Pomp & Circumstance

Kiss the…Queen’s Baton? The British Empire Is Alive and Well

To kick off the Commonwealth Games, a baton standing in for the Queen travels the globe with a special message from the regent to her (former) subjects, who give it the royal treatment.

05.27.14 9:45 AM ET

It rode the South Pacific waves in a canoe full of shirtless and masked paddlers in Papua New Guinea; “walked” across the border between Mozambique and Swaziland amid a sea of flags it couldn't see. From Sri Lanka to New Zealand, elaborately costumed school children have danced for it; it went to church in the Bahamas on Easter Sunday, and in a dimly lit room in the Caribbean a lone reggae performer crooned a tune it couldn't hear.

“It” is the Queen’s Baton (think: Olympic torch with no flame), a kind of embodiment of the Queen, that contains a message from the regent to her (former) subjects. Like the Leader’s nose in the Woody Allen movie, Sleeper, it’s treated with the same reverence as the Queen herself, and is the physical symbol of the quadrennial Commonwealth Games. Not at all weird.

A sort of shadow Olympics, these games of throne are open only to those residing in the Commonwealth, mostly former British Empire countries. They're not about amassing medals, so much as engendering goodwill; less cut-throat competition, more track and fealty.

The sports meet is the third biggest after the Asian games and the Olympics, and the 2010 staging, in India, echoed Sochi in complaints and calamity. A footbridge collapsed, injuring dozens; gripes about substandard conditions prompted last-minute withdrawals; there was even whinging (Commonwealth-speak for whining) about stray dogs, lax security, stagnant water, and excrement.

This year, Glasgow is hosting the games amid a new slew of problems. Organizers recently took the high road and scotched opening ceremony plans to demolish—in spectacular fashion—five out of six large council towers (Commonwealth-speak for public housing) following public outcry against the questionable taste of doing so in full view of nearby residents, namely those still occupying the sixth building.  Equally as explosive are the glitch in the ticket system that had forced a temporary shutdown in sales  as well as the organizers’ plans to charge journalists to use WiFi and to access information about the games.

In typically understated British fashion, the games seem to fly under the radar, despite the lure of hundreds of athletes participating in one of 10 core sports and seven electives—a line-up that makes the games sound as sporty as registering for classes freshman year. With events like lawn bowls, women’s netball, rugby 7’s and a few you’ve actually heard of—hockey and ping-pong—on the roster, it’s understandable that the Commonwealth Games are unknown in the United States; but even citizens of Commonwealth nations, among them athletes and sports writers, seem to ignore them.

Doug Hunter, a Canadian author of books about hockey and boating, among other topics, says he has “close to zero awareness” of them because they sail by his sport preferences, “Despite the fact that the Commonwealth contains Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, all of which feature oceans and sailors,” he laments.

It might be unsurprising that the Queen’s games don’t feature the sport of kings, horse racing (not polo, incidentally, although Scotland is one of the few countries in the world to play elephant polo, yes, that’s a thing), but cricket’s also been whacked, and soccer kicked to the metaphoric curb. Oddly, given that the games are in the land of the midnight tee-time, there is no golf on the roster, and never has been. 

For the 20th Commonwealth Games, the regal baton started its complex itinerary to the July 23 opening ceremony in Scotland with India’s steeplechase champion at the Taj Mahal, before taking off on a planes-trains-and-automobiles journey at a pace that even organizers call relentless.

With the Queen’s message encased inside a tube within it, the Queen’s Baton sprints to all the affiliated nations and territories—a more than 100-thousand mile anthropomorphic odyssey—at a blistering pace. It visits 70 countries in 288 days—a clip less Royal Hunting party at Balmoral (where the Queen prepared her remarks), and more Amazing Race. Gambia was to be the 71st  nation this year, but, like Zimbabwe another year, it scratched just before the event. “Dictators are unpredictable like that,” Peter Murphy, Head of Communications for the Commonwealth Games Federation says.

Each country plans its own celebration to receive and honor her royal highness (well, her representative baton, at least). It “saw” the Great Barrier Reef in Australia (not too far from the site of the 2018 games, if you’re planning ahead), and was even invited to inspect the new uniforms for the Canadian team.  “The Queen’s Baton has the best seat in the house,” Facebook’s Commonwealth Games page proclaims, alongside a photo of more than half a dozen suited up athletes beaming at a wood scepter “seated” on a table.

Crowds line the streets and await its arrival, turning out by the hundreds as though it’s the actual Queen. Even subjects from the animal kingdom have paid their respects: A dolphin “kissed” it at an attraction in Anguilla, and a turtle “high flippered” it in the Caymans.

Once the royal baton arrives at the main event, it will be reunited with Her Majesty who will read her message aloud to start the games, relieving the suspense.

If you live in a breakaway republic and are still moved to join in the pre-game merriment this year, The Royal Scottish Dance Society invites dancers around the world to lock steps in a global dance-a-thon to celebrate the land of Loch Ness. Just as, once upon a time, the sun never set on the British Empire, planners hope their June 21st 24-hour Ceilidh (pronounced like the girl’s name Kaylee)—or “small gathering”—will circle the globe, ending in Hawaii, where a very British Union Jack dominates a corner of the flag. There’s still time to learn the moves, which are not at all like Jagger's. No word, yet, on whether a dancing Queen Elizabeth will join the festivities.