Gold Coast 2018 and the future… SportsPro talks to CGF president Louise Martin

The Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games from 4th to 15th April will be the first under the tenure of Louise Martin, the first female president of the Commonwealth Games Federation. Here, she discusses plans to build a relevant, inspiring future for the movement, a more sustainable strategy for major events, and the role of women in sports leadership.

Gold Coast 2018 and the future… SportsPro talks to CGF president Louise Martin

When Louise Martin’s daughter was six years old, she came home from a gymnastics class with a quandary.

“Mum,” she said, “you know they say that if they can’t get anybody to be the secretary, they’re going to stop.”

Martin had represented Scotland as a swimmer in the Commonwealth Games but, faced with a challenge and a job that needed doing, took it on herself. So began a career in sports administration that led from that local gymnastics club to the north district organisation, and then the national body.

A seat followed on the board of Commonwealth Games Scotland, which she then chaired from 1999, before she became the first woman to hold the post of honorary secretary of the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF). Her career has encompassed roles as chair of Sportscotland, a board member of elite funding body UK Sport, and as the vice chair of the successful Glasgow 2014 bid for the Commonwealth Games.

It was in the eventual afterglow of that event – whose success helped the Commonwealth movement recover from the difficulties of New Delhi in 2010, recapturing the spirit of the London 2012 Olympics while also showing that multi-sport festivals could be served a different way – that Martin ran for the presidency of the CGF. She won, ousting the incumbent Prince Tunku Imran of Malaysia in a vote at the general assembly in Auckland in September 2015.

It all started off by somebody saying there was nobody in that gym club willing to do anything

Martin is speaking to SportsPro ahead of her first Games as CGF president, when 6,600 athletes and team officials from 70 Commonwealth nations and territories will descend on Gold Coast, Australia to compete across 18 sports and seven para-sports. They will be the 22nd and biggest edition of the event in its 88-year history – with the biggest reported budget, at AUS$2 billion – but they come at the end of a period which has raised new questions about the direction of the movement and its purpose. 

In March 2017, the South African city of Durban was stripped of the rights to host the 2022 Commonwealth Games amid concerns over budgetary constraints and the role of government. The CGF moved quickly to replace it and a much-shortened bid phase yielded a new venue: the British city of Birmingham, which had seen off a domestic rival in Liverpool.

Coming in the same few weeks as Budapest’s withdrawal from the race for the 2024 Olympics, the removal of Durban was framed by many in the context of wider difficulties in staging major events. However, with the first African host replaced by another in the UK – which, together with Australia and Canada, has put on all but a handful of Games to date – there were more specific issues to address.  

For Martin, the challenge is not only to find hosts but to shape the movement in a way that makes the Commonwealth – a body whose member nations comprise an estimated population of 2.4 billion people but whose British imperial roots give it an unbalanced past – relevant in the 21st century. The CGF must also grow into a sporting organisation with a life between its set-piece quadrennial gatherings whilst servicing what the CGF really hopes to achieve: connecting communities in otherwise disparate nations not through their shared history, but through personal stories of striving and achievement they can all recognise.

A colourful scene from the Gold Coast 2018 opening ceremony

Martin on… what to expect from Gold Coast 2018

Touch wood, I would say that we are very confident. I am confident that the Games in Gold Coast will be very, very good. They will be different from what’s ever been done before, and the Commonwealth and the world will see a different place when Gold Coast has shone on the television.

In Australia, before, you’ve had Melbourne hosting the Games and you’ve had Sydney hosting the Games. And you go, ‘Why have we suddenly moved?’ We’ve gone to a regional city in Queensland that’s always been known for Surfer’s Paradise.

They wanted to get away from that side of things and let everybody see that they are a modern city, that they’re doing all the bits and pieces to bring Gold Coast into the modern world. And they saw using these Games as the catalyst to help them do that: to build new facilities for their communities and also to re-educate people about what the Gold Coast can do for business – and also pleasure, but it’s not just pleasure and fun, it’s the other side of things and the serious side of things that they wanted everybody to see. And it’s happening.

