Commonwealth Games: Malay malaise, Manchester mission

A Games now dangerously at the whim of the pampered needs a new identity. By Andrew Longmore
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The Independent Online
IT WOULD BE satisfying to believe that in 40 years' time, bumping his grandchild up and down on his knee and recounting his deeds on the track, a speck of regret will fleck the reminiscences of Colin Jackson. Not quite Marlon Brando's "I could've been a contender", but still a lingering sense of a cause betrayed and a worthy medal lost.

Jackson could have wandered a third Commonwealth Games gold in the 110m hurdles in Kuala Lumpur, but, having pleaded fatigue after the World Cup in Johannesburg, a flight to Tokyo to pick up another pay cheque for winning a meaningless exhibition race was all he could manage. The daily news bulletin from the Athletes' Village in Kuala Lumpur, Boleh - meaning simply "we can do it" - featured an article on the growing perils of money in athletics. The accompanying illustration showed a hurdler in action with a $100 bill plastered across his eyes. The athlete in question was in GB garb and looked remarkably like Jackson, which was an apt summary of what the Malaysians - and the Welsh, for that matter - thought about not just his absence, but his deception.

The Commonwealth Games will somehow stagger on, despite the calculated arrogance of athletes like Jackson. But it will be a source of permanent frustration to the organisers of the next Games in Manchester that, for all the millions spent on facilities, for all the anticipated excellence of the organisation and the willing help of 16,000 volunteers, the perception of the success of the Games will depend on the last-minute whims of pampered stars.

The Bukit Jalil stadium, the showpiece of the Games which ended on Monday with fireworks at both ends of the city, one sporting, the other political, would have graced any Olympics. Yet not until two days before the start of the 100m was it clear that both Ato Boldon and Frankie Fredericks - en route to their windfalls in Tokyo - would be there to christen it properly. That is the nature of modern athletics. Boldon and Fredericks barely stayed in town long enough to eat, let alone sample the atmosphere of the Games, but the authenticity of the 100m added lustre to the whole show. Though past his best now, Jackson would have had the same effect.

Quite what sort of animal has been entrusted to Manchester's keeping for the next four years is open to interpretation. Kit the Kool Kat, a cross between a tiger and a pussycat unveiled in Kuala Lumpur as the mascot of the 2002 Games, was an unwitting symbol of the confusion. In parts, notably on the squash court, the cricket and rugby fields and in the pool, the competition in Malaysia was world class. Down the bowling alley too, perhaps. The rest was patchy, sometimes tigerish, sometimes cosy. Often, only the snatched tones of some rabid Australian commentator reminded you that someone somewhere, in Alice Springs or Toowoomba, really did care.

Manchester's true task is to restore the Games to its rightful place at the heart of amateur sport. The estimated capital cost of the Games in Malaysia was a staggering pounds 300m, from which the organisers with predictable bravado claimed they would reap a pounds 6m profit.

Manchester's budget for Sportscity, a sporting complex which includes a 40,000-seater stadium alongside the velodrome in the neglected eastern part of the city, is just over a third of that or, to put it another way, one-sixth of the cost of buying Manchester United, complete with fixtures and fittings.

With one eye on an Olympic bid for 2016 and another on raising its economic profile in the Pacific Rim, Kuala Lumpur unwittingly stretched the ethos of the Commonwealth Games to near breaking point. Any attempt to challenge the lavishness of KL would not only be doomed to failure, but would further muddle the nature of the event. For all the charm of the people and their capacity to turn the phrase "it'll be all right on the night" into an art form, there was an uncomfortable sense of nationalism about the Games in Malaysia which went beyond the mere celebration of success. The danger of Malaysia's approach is that other, less wealthy, cities will be put off trying to host the Games in future because of their inability to compete financially.

The great virtue of the Commonwealth Games is that they are not the Olympics, nor should they ever pretend to be. Commonwealth gold medallists cannot look forward to multi-million dollar endorsements, but with luck they can put their hand on their hearts, say they competed to the best of their ability unchemically aided and return to their jobs in the fish market or the tax office with a more lasting satisfaction than mere cash could provide. Manchester's clumsy attempts at establishing a cultural identity, presenting the assembled media with fish and chips wrapped in a copy of the Manchester Evening News, at least had the virtue of being honest.

In purely sporting terms, the Games provided a healthy mixture of excellence and plain daftness. Bob Weir's heave of the discus brought back to life one of the characters of English sport, 16 years after he won the hammer in Brisbane. The pool was the playground of a formidable Australian squad, but, in James Hickman and Katy Sexton, England produced swimmers of genuine potential. The trouble is that the Australians are 10 years further down the road in terms of funding excellence. The prospect of Australia v America in the Sydney pool is one to savour over the next two years. On the track, roles were reversed. Somehow, out of a crazy system, the home countries manage to produce world-class athletes from 100m to 400m.

Whether Manchester should continue the experiment with team sports is also a matter for serious debate. Squash is here to stay, hockey too; cricket and rugby have more traditional shop windows, though both reflect the sporting make-up of the host country. Perhaps snooker or darts should replace ten-pin bowling as a banker for home gold. Roll on the Fish and Chip Games.

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