Friendly Games foster spirit of bygone era

From Asafa Powell to the inhabitants of tiny Pacific islands, the Commonwealth gala offers a sporting spectrum. By Mike Rowbottom in Melbourne

"Advance Australia Fair" will be the anthem which greets the Queen's Baton as it arrives at the end of its 108,000-mile journey to the Melbourne Cricket Ground today during the Opening Ceremony of the 18th Commonwealth Games. In order not to offend the owner of said baton as she steps forward to receive it there will also be a rendition of "God Save The Queen" - only eight bars long, granted, but enough to mollify potentially outraged monarchists.

Meanwhile, competitors will have gathered in an athletes' village that, while alcohol-free, is tolerant of sex so long as it is "discreet". The Games appear to have something for everyone. A total of 4,500 athletes from 71 competing nations will engage in 12 days of competition that starts tomorrow in a collection of sporting facilities of awesome size and range.

There has already been criticism of the Games in the Australian press, directed towards the usual topics of excessive cost and a long-term tax burden. The cost will be around £450m, and although reports say that 400,000 tickets are still to be sold, that means 1.3 million already have been - a record for any Commonwealth Games, topping the 900,000 sold in Manchester four years ago. That figure resonates more strongly when one considers that the MCG, which will host the athletics, has sold out all 84,000 seats for the three best days of competition.

Overall, the events will offer a traditional blend of top-class competition and warm-hearted aspiration. The men's 100 metres final could feature the world record holder, Asafa Powell, and his Jamaican colleague Michael Frater, Trinidad's world bronze medallist Darrel Brown and - assuming they get a bit of a move on - two of Britain's Olympic sprint relay gold medallists, Jason Gardener and Mark Lewis-Francis.

But these Games carry a motto - "élite sport is only half the story." The other half is provided by competitors from the likes of Niue, an island of just 2,000 people. Or another Pacific island, Naura, effectively one large phosphate mine, who will once again be sending weightlifters seeking to maintain the medal-winning tradition of Marcus Stephen, who took gold and two silvers in the 1990 Games.

In an age when Olympic competition is increasingly strident, intense and scientific, the Commonwealth Games maintain something of the spirit of earlier Games. And there could hardly be a more appropriate setting for the Friendly Games than this city.

The withdrawal of Paula Radcliffe and Ian Thorpe last week deprived this event of two of its biggest attractions - like toast without Vegemite said one local observer. The home prospects still appear pretty tasty, however, as the resurgent performances of their female swimmers, who are expected to win 15 of their 19 races, have generated predictions that Australia will better their best-ever Commonwealth total of 207 medals, with which they topped the table four years ago in Manchester ahead of England, who earned 166 to finish second.

With Radcliffe's bruised foot depriving them of an almost certain gold medal in the 10,000m, England are contemplating a significantly lower total although Don Parker, the team's sports director, has said he would be disappointed if they got less than 100.

While the Queen's arrangements continued to occupy the organising committee yesterday, the main focus of home media attention fell once more on Australia's own drama queen, Jana Pittman, who declined her invitation to carry the Baton on a 500-metres leg from the town hall, citing a troublesome hamstring.

The woman who has been burdened with the expectation of winning her event - the 400m hurdles - for a grateful nation has had a turbulent period of preparation. The former world champion's feud with her team-mate Tamsyn Lewis made the recent spat between England's Jade Johnson and Kelly Sotherton look pallid in comparison, and her insistence that she was not a drama queen, while announcing her plans to move to England because she felt under-appreciated caused further lampooning from the local media.

Pittman, whose English boyfriend Chris Rawlinson will defend his 400m hurdles title here, appears to be one of two Australians capable of delivering gold in the track and field, the other being Craig Mottram in the 10,000m, where he faces Kenya's world champion, Benjamin Limo.

In the absence of the Olympic champion, Carolina Kluft, and the silver medallist, Eunice Barber, Sotherton - bronze medallist at the last Olympics - has a chance to earn her first major heptathlon title, while the men's sprint relay team could also make the podium if they hold their nerve - and the baton.

The absence of Thorpe and his fellow Australian swimmer Grant Hackett gives British competitors hope. England's Simon Burnett could profit in the 200m freestyle, while Wales's David Davies, an Olympic bronze medallist in the 1500m, could end up on a higher level on the podium.

For the England winger Dan Luger, however, yesterday was frustrating as he failed to make the final 12 who will contest the rugby sevens.

Scotland are hoping that Chris Hoy, the Olympic one-kilometre time trial champion, can get the Games off to a winning start for their team on the cycle track, where his opponents include fellow Scot Craig MacLean and England's Jason Queally, whose opening day victory in this event at the 2000 Sydney Olympics inspired the British team.

Going for gold Down Under

* ASAFA POWELL

Set a world 100m record of 9.77sec last summer so the Jamaican is aiming to win his first gold medal. He finished fifth in the 2004 Olympics, and was injured for the 2005 World Championships.

* LEISEL JONES The 21-year-old from Brisbane is a fine breaststroke swimmer, who broke the 100m and 200m world records at Australia's trials.

* SIMON BURNETT

An Olympic 200m freestyle finalist in Athens, the Briton can profit from the absence of Australia's Grant Hackett and Ian Thorpe.

* DEAN MACEY

After a succession of injury-hit years, in which the Briton managed to finish fourth in successive Olympics, this talented decathlete is seeking his first major title.

* CHRIS HOY

The Olympic and Commonwealth cycling champion in the one-kilometre time trial is expected to defend his title against opposition from England's former Olympic champion Jason Queally and fellow Scot Craig MacLean.

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