“The Commonwealth is a force for good at a time of global instability”

Ben Nichols joined the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) late last year after four years working in Montreal for the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

With the Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast, Australia, coming up in early April, Calacus spoke to Ben to find out more about his move and what makes the Commonwealth different.  

How are preparations going for the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games?

Preparations for Gold Coast 2018 have been excellent, as one might expect from a country that just loves its sport. The Gold Coast Organising Committee (GOLDOC) and all Games partners have put in the hard yards to ensure that the XXI Commonwealth Games will be a huge success.

With impressive high ticket sales, a dynamic volunteer programme and with GOLDOC’s (Gold Coast Organising Committee) strong stance in embracing the Commonwealth Sports Movement’s industry-leading Gender Equality strategy, no stone has been left unturned to ensure that the Games will leave a long-term impact; and that for many years people will remember the distinctive Commonwealth sporting brand that will have left its mark on this fast-growing city. Whilst we are never complacent, we are confident that the stage is set for a truly transformational sporting spectacle in Australia. 
What are the main communications challenges that you have faced since taking over the role?

Having led Media Relations for the WADA during the most challenging and turbulent period in its history, one might think that my stint there was just about as challenging as it could get.

What stood out for me about the role at the CGF was the sheer scale of the opportunity that lay before me, and, to be honest, that lies before the Commonwealth and its Sports Movement at this hugely opportune time.
With the Gold Coast Games; preparations for Birmingham 2022 underway; the upcoming high-profile Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) hosted by the UK Government in London next month; and of course, with the backdrop of Brexit and the increased focus that provides for the Commonwealth of Nations; I would argue that the Commonwealth is more relevant than ever before.

If you also look at the somewhat toxic culture that has infested sport in recent years – with doping, corruption and other issues that threaten sport’s integrity – there is a great opportunity for the Commonwealth Sports Movement, which truly embodies fair, honest, friendly competition, to cement its reputation as a progressive force for good in the world. 
Given the scale of this opportunity, we are not short of ideas and messages to communicate. People are captivated by the Commonwealth, and there is a real feeling out there that, with its ‘sport with a social conscience and impact’ brand, the Commonwealth can be a force for good at a time of global instability.

Commonwealth sport, with its fascinating stories of giant sporting nations versus underdog island states, and emerging sporting prodigies versus retiring veterans, is unique, relatable and is in many ways an antithesis to commercial modern-day sport. The challenge that we face, as a small organisation representing a big cause-driven movement, is getting people to understand what we represent in the modern world, changing people’s perceptions.

Acknowledging our past, yes, with its connections to the British Empire and all it entailed, but also getting the message out there that the Modern Commonwealth is more needed than at any time in its history; and, of course, the Games are a great way to deliver that message. I think when people see what we are communicating around the Games, whether it be our industry-leading gender equality work, our indigenous reconciliation action plan, or our human rights work, they will start to see the Commonwealth in a very different light.

There is no other movement like the Commonwealth in international sport, and so it’s my job and my challenge to make sure people see that and start believing in the Commonwealth once again.
This will be the most gender-equal major sports event – how important is it that the CGF leads the way?

If I’ve learnt one thing in my first three months with the CGF, it is that the Federation is head and shoulders above anyone else in sport in terms of the work it does, and the priority it gives, social impact issues – not least gender equality. 

If you look at Gold Coast 2018, it really is a Games of firsts. It is the first major international multi-sport event to have an equal number of medal opportunities for men and women.

It is the first time that the sports of Rugby Sevens, swimming and cycling will have over 50% female referees and technical officials. It is the first Games to have a Women’s Coaching Internship Programme whereby 20 aspiring young female coaches have been offered the chance to attend the Games and be mentored by the leading national coaches.

This is how sport can have a real impact. And this is why Commonwealth sport and the Commonwealth Games are alive and thriving today.
I think it’s also important to stress that the Commonwealth Games is not the Olympics, and nor should it ever try to be – it is an entirely different ‘product’ and one that I believe increasingly resonates with people in this age of widespread distrust in sport.

When people tune in to Gold Coast 2018, they will see that we put athletes first, we put communities first, we put fun first – and we embody sport as it should be. 
How has the relevance of the Commonwealth changed in recent years?

The Commonwealth and Commonwealth Games is more relevant than ever before. 
Several years ago, people were questioning the relevance of the Commonwealth and the position of the Games in society. No longer. Glasgow changed all that, as did the modernisation of the movement and its shift from a deliverer of a great Games to the leading social impact international sporting body. 
We are doing so much even beyond our record as the international sport leader in promoting gender equality.

Look at our ground-breaking human rights work, such as the partnership that was established between Unicef and Glasgow 2014 which has positively impacted more than 11.7 million children across the Commonwealth, and that raised £6.5 million as a call to action from the 4,900 athletes that competed in Glasgow. 
Look at our indigenous reconciliation work – and the Reconciliation Action Plan – that has been implemented for Gold Coast 2018, and which will use sport to bring together the indigenous and non-indigenous communities of Australia and the Commonwealth like never before. Whether it be through procurement, employment, the volunteers programme, involvement in the culture and festival programme, this Games will be transformative in the way it recognises the rights of indigenous people.
Look at our fully-integrated para-sport programme at the Commonwealth Games. Again, unique in international major multi-sport events.
There is also the notion that the Commonwealth is under the spotlight once again because of Brexit and the UK’s expected increased engagement with the Commonwealth, and what that means for trade and ‘Commonwealth clout’. Sport, of course, and especially with Birmingham hosting the Games in 2022, is a great way of driving the conversation around intra-Commonwealth trade; these things are certainly interlinked. 
And let’s not forget that the Commonwealth is represented by every third person in the world – over 2.6 billion citizens, comprising 53 countries across every continent and every region of the world. 1.6 billion of the Commonwealth’s population is under the age of 29. Two-thirds of the world’s small states and island states are in the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth has some of the world’s fastest growing and emerging economies. 
There is great momentum with the Commonwealth. People are starting to identify with this family of nations once again, so it’s important that we use this time of opportunity to demonstrate its positive role as a force for good in the world.
What plans do the CGF have for the future of the Games?

The CGF is well aware of the need to take the Games to new frontiers. As the Commonwealth sporting brand, and its distinctive values, become more known, the prospect of bidding for the Commonwealth Games will become an increasingly attractive one.

I think you are going to see the Games go to new countries in the near future. There are positive conversations being had, and many different countries are starting to see the value of hosting the Games, and what it can do for the long-term impact on their communities. 
There’s not just the main Games, however. We also have our Youth Games, which gives the smaller countries and island states of the Commonwealth (of which there are many) the chance to realise their hosting ambitions.

Just look at how the Commonwealth Youth Games have impacted communities in small states and island states, such as the Games in Samoa 2015 and Bahamas 2017: both events left a lasting impact by implementing the first legislative changes on child safeguarding standards for major events and activities in both countries. 

* Since this article was written, Ben Nichols has left the CGF and now runs his own consultancy which can be found http://bennichols.co.uk/