Commonwealth Games: Clouds build over the 'family' outing

Commonwealth Games. Empty seats and big-name exodus a sign of troubled times for 'Friendly Festival'

Manchester was always going to be a hard act to follow, and losing the leading man and lady just before opening night has severely damaged Melbourne's hopes of staging a blockbuster Commonwealth Games. Now whether they are a smash hit or a flop depends on the quality of the supporting cast.

Much as they would have liked a sellout, the prospect is that the producers will have to give away some A$6 million (£2.5m) worth of tickets. Around 12,000 remain unsold for Wednesday's opening ceremony and twice as many for the closing ceremony 11 days later. Most of these will now go to unpaid volunteers.

Melbourne is known as the city of bats - of the flying, not just cricket variety - but what is causing the biggest flutter here is how to prevent the TV cameras from showing rows of empty seats on opening night. Certain events, like the track-and-field programme on what they term Super Sunday a week today, will have capacity crowds, and overall a record number of tickets have been sold. But in a desperate attempt to flog the remaining 400,000, organisers have used a controversial direct marketing blitz, sending letters to 150,000 households with a personally signed "exclusive invitation from Melbourne 2006 chairman Ron Walker" encouraging recipients to "enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience".

But sports mad as Melburnians may be, they baulk at being asked to cough up approaching A$1,000 (£425) for the best seats in the house, and there has been an angry backlash. Roger James, the president of the Australian Marketing Institute, has condemned it as "downright misleading", while a woman who received an "invitation" addressed to her husband who died six years ago called it "disgraceful, unprofessional and insulting."

Melbourne may have over-priced their Games, as well as oversized the revamping of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, which has been transformed into the biggest host stadium in Games history, with an 82,000 capacity. They may have seats on their hands; what they don't want is egg on their faces. The 1956 Olympic city deserves better. A billion dollars have gone into preparing the country's second largest city for the 18th Games. They have been putting the finishing touches to venues, scrubbing graffiti off city walls - Melbourne claims to be the world's capital of what is called "stencil art" - and preparing for the biggest security operation in Australian history. But this is no Athens-like race against time. Melbourne has made it comfortably to the starting tape.

Security is more evident than in Manchester, with more than 1,200 heavily armed troops deployed on the ground. Warplanes enforce a 75km exclusion zone airspace around the city. Authorities have stockpiled vaccines, upgraded hospital quarantine facilities and issued medical staff with extra protective equipment in case of an outbreak of bird flu during the Games.

About 15,000 volunteers, many of them delightful ladies of Edna Everage vintage - Moonee Ponds, the grand dame's ancestral home, is a kilometre from the Games village - are as free with their friendly "G'days" as were their counterparts in Sydney.

They may say, "No worries, mate", but the smiles mask a deeper malaise. These Games feature 17 sports embracing 71 nations (although many of them are little more than microdot dependencies on the Commonwealth map). Some 4,500 competitors, 1,000 fewer than in Manchester, are assembling along the banks of the Yarra River in Melbourne's pleasant autumn sunshine, oblivious to the fact that it has already started to rain on the parade because of the absence of the marquee names Ian Thorpe and Paula Radcliffe.

The world 100m record holder, Asafa Powell, is virtually the lone overseas track star, with other leading personalities, among them the defending sprint champion Kim Collins, absent through injury or the preceding World Indoor Championships. In the pool, Kirsty Coventry, out-standing at last year's world championships, is unable to compete because of Zimbabwe's withdrawal from the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth Games remain the one major event on the sporting calendar where there is no big money to be made, hence certain stars give them the brush-off, and other multi-sports events now outstrip their appeal. Some Far Eastern members are more concerned with the upcoming Asian Games.

Few believe the Commonwealth Games are big-time any more, which is bad news for New Delhi, which hosts them four years hence, and perhaps also for Glasgow's 32-strong contingent here to press flesh and distribute 800 bottles of Scotch in a bid to secure them for 2014.

For decades the "Friendly Games" have tried desperately to avoid being sucked into sport's vortex of greed and cynicism. The medal race may be largely a three-horse canter between Australia, Canada and England, but essentially these are the Games for little people with big ideas. Whether you come from Melbourne, Manchester or the Maldives, the novelty is being able to lose without being laughed at, to reach for the stars and mingle with them.

Only the Commonwealth Games offer a stage fuelled by smiles as well as sport, a sense of family fun which has prevailed since their inception as the British Empire Games in 1930, but the cosy image no longer fits the 21st-century philosophy. Top performers are disinclined to run for fun. They trade in a far harder currency than the Games provide and that, as well as the fact that they are an anachronism, perhaps like the Commonwealth itself, is the danger to their future.

How much longer they can survive without the glitter of stars who prefer richer pickings is a question occupying Commonwealth minds as Melbourne struggles to fill its seats.

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