Somewhere in the bottom of a drawer is my international vest. I've had it since Monday 29 January 1990, the day I ran 10,000m for the Falkland Islands in Auckland.
I have never been to the Falkland Islands and have no Falklands familyblood. How I came to represent the South Atlantic archipelago on the other side of the planet perhaps sheds a little light on why the Commonwealth Games are known as the Friendly Games, and why so many of us hope that they survive the critical trials and tribulations that have arisen ahead of the 2010 gathering in Delhi, and those that are doubtless still to come.
It was during the XIV Commonwealth Games in New Zealand that I got to run for one of the Commonwealth states – not in the actual Games but in a 10km road race taking place in Auckland while the Games were being held there.
The Falkland Islands had two official representatives at those Games – William Goss, a sheep shearer, and Peter Biggs, a tax inspector. They were too exhausted from theirefforts in the 10,000m on the track at Mount Smart Stadium to compete for the Falklands two days later in a 10km road race organised by the celebrated Oiwaraka Athletic Club, the Auckland running institution which produced Peter Snell, the great triple Olympic middle-distance champion, and Arthur Lydiard, the legendary distance-running coach.
A three-strong team was required and Sarah Dixon, the Falklands team coach at the Games, asked me to make up the numbers with herself and the team manager, Patrick Watts. The Falklands connection? We just happened to meet on an escalator in Perth Airport en route to New Zealand and discovered that Sarah, a native Northumbrian, had a cousin who worked with me on the Journal, a daily newspaper in Newcastle.
As international debuts go, someone said at the time that it "bordered on the more modest side of inauspicious." Sarah had been at a barbecue for Falklands expats the night before and was stricken with a stitch when we warmed up. I decided to sacrifice international ambition at the altar of chivalry. We jogged round together in 49min 15sec, finishing joint 174th out of 198. Patrick was 192nd.
I recall feeling somewhat sheepishand not a little fraudulent when the crowds lining the route of the race, which started and finished at the Jack Lovelock Track, spotted the name on the back of my vest and shouted, "Good on yer, Falklands".
Still, I have my international vest and the fond memories that have sprung to mind this past week as the XIX Commonwealth Games veered towards the verge of meltdown. Thankfully, they appear to have pulled back from the brink – despite the crisis about the state of the Athletes' Village and the Games venues,lingering concerns about security, and the continuing list of withdrawals.
No doubt there will still be troubles ahead. The big fear is terrorism. We can only pray, or alternatively keep fingers crossed, that in the coming three weeks we are nothaving to mourn the fact that sport is actually not more important than life and death.
And those of us who have savoured the uniqueness of the Commonwealth Games will be hoping that somehow the Friendly Games manage to live on for another four years, to Glasgow in 2014.
Without doubt, the Commonwealth is an archaic concept, a lingering legacy of long-gone British imperialism, but the Commonwealth Games can still be treasured as something quintessentially different in this hard-nosed sporting age. At the pool in Melbourne four years ago, as the British nations, led by the inspired Scots, took on the might of the Australians, there was something of a school sports day feel to the atmosphere whipped up by the swimmers themselves and by the crowd.
The Commonwealth Games in Melbourne were as marvellous to behold as the previous Games had been in Manchester. And one suspects it will be much the same in Glasgow four years' hence – provided that a disaster in Delhi does not sound the death knell for what started out in Ontario back in 1930 as the Empire Games.
When the 2010 Games begin in the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium a week today, they are unlikely to be anything like as intimate as those Auckland Games of two decades ago. Such was the state of security back then, a group of English journalists could walk out from the Opening Ceremony with a group of English athletes and strike up a bet to race one another to a taxi which appeared at the end of the road 100 yards away (two of the four athletes were beaten by a hack).
It was a similar story after the Closing Ceremony in 1990. The English journalists were last to emerge from the press room in the bowels of Mount Smart Stadium – to find that every steward, official and police officer had locked up and gone home. Infusedwith the demob spirit, we held our own Games in the deserted arena, running around the track, leaping into the long-jump pit and, naturally, standing on top of the medal rostrum, soaking up the silent applause.
It had been different when the official Falkland Islands Commonwealth Games team had taken part in the men's 10,000m. The cheers in a packed stadium had been as loud for William Goss and Peter Biggs as they had for Eamonn Martin, the full-time athlete who won the race 13 minutes ahead of the two back-markers. In training for the race of their life, the sheep shearer and the tax inspector had been obliged to dodge landmines left over from the 1982 war.
Happily, there will be a 15-strong team from the Falklands this time: five badminton players, two lawn bowlers and eight shooters. As a former Falkland Islands ringer, I wish them – and the troubled XIX Commonwealth Games – all the very best.
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