Athletes from 51 countries begin the quest for gold in 10 official sports

CHRIS WOOD August 22 1994


Athletes from 51 countries begin the quest for gold in 10 official sports

CHRIS WOOD August 22 1994


Athletes from 51 countries begin the quest for gold in 10 official sports

Like many traditions, this one is a little bit hokey. Once every four years, the Queen inserts an inspirational message into a specially handcrafted baton, which is then conveyed to various capitals of her former Empire on its way to the host city of the Commonwealth Games. It is like the Olympic torch, without the flame. But like all good traditions, this one also serves to keep alive a

worthy but intangible sentiment: the sense that every citizen of the Commonwealth is part of an extended, somewhat eccentric family, equally endowed—like it or not—with the ambiguous gifts of a shared history.

A bit of that spirit came to Coast Salish Indian artist Charles Elliot one day in June, as he sat watching the evening news. Elliot is one of three native artists whose fluid designs grace the sterling silver baton created for the XV Commonwealth Games, which start this week in Victoria. When the newscast carried images of his handiwork being presented to Nelson Mandela, the president of the new post-apartheid South Africa, Elliot

was deeply moved. “Imagine,” he remarked to his family. “Something that was made in this house is touching the hand of one of the most powerful men in the world.”

Amid the many transformations that continue to overtake former imperial outposts, such moments are at the emotional heart of what Games organizers have worked for six years to accomplish. Last week, they began putting their labors to the test, as the first of about 3,500 athletes, coaches and team members from 51 countries (and 67 different national groups) began to arrive on Vancouver Island for a week and a half of sporting competition and cultural celebration. On Thursday, Aug. 18, Queen Elizabeth II will receive back her well-travelled baton as part of a two-hour opening ceremony featuring a 1,200-voice choir and more than 3,000 costumed performers. Over the next 10 days, competitors will run, swim, dive, shoot, wrestle, bowl, box and spin their chair wheels before a worldwide TV audience of as many as half-a-billion people.

Among those in pursuit of 952 medals in 10 official sports will be a smattering of intema-

tional superstars, including English sprinter Linford Christie and South African long-distance runner Elana Meyer, as well as such top-ranked Canadians as decathlete Michael Smith, runners Bruny Surin and Angela Chalmers, and swimmers Marianne Limpert and Curtis Myden. Also vying for an appearance on the medal podium will be more than 100 athletes with physical disabilities, who will be included for the first time at a major international sports meet as full members of

their national teams.

Away from the tension and suspense at a dozen competition venues, there will be other, more relaxed, entertainment for participants and spectators alike. Dozens of Canadian and international musicians will perform nightly during the Games, which are expected to attract an additional 60,000 visitors to the British Columbia capital—a city bedecked in banners, flower buckets and stylized ribbons of royalist red, white and blue. Fireworks, launched over Victoria’s pockethandkerchief Inner Harbor, will bring each evening’s entertainment to a glittering close.

Some of the most moving moments will come from the region’s aboriginal inhabitants. Among the Coast Salish, Nuu-Chahnulth and Kwagiulth First Nations, whose ancestors were the first to settle the area, the decision to set aside long-standing grievances against white governments in order to welcome the Commonwealth to their traditional territories remains controversial. But it led to an unprecedented measure of native participation in staging the Games, a role that will be reflected in the opening ceremonies. Asserts creative director Jacques Lemay: “We will be using some cultural elements that will never before have been seen outside the long house.”

There were other dramas hanging over the Victoria Games. With the first international teams already housed in the athletes’ village at the University of Victoria campus last week, a week-long strike by 650 municipal employees against the city of Victoria halted garbage pickup and left some 60 managers struggling to keep downtown streets photo-album tidy. But provincial mediators intervened and persuaded the two sides to accept binding arbitration of their suit. Meanwhile,

interest groups pressing causes as varied as white supremacy and forest preservation hovered at the margins of the official schedule, seeking opportunities to transform the Games or the associated royal tour into a platform for their views. Perhaps most distressing of all for more than 12,000 people who have mobilized, most of them without pay, to try to make the massive undertaking a success, there were indications that many events might play to halfempty bleachers, the result of slow ticket sales.

Still, last week’s additional hurdles struck the man most responsible for the Games’ success or failure as almost anticlimactic. ‘We shot so much white water to get this far,” said George Heller, president of the Victoria Commonwealth Games Society, with a laugh, “that this is just one more rapid.” The society’s directors hired the bluntspeaking former departmentstore executive in December, 1991, when Victoria’s bid to host the Games, won three years earlier on the eve of the Seoul Olympics, was looking increasingly shaky. Controversy about the Games’ projected costs was mounting even while little detailed planning had actually been done. Rumors swept Victoria that the London-based Commonwealth Games Federation was considering withdrawing the event from the B.C. capital. Heller promptly dropped

some of the original planners’ least practical visions, including a waterborne stage in Victoria harbor, and undertook to cap the Games’ budget at $160 million. With major contributions of $62 million from Ottawa, $44 million from the B.C. provincial government and $43 million from corporate sponsors, Heller insists he will meet that target

It has been no small task. Even the best athletes in the Commonwealth lack the wide appeal among international (that is, American) sports fans that might translate into mega-dollar contracts for TV rights. But Heller’s troops must still welcome, document, house, feed, protect and entertain roughly the same number of athletes and visiting media as flooded into Calgary for the Winter Olympics in 1988. They must also provide playing sites that meet the demanding standards of international sports federations—all with a fraction of the $1 billion that was lavished on Alberta’s Games.

