SPORTS

The athletic Empire

Victoria prepares for the 15th Commonwealth Games

CHRIS WOOD April 4 1994
SPORTS

The athletic Empire

Victoria prepares for the 15th Commonwealth Games

CHRIS WOOD April 4 1994

The athletic Empire

SPORTS

Victoria prepares for the 15th Commonwealth Games

CHRIS WOOD

The bowling greens are ready. The four squares of Creeping Bent Penncross grass, 120 feet a side, are clipped and rolled to a level perfection as smooth as any pool table. This is important: no other facility will get as much use when 3,200 athletes descend upon Victoria this summer for the 15th Commonwealth Games. Nearby is a new open-air cement cycling velodrome; just up the hill is the refurbished building where wrestlers will grunt and strain. But in one of the quainter legacies of the former British raj, only the four squares of the bowling greens will be needed on every day that the Games run between Aug. 18 and 28. Guiding a visitor past the white picket fence that surrounds the greens, public relations official Amy Hart explains: “If you go to some Commonwealth countries, this is like the NBA.”

That is no more startling than the durability of the Games themselves.

Since it began—as the British Empire Games in Hamilton, Ont., in 1930—the quadrennial event has proven surprisingly resilient. The old Empire may be reduced to a shrinking collection of outposts. But with as many as 60 of the 67 Commonwealth nations—possibly including a rehabilitated South Africa—expected to send athletes to Victoria, the 1994 Games will rival the Lillehammer Winter Olympics in scale. And TV broadcasters will beam the competition to an impressive 300 million people worldwide. “In Australia,” boasts Games president George Heller, “the Commonwealth Games outdraw the Olympics by about 25 per cent in viewership.”

But while the Commonwealth Games legitimately claim to be more than merely a poorman’s Olympics, the events share many of the same trappings. Victoria organizers have planned lavish opening and closing ceremonies, featuring a cast of 3,000 volunteer performers; there is the obligatory mascot, a killer whale named Klee Wyck. And in a tradition that echoes the lighting of the Olympic torch, the Queen, in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace on March 14, inserted a message into a hollow silver baton (crafted for the occasion by three Vancouver Island aboriginal artists), which will travel to various Commonwealth capitals and to every province and territory in Canada before it is delivered to Victoria at the start of the Games. There, the Queen—accompanied by princes Philip and

Edward—will read the message to the assembled athletes.

Those athletes will include top-ranked performers in several of the 10 sports included in the Games. England’s Linford Christie, reigning Olympic gold medallist and world champion in the 100-m dash, will defend his title as the world’s fastest man against Canada’s Bruny Surin and others at the refurbished University of Victoria stadium, temporarily expanded to seat 40,000 spectators. World-class

competition will also surface in the gleaming new swimming and diving complex built for the Games in Saanich, just north of Victoria.

While the overall calibre of Olympic competition is undoubtedly stiffer, Commonwealth Games organizers are quick to assert the charms of their event. “The Olympics,” insists Heller, “are very much a one-trick pony: ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ and take the weak out and shoot them. At the Commonwealth Games, there is no superpower that hogs the limelight.” Adds Heller: “It’s nice to be part of a group where you count a lot instead of a little.” Consistent with that ethic of friendly competition, organizers will not keep a nation-by-nation medal count; the emphasis is on individual achievements. And for the first time at a major world event, 130 disabled athletes from 15 countries will join their national teams and compete in three sports—swimming,

wheelchair racing and blind lawn bowling.

For the 300,000 residents of the B.C. capital region, however, there is more at stake than celebrating tradition and fair play. Hosting the Games is a $160-million undertaking—$63 million from Ottawa, $44 million from the province, $43 million from corporations, $7 million from ticket sales and $3 million from area municipalities. In return, boosters say, 75,000 more tourists than normal are expected to plan vacations in British Columbia around the dates of the Games, bringing half a billion dollars to Vancouver Island.

The head of Victoria’s regional beautification commission is looking for even more. In a gesture that suits Canada’s most British— and most gardening-mad—city, architect Pamela Charlesworth is urging her neighbors to plant red geraniums, white petunias and blue lobelia, or any of more than 50 other

recommended varieties of flowers and shrubs that blossom in the colors of the Commonwealth flag. “There is a whole palette out there,” she enthuses. With the help of 14 local horticultural societies, Charlesworth also hopes to assemble history’s largest flower arrangement not far from Victoria’s landmark Empress Hotel, where 4 o’clock still signals the serving of afternoon tea.

Those floral ambitions provide a whimsical counterpoint to the more earnest echoes of British tradition that mark the Commonwealth Games. But it is neither dahlias nor delphiniums that will keep this holdover from the days of the Empire rolling smoothly in Victoria this summer. It is Creeping Bent Penncross grass, flawlessly manicured into four perfect squares. Pass the crumpets, please.

CHRIS WOOD in Victoria