Correspondent at Large Louise Evans, who has worked at six Commonwealth Games, explains why Victoria’s ill-conceived 2026 pitch was never going to work.
The plan to squeeze the world’s second largest multi-sports event into five regional Victorian towns was doomed from the start.
That’s because the controversial concept behind the canceled 2026 Commonwealth Games was unworkable and the maths just didn’t add up.
First there’s the 7000 athletes, coaches and managers from 72 countries who would have descended on Victoria. Then add 400,000 visitors/spectators and 4000 media. The majority would have been funneled through Melbourne’s international airport and out to the regions where tens of thousands of staff and volunteers would need to have been imported or recruited to stage each sport at each venue.
Keep in mind that the five host towns are small in size and population. Geelong has an approximate population of 253,000, Gippsland 154,00, Bendigo 120,000, Ballarat 102,000 and Shepparton 67,000.
Increase that total population by more than 50 per cent with an estimated 420,000-strong Games family who have to be fed, hydrated, housed, guarded and WiFi enabled for two weeks. Then work out where you’re going to accommodate the support army of caterers, hospitality workers, cleaners, security guards and technicians.
Factor in a fleet of buses, thousands of tanks of fuel and a battalion of bus drivers to transport the Games family from training centres, villages and hotels to venues and back every day for 12 days within each of the five towns.
Now try moving spectators and media from Geelong – which was due to host the swimming, diving, beach volleyball, coastal rowing, T20 cricket, golf, artistic gymnastics, hockey and triathlon – 90km up the road to Ballarat for the athletics, boxing and mountain bike cycling.
The drive from Ballarat to Bendigo is a further 120km for the track cycling, basketball, lawn bowls, netball, squash and table tennis. It’s another 120km from Bendigo to Shepparton for the three cycling disciplines of BMX, road and time trials.
Meanwhile in Gippsland, 350km east of Melbourne, the sports of badminton, road cycling criterium, rugby 7s and shooting were taking place.
Moving the masses from town to town would have created greater gridlock on connecting roads already choked with lines of delivery vans bringing in food, fuel, beverages and linen and taking away the trash.
When this fully-mapped, ill-conceived plan finally reached the desk of the Victoria Premier Dan Andrews he said no way because of cost blowouts.
There’s been no transparency in any of the stated costs whether it’s the highly-contested $6-7 billion Andrews claimed or the $2.6 billion priced by outside consultants and Games officials. Both figures are however well above the cost of the $1.2 billion 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games and the $1.8 billion 2022 Birmingham Games.
The State of Victoria is also swimming in red with net debt set to reach $171.4 billion by mid-2027, accruing an annual interest bill of about $8 billion. Ratings agency S&P Global lists Victoria’s financial outlook as “very weak compared with other Australian states”.
Given the financials, real or inflated, canceling the Games was an easy decision which begs the question: why bid in the first place with such an unworkable model.
Some blame has to be borne by the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) which agreed to Victoria’s ill-fated, five-town pitch.
The CGF however had no alternative. Victoria was the only bidder for the 2026 Games and the five-town plan was devised by Victoria.
The Olympics faced a similar dilemma with just two bids for the 2024 Summer Games. Paris and Los Angeles were duly awarded 2024 and 2028 respectively while the 2032 Games bid was a one-horse race won by Brisbane.
Now, with just three years to go to the 2026 Commonwealth Games, finding an alternative host with deep pockets and Games-ready infrastructure is like trying to refloat the Titanic.
Legal threats by the CGF for financial compensation from Victoria will only scare-off prospective hosts and bidders.
There is a degree of embarrassment for Melbourne and Victoria’s sporting reputation for the abrupt cancellation and the way it was handled. But Andrews will get herograms if he delivers housing and sporting infrastructure to the five towns without suffering the pain and cost of hosting the Games.
Away from the Victoria-Games bubble, a “who cares” attitude prevails. The quadrennial multi-sport event for athletes from 72 Commonwealth nations and territories – is considered an anachronism that should be resigned to history.
Despite the Games’ diverse multicultural make-up, the Commonwealth Games Federation remains a London-based organisation with a predominantly Anglo-Saxon executive board.
Even the name is controversial. What started as the British Empire Games in Canada in 1930 morphed into the British Commonwealth Games and then the Commonwealth Games. But was there ever any common wealth in the Commonwealth?
The big losers are the athletes, and especially athletes from the smaller Commonwealth countries, who may never get the chance to kick-start their sporting careers at a major multi-sport event and compete against the big three nations of England, Canada and Australia.
There was no mistaking the life-changing joy of the five Samoan athletes who won five medals – one gold and four silver in men’s and women’s weightlifting and men’s boxing – at the 2022 Birmingham Games.
One solution would be to scale back the Commonwealth Games to its original core sports of athletics, boxing, lawn bowls, rowing, swimming, and wrestling thereby making it easier and cheaper to stage. But that just makes it look even more like the Olympics’ poor cousin.
Another solution would be to rid some of the sports of heats and have a one-day-per-discipline semi finals and finals format – thereby reducing the schedule. But that dramatically disadvantages the minor countries whose athletes wouldn’t make the top-16 cut of competitors for the semi-finals in swimming and athletics.
A third innovative solution would be to give the athletes some skin in the Games. Currently athletes only get a bouquet of flowers with their gold, silver and bronze medals. The Commonwealth Games could set a stunning precedent by sharing the proceeds of their broadcasting and sponsorship agreements and offering prize money with the medals. It would certainly guarantee that the world’s greats would show up.
The major problem for the Commonwealth Games and its future is the precedent Victoria has set by canceling. Canada may already be re-thinking its commitment to host the 100-year anniversary Games in 2030.
Meanwhile, 100km or so from where the 2026 Games were set to unfold, there’s a vibrant city with a five-million, big-event savvy population and Games-ready, world-class facilities. Melbourne successfully staged the 2006 Commonwealth Games for about $1.1 billion.
An encore two decades later could be a win-win.
Louise Evans is an award-winning journalist who has worked around Australia and the world as a reporter, foreign correspondent, editor and media executive for media platforms including The Sydney Morning Herald (eight years), The Australian (11 years) and Australian Associated Press (six years in London, Beijing and Sydney).
A women sports’ pioneer, Louise was the first female sports journalist employed by The Sydney Morning Herald and the first female sports editor at The Australian. Louise went on to work at six Olympic Games, six Commonwealth Games and numerous world sporting championships and grand slam tennis events.
Louise is the Founding Editor of AAP FactCheck, the Creator of #WISPAA – Women in Sport Photo Action Awards and national touring Exhibition and the author and producer of the Passage to Pusan book, documentary and exhibition.
In 2019 she was awarded the Order of Australia Medal (OAM) Queen’s Honour for services to the media and sport and named an Australian Financial Review Top 100 Woman of Influence for services to the arts, culture and sport.
In 2020 she won a NSW Volunteer of the Year Award plus the NSW Government Community Service Award for her women-in-sport advocacy work.