One consequence of that constraint is a considerably more modest package of “legacies,” as promoters of these large-scale public events describe facilities that will be left behind after the crowds depart. In contrast to Calgary’s extravagant endowment, which included the $98-million Saddledome hockey arena and a chronically underused set of ski jumps, the Victoria Commonwealth Games will leave behind a more utilitarian endowment. The most imposing permanent facility built specifically for the present Games is a $23-million diving and swimming pool complex in Saanich, a community just north of downtown Victoria, where a built-in waterslide and mock galleon are intended to add to its appeal as a recreation centre after competition ends. After briefly serving as an athletes’ village, new apartments built on the campus of the University of Victoria at a cost of $30 million will house 1,000 students. But the 29,000 temporary bleacher seats that have been added to the university’s Centennial Stadium—in order to accommodate 33,000 spectators for athletics competition and opening and closing ceremonies—will vanish within days of the Games’ end.

Where it counts, however, organizers insist that the facilities will more than meet athletes’ expectations. In addition to the year-old pool, a new open-air velodrome awaits track cyclists. The cyclists will compete within view of four new lawn bowling greens, the only competition site that is scheduled for use on every day of the Games. Other competitions will take place in temporary quarters; gymnastics in Victoria’s

spruced-up 5,000-seat Memorial Arena; weightlifting nearby in the refurbished 79-year-old Royal Theatre; badminton in a university gymnasium; and shooting at a department of national defence firing range, modified for civilian competition, northwest of the city. Among those watching at ^ least some of the action will 3 be the Queen and Prince | Philip, who are expected to 2 arrive in Victoria this week. § The royal couple and their § youngest son, Prince Ed3 ward, who succeeded his fa§ ther as president of the

Commonwealth Games Fed^ eration in 1990, will be joined at the opening ceremonies by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and his wife, Aline. And watching the dignitaries will be a joint security force of five municipal police departments, augmented by an undisclosed number of Mounties. Despite the presence nearby of the Canadian navy’s Pacific home base of Esquimalt, no military reinforcements are on call in the event of terrorist attack. “We are never unconcerned,” said the commanding officer of the security force, RCMP Supt. Kelly Folk. “But the threat level is very, very low.”

From terrorists, perhaps. Still, there were enough lesser nuisances to fuel organizers’ jitters through the final few days before the curtain officially rises on the Games at midweek. A group of about 50 environmentalists refused to withdraw their threat to seize the international media spotlight. “It’s an audience,” declared Scott FaMarte, a 27-yearold Californian who was among a group camping at an organic vegetable farm outside Victoria. According to FaMarte, the group planned to conduct “street theatre” during the Games to dramatize its opposition to logging in Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island’s west coast.

Games organizers seemed more concerned about last-minute media reports of slow ticket sales. Officials said they never expected to fill every seat for many of the qualifying rounds, especially in sports with limited North American followings, such as lawn bowling and badminton. But they insisted that demand was high for many more popular events—especially aquatics and athletics finals and the opening and closing ceremonies, despite ticket prices that ranged as high as $125. With more than 80 per cent of anticipated ticket revenues of $7.2 million already in the bank, declared Heller, “we’re ready to rock and roll.”

In fact, it will be a slower beat that sets the tempo on the morning of the Games’ opening. A flotilla of Indian war canoes will escort the Queen’s baton—which spent last week travelling by sea from the northern tip of Vancouver Island—into Victoria harbor on Aug. 18. It will come ashore at the foot of a 180-foot totem pole—the tallest ever carved, erected specially for the occasion. Some time after 4 p.m. that day, the baton will be carried

into Centennial Stadium for presentation to the Queen during an opening ceremony designed to celebrate Canada’s diversity and the spirit of transformation—“a theme,” explained director Lemay, “that is common to all cultures.” At the climax of the two-hour production, with athletes from every continent ranged across the stadium infield, the Queen will formally declare the XV Commonwealth Games open.

