The low point of the Games came in 1986 at rainy Edinburgh when the African nations boycotted what was a badly underfunded event. Robert Maxwell offered money. He got his publicity, but Edinburgh never got the money. Auckland, four years ago, was similarly underfinanced and out of season for northern hemisphere competitors, but at least the Africans, not least the Kenyans, went.
The emergence of African athletics has revitalised the event and when the XVth CommonwealthGames open in Victoria, British Columbia, this Thursday, it hardly matters that the Kenyan 10,000m world record holder, William Sigei, and the world steeplechase champion, Moses Kiptanui, are not competing because they were too busy making money on the grand prix circuit to go back for their country's trials.
With South Africa and Namibia joining this year's competition, there will be 67 countries in Victoria (compared with 44 in the present European athletics championships) but none of the peripheral sports that have sold themselves to the Olympics. The Commonwealth Games may lack prestige, but at least they have remained true to their traditional sports, including amateur boxing, which may be dropped from future Olympics. The only innovation planned for the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur in four years' time is the inclusion of team sports, one of which could well be cricket.
The awarding of the 1998 Games to Malaysia was a shrewd move. When beating Adelaide for the right to be hosts, they promised the Games authorities pounds 1m a year for four years for 'administration'. Kuala Lumpur will also subsidise competitors' air fares.
While it would be easy to dismiss the Games on the basis that their only purpose is to prove the existence of the Commonwealth - the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference is the only other manifestation - it serves as an important grounding for young competitors moving towards future Olympics as well as offering the chance for those who may never quite reach Olympian heights to be rewarded in a high level of competition, notably in cycling and rowing. But a soft touch? Tell that to the Kenyan and Nigerian athletes when the competition starts on the track a week tomorrow, or someone like Colin Jackson, the British hurdler who calls it one of the 'big four' championships. Or Britain's Karen Pickering, one of the favourites to win a swimming gold.
The persistent criticism is that without the Americans and the Chinese, no international competition has real significance. That ignores the provision of the competition that gets athletes prepared to take on the Americans in a championship environment. As for suggestions that the future of the Games in the 21st century is in doubt, Adelaide (still smarting about Kuala Lumpur), Johannesburg and Manchester have already bid for 2002. Most critics of the Games are in the world-weary media. They have to attend. The competitors can always opt out. In a horrendously busy season, many athletes will, but the Games are not just about the big business of track and field.
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