Martin on… CGF Partnerships

Lagardère have employed people who have been in these different roles on various different projects and events, so they’re part of their workforce and we have the access to them during any of the Games that we’ll be doing, as we’re doing with Birmingham here. There are people who have got the event knowledge - you’ve got people in broadcasting, you’ve got people in security, you’ve got a person for each of the areas that we know we need, who we have worked with before.

Martin on… Durban dropping out

One of the hardest decisions we’ve ever had to make was taking those Games away from Durban. That hurt. That really did. Because the Games in Durban could have been terrific. They’re ready for it. They are ready for the feeling and the love of the Games in what they want to do and what they’ve got. And they’ve got a reasonable number of venues in the city and they could then actually build a few more or renovate or do them up.

But the biggest problem was that we needed to make sure that the delivery would be on our terms, but there were several issues that we couldn’t reconcile. We could not lose sight of what our product is and we did not want to go down the road of deviating in any shape or form. And also, we had to make sure that the people who were delivering the Games were going to deliver them properly. 

The Games, I am convinced, will go back to Africa. Africa’s ready for this. So it’s now encouraging other countries in Africa – and even South Africa itself – to have another look at it in the future. And I think when they see this new way of working that we’ve got, this new partnership, where it’s not going to cost an arm and a leg, I think that will give them the confidence to start working with us.

Martin on… the race for 2026 – and 2030

There will probably still be an election in the end, but what we will do is we will work with every country and city that expresses an interest, and the expression of interest is viable. We will then work with them to make sure of what they can deliver for their city and their country to put in a bid process. And it will be evaluated across the board but, this time, the evaluation process will be factual. It will give a decision on each city as it stands rather than leaving it open to interpretation.

This has to be factual. It has to be what can be delivered for the Games, for the community, for the city – all of that taken into consideration. And it may well come down to the fact that only one city can do it at that time, but two other ones could be ready for the next Games. And it may well be – is the time right now, I don’t know, whether to say whether it will be two Games; whether we’ll nominate ’26 and we’ll nominate ’30. That’s up for decision with the general assembly and just up for discussion with the people that we’re working with.

Martin on… changes at the CGF

It’ll be three years in September since I was elected. It’s funny sitting in this position because having been the honorary secretary for four Games – hands-on and doing everything – it’s very difficult for me to sit on my hands, which I don’t do well and I’m not doing it well. There’s still things that I do and I like doing and it’s easy for me having done it for that length of time: protocol, and the medals ceremonies, and things like that. But we’re building up a team to work.

One of the things that we have done and that I think has been really good – and, again, we’ll see what happens when we get to Gold Coast – is gender equity. When I was first elected to the board in ’99 in the secretary’s position, I was the only female on that board. And you go, ‘Oh heck, what’s this?’ And, of course, it took the men a long time to get used to this: ‘Gentlemen, please, are you ready to start?’ ‘Gentlemen? Excuse me, what about me?’

So it was six to eight months before they realised I was there to do a role. It’s not the person, it’s the skillset that you’ve got. But, again, I was the only female so we needed to try and bring more women on board. Gradually, over time, we’ve had a rule where you needed to have 20 per cent on all committees. It’s not a lot, I know, but in sporting terms and for us, that’s a lot. So that’s a bonus. And also, for our vice presidents roles, there’s three positions and two genders must be in place.

So gradually, we’re getting there.

Louise Martin, the first female president of the Commonwealth Games Federation, watches on as Queen Elizabeth II passes the Queen's Baton to Australian cyclist Anna Mears

Martin on… Gold Coast 2018 and inclusion

We’ve got equal medals for men and women in these Games. That’s a first – that’s a first across any multi-sport event – and that to me is a big bonus. That coming out is great.

And we’ve increased the number of events and medals for the para-sport part of our Games, and again the para athletes are fully integrated into the Games and the medal ceremonies.

This will be the first time we have got a women’s internship programme running. We have 20 athletes from all over the Commonwealth who have been selected from all the different countries to come to the Gold Coast with their team and be mentored by coaches on their own team with a group of experts who will work with them to guide them and push them on their way up the ladder for coaching. This is one that everybody is really excited about because, fingers crossed, eventually these young coaches will then mentor other coaches. So I am fully convinced that at the next Games, we can try and expand that for more.

