Commonwealth Games: Personal best for `Friendly Games'

Mike Rowbottom examines the Commonwealth's triumph over the malaise of cynicism
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The Independent Online
AT THE conclusion of the last Commonwealth Games in Victoria, an Australian broadcasting journalist was overheard shouting excitedly into his microphone: "And the great news from Canada is that Australia has won the Commonwealth Games!"

If you want to look at the Games purely in terms of medals - something the Aussies seem more than happy to do as they limber up for the Sydney Olympics two years hence - then, yes, the Australians have won again. For the record it was 199 medals to England's 136.

But the greater victory is that of the Games themselves. From the low point of Edinburgh 12 years ago, when miserable weather and an African boycott threatened to drain the purpose out of a four-yearly product of one Canadian journalist's bright idea, the event has vindicated itself.

This year again, the self-styled "Friendly Games" have succeeded in bringing together highly paid, professional athletes and amateurs in much the same social and sporting mix as the London Marathon produces with elite runners and Joe Joggers.

It is a blend which works, to the benefit of those from both ends of the spectrum.

The Olympic Games, with its stringent qualification requirements, would not allow someone like Candace Blades to contest the heptathlon. Yet this 18-year-old Belizean schoolgirl and novice to the event stayed the course, with the motherly encouragement of Britain's world No 1, Denise Lewis.

These Games were a step on the Olympic way for such track and field athletes as Lewis, Steve Backley, Iwan Thomas and Darren Campbell; in the pool, swimmers like James Hickman and Mark Foster, of England, as well as Australia's Ian Thorpe, are headed in the same direction. Thorpe, or "Thorpedo" as he has come to be known, took four golds and is moving towards Sydney 2000 with potentially explosive effect.

While some of the athletics events were lacking quality entrants, the programme maintained its respectability through such races as the 100 metres, where Ato Boldon won in 9.88sec ahead of the quadruple Olympic silver medallist, Frankie Fredericks.

The newly instituted team sports of squash, hockey, rugby, netball and cricket produced performances of the highest quality and anyone questioning the idea that these championships deserve to maintain their status as the "Friendly Games" would have had their answer at the closing ceremony, where athletes of all nations mingled together in exuberant acknowledgement of the talents of Donna Lewis and The Corrs after enjoying performances by New Order and James through a live link-up with Manchester, hosts of the 2002 Games.

Malaysia has been embarrassed by the civil unrest which has followed the deposition of its deputy and finance minister, Anwar Ibrahim. The suggestion by Malaysia's Prime Minister that the 2008 Olympics could be a target came on the same day that streets in central Kuala Lumpur were blocked off because of rioting by Anwar's supporters.

The volatile political situation has created an underlying tension over the last two weeks, but the Games themselves have been free of any major problems and the hosts, who finished fourth in the medals table, have revelled in them. In sporting terms, it will be a hard act to follow.

The city charged with doing that, Manchester, is conceiving its Games commitments on a smaller scale than of those which have just taken place for the first time in Asia, where the capital cost was around pounds 300m. A total of pounds 112m has been awarded from National Lottery funds towards the cost of new buildings. Of that, pounds 22m will go towards a double-decker swimming facility - two 50m pools on separate stories for warm-up and competition.

The remaining pounds 90m will go towards a 40,000-seater stadium, into which Manchester City football club are planning to move once the 2002 Games have finished.

The club's directors have agreed in principle to the relocation, although shareholders - and supporters - have yet to voice their full opinion.

Manchester already has a legacy of two unsuccessful Olympic bids in the form of a velodrome, as well as having the Nynex Centre up and running to house other events.

One of these is certain to be netball - another target for England's Tracey Neville, sister of the Manchester United defenders, Phil and Gary. Exactly how Manchester 2000 will reflect the enormous success of the introduction of team sports to the Commonwealth Games here is still being debated.

Apart from the 14 individual sports mentioned in the original bid document, there is likely to be space for two other team events apart from netball.

The Commonwealth Games Federation is reviewing the position and will let its views be known by 31 March 1999 - but this will only set the blueprint for the 2006 Games and beyond. The line-up for 2002 is being independently evaluated by the Manchester organisers.

Given the enthusiasm of the 2002 Games sports director, Jerry Montgomery, for the rugby sevens which took place at the Petaling Jaya stadium, one of the two optional places would have appeared to have been filled already.

"Can you imagine rugby sevens at Old Trafford?" he said. "I am almost wetting my trousers..."

Montgomery's feelings are entirely justified. The rugby event - which took place here climaxing with a monumental collision between the world champions, Fiji, and New Zealand, and offering the subsequent spectacle of not one but two hakas and the vast figure of Jonah Lomu shedding tears of joy - was the quintessence of sport.

Cricket's position is less clear. The national federations which sent teams here indicated their strong wish to Manchester that any future tournament should be based on the 50-over game, rather than the bastardised version of "cricket max" - basically, two lots of 10 overs each - for which some influential voices in the English cricketing establishment have been lobbying.

If that makes it more difficult for players to be released from county duties in mid-season - well, that is something that needs to be addressed. Certainly if cricket is in the Games, England - who were not represented here - ought to field a decent team.

The Malaysians' passion for hockey was all but sated here by their team's victory over India - in footballing terms, it was England beating Germany in the World Cup finals - and England's strong showing in earning bronze and silver medals respectively from the men's and women's tournaments forms a persuasive argument.