Commonwealth Games: `Activity was interrupted by a rat on the mat'

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The Independent Online
THE FLAGS of 70 competing nations stirred gently outside the entrance to the Commonwealth Games athletes' village - after the swooning heat of the morning, Kuala Lumpur was about to receive some steamy rain.

Sri Lanka's netball team arrived en masse, and bustled into the international zone which forms the social hub of the village. Four Canadian swimmers chatted in the doorway, laughing loudly. A couple of Kenyan athletes loped out on their way to the huge Bukit Jalil stadium a bus-ride up the hill. Everybody busy, everybody preparing for the event which gets properly underway today for the 16th time.

In sporting terms, what is about to happen in this economically stuttering Asian city is the polar opposite of the activities which have taken place at Old Trafford this week. Manchester United's logical - if dispiriting - embrace with BSkyB seems likely to nudge other Premiership powers along the same route. There is talk now of a deal between Arsenal and Carlton - who knows, perhaps it will be Wimbledon and the Shopping Channel next, or Leyton Orient and Whipps Cross Hospital Radio. But while money is talking - shouting - at the highest level of sports such as football, rugby and cricket, those who have travelled to compete here are doing so for nothing.

Many elite performers have decided not to bother. Colin Jackson's announcement that he is too tired to seek a third Commonwealth high-hurdles title has disappointed the Welsh team. Ato Boldon, the world champion at 200m, said last month that he would not be representing Trinidad and Tobago in Kuala Lumpur because, if he went back to his training group in the United States and told them he was Commonwealth champion, they would simply laugh at him.

Boldon eventually relented, but for some, this is a joke event. For others - the Australian cricket team, David Campese and Jonah Lomu, Kenya's world record-holder Daniel Komen, Olympic swimming champion Kieren Perkins, squash's world No 1 Peter Nicol, world bowls champion Tony Allcock, to name a few - it is not.

Beyond the frenetic atmosphere of the Games village a darker reality holds true. Protesters gather nightly outside the house of the recently deposed Malaysian deputy and finance minister; in the high-rise city centre building projects stand unfinished. But, for the next 10 days, the patent hope here is that this gathering of nations inside the charmed circle of a sporting contest can provide Malaysia with a currency that will not devalue.

Already, the Games have succeeded in providing the incidental comedy which marks the phoney-war stage of all bona fide international competition. Hashim Ali, chairman of the organisers, has conceded that there was a problem with the transport. Some of the drivers, apparently, do not know the town very well and some have got lost. The spirit of Atlanta lives on...

Activity at one of the city's gymnastic venues was briefly interrupted on Thursday by the presence of a rat on the mat. And a press conference held inside the international zone building yesterday by English athletes Kelly Holmes and Diane Modahl came close to being rained off as a downpour found the roof of the conference room wanting.

First two, then five, then seven buckets were placed down on the carpet tiles as the leak progressed steadily up the room to within a few feet of the athletes. At one point, a worried official tried to do something ingenious with a black binliner. Unsuccessfully, as it turned out. As the rain drummed into the buckets, Holmes and Modahl made no mention of the problem - which was odd really given the way the English like to talk about the weather.

Later, in the same room, Chris Sheasby talked about what these Games meant to him. "To be able to say I was in the parade at the Commonwealth Games with 420 other English athletes will be something to hold alongside winning the World Cup Sevens and earning my first England cap," he said. "What ever you think about the way the Commonwealth was formed, there is a sense here of people uniting for all the good reasons."

If sport cannot hold on to the values that imbue these Games, the values so clear to an experienced, professional sportsman such as Sheasby, it will have lost something money cannot buy. We came to KL expecting smog; all we have found is fresh air.