legacy of Glasgow (2014).
Hooper announced his departure last month, and he will officially step down after this summer’s Games. The CGF has already started its recruiting process and David Grevemburg, CEO of Glasgow 2014, has been mentioned as a potential successor.
Hooper’s reign hasn’t been without trials and tribulations, with the most obvious challenge being during the 2010 Delhi Games, where footage showed protestors burning an effigy of him in the street after he was accused of being racist and insulting the country.
Debating the issue the Commonwealth Games’ future is an “easy story for journalists”, says Hooper, who adds that he has seen it come up every year since he joined the CGF.
The issue of its future health came to the fore at the turn of the year when there appeared to be no obvious interest in hosting the 2022 Commonwealth Games, despite recent murmurings from Cape Town that it was looking at launching a bid. The deadline for expressions of interest passes this month, while the final bid deadline is 12 months from now.
“We’ve been going since 1930, so rumours of our demise are premature,” Hooper says. “I have been around for quite a while and though everyone says how good Manchester and Melbourne were, you have to go back and remind yourself of the build up to those Games.
“I could dust off so many stories from back then that were all about ‘lack of interest in the Games’ and ‘is this the end of the movement?’ Blah blah blah – it’s all the same stories over and over again, as it is simply easier for journalists to do that. It is often forgotten that there was just one bidder for the 2002 Games, Manchester. The number of bidding cities for 2006? Just one, Melbourne.
“Since changing the bidding process and adapting parts of our sports programme, we have made it far more competitive for bidding cities, all the while convincing them that our Games would be a damn sight cheaper than hosting an Olympics.”
Key to Survival
Hooper believes that the Commonwealth Games are just as relevant now than they ever were and, as well as providing “bang for their buck” to host cities, he also believes the flexibility of events sports programme – 10 core sports with the option for potentially seven more – will be the key to survival for the 2022 Games and beyond.
“We’ve always maintained that we are not trying to compete with the Olympic Games,” says Hooper. “We are of, and for, the Commonwealth. So when you get the hardy annual story along the lines of ‘what is this event called the Commonwealth Games?’, it really needs to be understood that this is for the Commonwealth.
“That’s why I believe that when we saw a fantastic rejuvenation of the Games movement in the mid-1990s – when the membership accepted proposals to be more reflective of the Commonwealth and not just the 10 core sports – there was the sea change. We have since seen the impact from Manchester to Melbourne, Delhi, Glasgow and Gold Coast.”
Hooper: Why I Left
I will leave the CGF this summer. The reality is I will have been CEO for 14 years by the time Glasgow 2014 finishes.
There is a whole process of change that is currently going through the Commonwealth Games movement, which I think is really healthy.
When I was first came here there was one PA and someone that was only working here on a secondment from Sport England, over by (London’s) Euston station. Back then, we had no resources – around £300,000 in the bank – so we didn’t have a lot of room to do things.
Now, we have substantially grown and throughout my tenure we created a competitive bid environment, which is great as it shows how the movement has grown during my time. I’m quite proud of that and how much support we’ve given our members.
Everything has a lifespan. Some have said that my lifespan with the CGF should have ended post-Delhi, considering everything that transpired. However, in situations like that it is all about ‘fight or flight’, and ‘flight’ is not in my vocabulary.
Ultimately, the Delhi Games delivered for the athletes in the Commonwealth. Yes, there was lots of scaremongering beforehand. There is no denying the challenge and the pressure that was put on me during the 2009/10 period, but we stuck at it, and collectively we delivered a Games for the athletes. It was the biggest Games ever.
I think every Commonwealth Games is different. I get a bit wary of comparing Games ‘A’ to Games ‘B’. The reality is that it always depends on the perspective. I don’t look back and ask myself what were the highs and lows, I’m the sort of person who just says ‘I have thoroughly enjoyed my time and it has been a great 14 years’.
Would I classify Delhi as challenging? Yes I would. It was stressful at times, but it goes with the territory so I’m not going to grizzle about it. You have got to front up and face issues head on. As long as you are true to yourself, it doesn’t matter what other people spin in the media about you.
I have no regrets. The time is right.