We’re 50 per cent men and women for technical officials in basketball, hockey and swimming. That is tremendous.

Then the other first, which is happening in Australia and is now into contracts for all our other Games, is working with indigenous people and having a Reconciliation Action Plan. This is happening with the Yugambeh in Gold Coast. Now this will be a groundbreaking part for the Gold Coast when the opening ceremony happens. Everybody’s been working with the Yugambeh people, and they have got problems – there’s still some who say it’s not working, and ‘this is you just paying lip service’. But when you actually see what’s happening and what they’ve done, and what will happen in the ceremonies, it’s hairs on the back of your neck stuff.

To me, we are moving forward. We’re not just a Games, per se, anymore.

I just think that we in the federation are now leading the way in a lot of things. As we go forward, especially where the Commonwealth is at the moment, there is a future for us. And we’ve got to harness that. Because we’ve got a past history – everybody’s got the same history, we’ve got that history we’re all sharing – but the other thing that we have here is that a lot of people in sport look at the value of something. We don’t: we look at the values. What have we got? What are our values that we can share with you? And that’s where I want to keep going, rather than looking at the pounds, shillings and pence sort of stuff. I just feel that we have got something for everybody in the Commonwealth.

This is where Transformation 2022 comes in as a new strategy plan. It is looking at the way forward on sustainability. We’re looking at effectiveness. We’re looking at using our vision and mission, our humanity, quality and destiny. Using all of that to put this together that everybody can use.

We’re 50 per cent men and women for technical officials in basketball, hockey and swimming. That is tremendous

Martin on… the shape of the Commonwealth

We’ve got the Gambia back in again. The Commonwealth Secretariat granted that on the 28th of February. We will have six athletes competing from the Gambia and the flag will be there. This is terrific, because they were taken out in ’13 because their president fell out with the Commonwealth. And that destroyed those athletes who were going to be coming to Glasgow.

We’ve also got Zimbabwe wanting to come back in again. We’ve got other countries talking about, ‘Do you think we can come in?’ So it’s changing the ethos and changing the mindset of what the Commonwealth is. We are in the right place, to me, for moving forward into a modern Commonwealth. Yes, we have history. We must recognise that. But as we move forward, it’s: where do we go in the future?

Martin on… being a woman at the head of an international body

It’s completely different, and I’m not saying people don’t respect me or anything – I don’t mean that at all – but the mindset is that if you’re a president, you’re a man. I have got to show them that you can be presidential and still be a female. So that’s part of my journey, as well, to try and ensure that it happens and try and encourage other people to come on board, believe in themselves and go for it. If a challenge comes up, my mantra is never: ‘Why?’ It’s: ‘Why not? And why not me?’

Ask the questions. Never leave something, and never, ever say, ‘Oh, I wish I had.’ Or: ‘If only I had, I would be…’ Then I’ve missed the boat totally.

Martin wants to challenge perceptions of leadership as a female president of an international body

Martin on… encouraging female leadership

Personally, I don’t believe in quotas. I believe in the best person for the job and whoever fits it, you get it. But if it is a situation where it’s blocked, blocked, blocked continually, then you may have to look at quotas or percentages, just as we have done in our committees. An intervention, to help speed it up.

I would like to think what a male would do going into a room of 14 women. All joking apart, as long as people recognise that, whatever gender you are, that you can deliver, there’s a place for you. And let’s be open about this. It’s not a closed shop anymore and we don’t want it to be a closed shop.

I think the journey has started and I think we’ve now got women in various different strata as we move forward on a trajectory that people will follow and want to follow. The young female coaches that we’ve got – these 20 that have come on board, and we’ve got quite a few in various countries who are female coaches that are willing to do that and can coach boys as well as girls.

Martin on… a life in sport

To me, sport is a way of keeping fit, allowing people to express themselves, and just seeing how hard you can push yourself. And the harder you push yourself, the better you become. You’ll soon plateau, you’ll soon know where you are, and if that takes you to being the best in the world, terrific. If that takes you to doing a personal best up until such a time, that’s even better.

The mindset is that if you’re a president, you’re a man

This is an edited version of an interview with Louise Martin which appears in Issue 99 of SportsPro