Commonwealth Games 1994: Good times are back for family gathering: After years of decline the 'Friendly Games' which open tomorrow can begin to live up to their name again. Duncan Mackay reports from Victoria

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The Independent Online
FOUR years on from Auckland and it is time for another spot of Commonwealth Games bashing. Riddled with too much politics and too little money and interest, the Games have no place in the modern international calendar. 'Consign this archaic sporting relic of the British Empire to the history books,' the critics say.

The event has come close to collapsing under the weight of politicians' egos on more than one occasion - most dangerously in 1986 when the African nations boycotted Edinburgh after Margaret Thatcher refused to impose economic sanctions against South Africa and the badly under-financed games were 'rescued' by Robert Maxwell, who never paid out the cash he promised.

But when the 16th Commonwealth Games are opened by the Queen in Victoria, British Columbia, today the bad times will be forgotten. The 'B' word has not been heard, local taxpayers are not wondering how long they are going to be paying for the event and the 10 days of competition promises to be as memorable as anything in the Games' 64-year history. For once, they may even live up to their self-styled billing of the 'friendly games'.

The spectre of apartheid South Africa has been removed and they are now just one of 67 countries eligible to take part in the 10 sports. The individual nations include England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man, all afforded the rare opportunity of competing separately.

The 100-strong South African team contains all of the country's top athletes, including the Olympic 10,000 metres silver medallist Elana Meyer, who is taking the event as seriously as she did Barcelona. 'Major championships will always be the most important goals for me, and the Games fit that description' she said. 'They would have made an ideal arena for South Africa's re-admission. Everyone says they are the most relaxed of the world's major meetings, but they will still give South Africa's athletes an idea of what they will have to cope with on a world stage.'

Nothing prepares athletes better for the psychological strain of competing in the Olympics than the Commonwealth Games, with multiple competition sites, a large international media turn-out, and attendant distractions. They are where the Linford Christies, Sally Gunnells and Colin Jacksons cut their international teeth. For others less talented, the Games will represent their once in a lifetime opportunity to compete before a global television audience.

Despite being sandwiched between the European athletics championships and the world swimming championships in Rome, there will be almost a 100 per cent turn-out from Britain's top athletes. All of Britain's five winners in Helsinki will be present. The only notable absentee will be Roger Black, who did not want to take the risk of running two major championships so close together after recovering from a virus. Britain's three world swimming champions - Mark Foster, Nick Gillingham and Karen Pickering - are also here. 'If it's good enough for Linford Christie, that must mean something,' George Heller, the president of the Victoria Commonwealth Games Society, said.

Under Heller's guidance, Victoria - which claims to be 'more British than Britain' with its red double decker buses and red telephone boxes - has recovered from the financial crisis which two years ago threatened its staging of the Games. All the facilities are in place and revenue from ticket sales is expected to top dollars 7.2m ( pounds 4.75m). National and local authorities have underwritten the event to the tune of dollars 100m ( pounds 66.2m).

The Games will be celebrated in places as diverse as the Norfolk Islands (population 2,173) in the South Pacific and India (population 846m). It was in 1891 that Astley Cooper, a British parson, first proposed a sports festival 'to draw closer the ties between nations of the Empire'. It was not until 1930, however, that a Canadian, Bobbie Robinson, organised the first British Empire games in Hamilton. Their only break has been during the Second World War.

The Games have a long tradition of sporting excellence and drama. Bannister v Landy in the 'miracle mile' in nearby Vancouver in 1954; in the same Games, Jim Peters collapsing and being disqualified after leading the marathon by two and a half miles; Louis Martin in weightlifting; and Filbert Bayi's world 1,500 metres record in Christchurch 20 years ago.

But the Games extend beyond sport. They remain the only real manifestation of the Commonwealth, aside from the odd political conference. In Victoria over the next 10 days, there is almost as much happening away from the sports arena as in it. More than 60,000 visitors are expected to flock to Vancouver Island just to watch entertainers from all over the Commonwealth perform.

The Games are also leading the way in integrating disabled sportsmen and women into the mainstream of competition. They will compete in three sports, swimming, wheelchair racing and lawn bowling, as full members of their national teams.

The empire that gave the Commonwealth its birth has been consigned to the history books. But the legacy it left, the Commonwealth Games, giving every member of this diverse family of nations the opportunity to compete alongside each other once every four years, must not be.

(Photograph omitted)

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