Interest for most Canadians is likely to peak in the second week. On Monday, Aug. 22, Mississauga, Ont., synchronized swimmer Lisa Alexander is expected to claim the mantle of retired Olympic gold medallist Sylvie Fréchette. On Aug. 23, attention will shift to the athletics track, where Montreal’s Bruny Surin, recovering from knee surgery last month, will challenge English Olympic gold medallist Christie on the 100-m track. Later the same day, Yvonne Murray of England is expected to duel over 3,000 m with Victoria resident Angela Chalmers, who won gold in the event at the last Com-

If the menu of other events strikes some Canadians as quirky, that is not entirely the fault of the Victoria organizers. In addition to certain mandatory athletics and aquatic events, Commonwealth Games rules permit host cities to choose eight additional sports from a list of 15 approved disciplines. During the planning for the Victoria Games, however, other Commonwealth countries made plain their preferences: they strongly discouraged organizers from choosing sports requiring expensive equipment, such as yachting and rowing, and urged them to include others with large followings outside Canada. Among the latter was lawn bowling: the sport is a top attraction in Australia, New Zealand and Britain despite its geriatric image in this country. The decision to omit rowing, however, left Canada’s top-ranked oarsmen and women, who train near the B.C. capital and who swept up five medals at the Barcelona Olympics, high and dry.

monwealth Games, in Auckland in 1990. Then, on Aug. 25, Vancouver diver Paige Gordon, a supple former gymnast who is ranked fourth in the world in her sport, takes aim at the gold from both the three-metreand the 10-m-high springboard.

Even so, for many athletes the chance to perform before a massive TV audience will represent a high point that few may transcend in their athletic careers. Among the most elite competitors, a Commonwealth medal may rank behind those from the Olympics or a world championship in prestige. But according to former athletes who have competed in both, the self-styled “Friendly Games” hold a charm that eludes the cutthroat atmosphere of the Olympics. “It’s more of a fun competition,”

said former Olympic and Commonwealth synchronized swimming gold medallist Caroline Waldo, now an Ottawa-area sportscaster. For many young competitors, Waldo added, the multiple events and massed media of the Commonwealth Games also provide a useful first exposure to competitive conditions that are seldom present at national championships in single sports. For one thing, she recalled, “you have different sexes there. In a sport like ours, that was a distraction: all those gorgeous guys walking by in skimpy bathing suits.”

For a few dozen athletes, the Victoria Games represent an especially welcome recognition of their accomplishments. For the first time at any such large, multinational sports event, athletes with disabilities will compete in three sports: aquatics, wheelchair racing and lawn bowling. ‘We’re hoping it will open up a lot of eyes,” said blind lawn bowler Tracy Manca, of Nanaimo, B.C., who competes with a sighted partner. “It’s not the Dark Ages any more.” The integration of the disabled will not be complete in Victoria: they will receive medals with a slightly different design from those awarded in other events. Even so, said Rick Hansen, the Vancouver-based activist for the rights of the disabled, who toured the world in his wheelchair in the 1980s, the precedent being set in Victoria “puts [the Commonwealth Games] far ahead of the Olympics, or any other international games.” Added Hansen: “This is a model for others to follow.”

The Games have already repaid many of those who volunteered to help mount the event, if only with the opportunity to share in a unique experience. Some will also go away with valuable new skills. “Not only have I helped them, but they have helped me,” remarked Marilyn DeBathe, 58, a retired storekeeper who learned to use computers after she began doing volunteer office work for the Games a year ago. Because of his involvement, 17-year-old Robin Carswell, who will help to hold aloft one of 2,000 props used in the opening ceremony, has changed his views of the Commonwealth. “I thought it was just a bunch of countries saying, ‘Hey, we used to be part of the British Empire.’ ” Now, added the Grade 12 student, “I think it’s more of a fellowship.”

Natives from several Vancouver Island First Nations, who bucked criticism from within their own communities in order to play a role in the Games, express strikingly similar sentiments. “We want the world to know there are still aboriginal people here,” asserted Tom Sampson, chairman of the

The self-styled ‘Friendly Games’ hold a charm that eludes the cutthroat atmosphere of the Olympics

Games’ native participation committee. In addition to roles in creating the Queen’s baton and as performers in the opening ceremonies, native artists contributed several imposing totem poles to Games’ sites. A traditional potlatch, scheduled to coincide with the Games, is expected to attract representatives from more than a dozen native groups to Coast Salish territory this week. More memorable for competitors perhaps, the medals struck for the Games also bear designs based on traditional coastal Indian mythology. Native artist Elliot, who also designed the Games’ gold medal, cherishes a private hope for his handiwork. Reflecting on

the silver baton’s brief contact with Mandela, long imprisoned for daring to dream of freedom for South Africa’s blacks, Elliot said: “I hoped that some of the power of that man would rub off, and return to the native peoples of North America.”

The empire that gave the Commonwealth its birth is a receding memory. But amid an increasingly fractious present, the Games that are its legacy continue to provide a spiritual hearth where every member of this diverse family of nations is welcome. That may be hokey. But it is also precious.

CHRIS WOOD in Victoria