Gloves off at the Friendly Games

Commonwealth Games: Despite the alliances between countries, competitio n is fierce, controversy never far away
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The Independent Online
WHAT ARE the Commonwealth Games, that officially get under way in Kuala Lumpur today, all about? We have already had one example. The decision of Scotland's Peter Nicol, top seed in the squash tournament, to waive his first-round bye so that a Guyanan left out of the draw could get a game, was a gesture worthy of an event that has always liked to think of itself as the Friendly Games.

To be sure, there has been much unpleasantness since the first version of the competition, the British Empire Games, started in Hamilton, Canada, 68 years ago. The seeds of conflict were planted even then when the Empire Sports Federation awarded the next Games to South Africa, and had to change the venue hastily to London because the intended hosts would not accept the ruling on racial equality.

Since then, the Games have endured their quota of boycotts (Edinburgh), lack of funding (Edinburgh again) and bad behaviour (Canadian swimmers in Brisbane).

Last time around, in Victoria, Australia, one of the stories of the Games altered dramatically in character as Horace Dove-Edwin, the Sierra Leone sprinter who took a surprise silver behind Linford Christie in the 100 metres, was first feted as a symbol of all that was good about the Games - then reviled after testing positive for steroids a few days later.

Not all the good stories go bad, however. Eight years ago in Auckland, Marcus Stephen - a one-man team - became a local hero to the 8,100 inhabitants of his home country when he won a gold medal in the snatch division of weightlifting's featherweight class.

The country in question was Nauru, a dot on the map 5,000 miles north of New Zealand, that has the highest per capita gross national product in the world thanks to its sole industry of recycling itself. The island is made of ancient bird droppings, that have been mined systematically to provide phosphate fertiliser.

Unfortunately for Nauru, which now resembles a moonscape, extreme wealth is likely to be a short-term thing. The Games themselves are on similarly dodgy ground as the old British Empire and even Commonwealth diminishes inexorably; but, against expectation, the idea of the Games has flourished.

People still care about it. The first Games to be held in Asia have attracted more than 6,000 athletes from 70 nations to compete in 15 sports. Among those sports are five making their debut - cricket, hockey, rugby (seven- a-side), squash and netball.

The blanket of smog that descended on the Malaysian capital this time last year because of huge forest fires in neighbouring Indonesia has hung like a pall over this competition ever since.

But the dire warnings - one team doctor suggested the air quality would be the equivalent of smoking 1,000 cigarettes a month - have not been borne out. That has been largely due to an accord signed between Malaysia and Indonesia to prevent a repetition of the environmentally disastrous events of last summer.

What has also helped a Malaysian government desperate to boost its tourist industry in the wake of an economic slump is, quite simply, rain.

Some of the English runners and cyclists who travelled to Malaysia for an acclimatisation visit last summer were unable to train for the entire week because of the smog; now they are damp, but active. However, the collapse of one English runner last week with dehydration sounded a warning for all competitors to take these conditions very seriously. The temperature is 90 degrees, with 90 per cent humidity.

The organisers, who have invested pounds 80m in new venues for swimming and athletics, will be watched closely throughout by officials of the 2002 Games in Manchester. As is the prerogative of the host nation, the Malaysians have altered the sporting agenda a little to suit their own purposes - the national passion for ten-pin bowling will be indulged as competitors seek medals in a huge, 48-lane complex.

The centrepiece of the Games, the 100,000-seater Bukit Jalil sports complex, will witness an athletics programme that contains a number of potentially intriguing contests. Although injury has caused the withdrawal of at least two potential English winners in Jonathan Edwards and Paula Radcliffe, there will be more than enough talent on show to maintain the positive impact achieved by last month's successes at the European Championships.

Steve Backley will seek to complete a third European/Commonwealth double in the javelin, although Marius Corbett, the South African who beat him in last year's World Championships, will be keen to upset the Briton once again.

Diane Modahl, sent back from the last Commonwealth Games in the public glare after a doping charge she subsequently overturned on appeal, will be set on regaining the 800 metres title she won at the Auckland Games of 1990 - a title she feels she has never rightly lost.

If Darren Campbell recovers from the hamstring strain that caused him to withdraw from this weekend's World Cup in Johannesburg, he has an opportunity to follow in his coach's footsteps once again, having taken over Linford Christie's title as European 100m champion last month. With the Olympic champion, Donovan Bailey, injured, and the world No 2 Ato Boldon unwilling to compete for Trinidad, Christie's protege has a chance - although his success may be determined by the final decision of the double Olympic silver medallist, Frankie Fredericks, who is currently vacillating over his intention not to compete for Namibia.

Overall, England, Australia and Canada, who won more than half the 217 gold medals in Victoria four years ago, are likely to help themselves once again.

FIVE COMPETITORS TO WATCH

TONY ALLCOCK

The 42-year-old from Cheltenham is hugely experienced - his victory at the last World Championships in Adelaide two years ago was his 10th world title indoors or out - and he looks ideally placed to go one better than he managed in Victoria in 1994, when he lost a thrillingly competitive final to the Scotsman, Richard Corsie.

JAMES HICKMAN

Despite missing the European champion and Olympic silver medallist, Paul Palmer, because of illness, English hopes in the pool are still high thanks partly to the presence of this 22-year-old City of Leeds swimmer who has been entered for four events. His best chance is likely to be in the 200m butterfly, in which he set a world best over the short-course earlier this year.

TRACEY NEVILLE

The sister of Manchester United and England defenders Gary and Phil will play a more aggressive role for her country in a tournament that brings together the world's leading teams for their debut at the Commonwealth Games. As goal attacker, she will be expected to deliver the goods in a tough qualifying group that contains the world champions, Australia, and Jamaica, who beat England in a recent Test series.

KELLY HOLMES

After returning to top-class action less than two weeks ago after a long struggle to recover from the Achilles tendon injury that forced her to drop out of last year's World Championship 1500 metres, Holmes is desperate to salvage something from her season. In terms of 1998 best times, she is nowhere; in terms of guts and determination, she is unmatched. Will something finally go right for her?

MARK RICHARDSON

Last weekend's 400m victory in the IAAF grand prix final earned the 23-year-old Windsor athlete $50,000, and also saw him defeat Iwan Thomas, the fellow Briton who took the European title he had set his heart on last month. But Richardson, who was shattered after finishing only third in Budapest, still has a big championship point to prove against Thomas. And money doesn't come into it...

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