SPORTS

Fun and Games

The tone in Victoria was mellow

CHRIS WOOD August 29 1994
SPORTS

Fun and Games

The tone in Victoria was mellow

CHRIS WOOD August 29 1994

Fun and Games

SPORTS

The tone in Victoria was mellow

It was a very Canadian moment. On a low hill, a pair of scarlet-clad Mounties sat still and erect on chestnut horses, silver lance tips glittering in the late afternoon sun. Under their gaze were a few hundred local dignitaries, various luminaries of Canadian sport and a clutch of reporters. The occasion was a reception to announce the flag bearer for the Canadian team at the XV Commonwealth Games, which began in Victoria on Aug. 18. Nearly 400 Canadian athletes were on hand, dressed in red sweaters and spread out on either side of a small stage. Former Commonwealth and Olympic gold medallists Sylvie Fréchette and Mark Tewksbury offered the team encouragement in the competitions ahead. Politicians plugged patriotism and the governments that underwrite such events. There was the anticipated announcement that runner Angela Chalmers would carry the flag, followed by a round of 0 Canada, with everyone trying to remember the words and no one quite sure when to switch languages. Then, everybody relaxed and lined up for burgers.

Mellow, in fact, was the tone everywhere in Victoria as the Commonwealth competitions got off to a start in keeping with their unofficial motto, the “Friendly Games.” True, an Australian team official managed to test the prevailing good will with a startling attack on the inclusion of 55 disabled athletes among the more than 3,300 participants from 64 nations. But the upbeat note was reinforced by the return of post-apartheid South Africa to the Commonwealth fold after an absence of 36 years. Meanwhile, the choice of Chalmers, a Sioux Indian, as Canada’s flag bearer helped extend the Games’ embrace of aboriginal peoples. “I am honored to carry the flag,” the middle-distance runner, who has won Olympic bronze and Commonwealth gold, said in the musical syllables other ancestral language. Other native figures also reminded the Commonwealth that the people who first inhabited British Columbia’s ruggedly beautiful west coast are still there. Declared Chemainus Indian Chief Willie Seymour in a welcoming ceremony on the Victoria waterfront: “This is First Nations country.”

Later, the same theme provided the dramatic centrepiece for 2lk hours of pageantry-filled opening ceremonies in Victoria’s Centennial Stadium. In a stunningly staged dramatization, more than 300 performers wielding giant props brought to life a Kwagiulth creation legend that recounts how the first man, bom from the belly of a giant

wolf, transformed his youngest brother into eagle down, which he cast onto the wind to float around the Earth and populate it with peoples of different tongues. “You,” native narrator Daisy Sewid-Smith told a multinational audience that included Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip and Prince Edward, “you are descendants of the eagle down that Kawadilikala scattered all around the world. You have come to watch the history of my people and I thank you.” That brief but spectacular history lesson aside, the athletes’ attention was clearly more focused on the competitions that began the next day. Wayne Sorensen of Calgary and Jean-François Senecal of Laval, Que., won the first medals of the Games on Friday, capturing gold in the men’s pairs air rifle competition. Canadians also struck gold in men’s gymnastics, where Alan Nolet of Hamilton, Travis Romagnoli of Aurora, Ont., Kristan Burley ofTruro, N.S., and Richard Ikeda of Richmond, B.C., successfully defended the team title Canada won four years ago in Auckland, New Zealand. But the host team’s medal haul of two gold, three silver and three bronze left it in second place overall behind the Australians, who ruled the pool as expected. Of the Aussies’ pace-setting total of nine gold medals on the first day, five came from their swimmers.

Away from the competition, Australian chef de mission Arthur Tunstall created the biggest sensation with his ill-considered comments on the physically disabled. Speaking at a press conference, Tunstall repeatedly described the Games’ precedent-setting inclusion of disabled athletes as an “embarrassment” to able-bodied competitors. And the former boxer compounded the controversy by pushing a reporter during a late-night scuffle in the lobby of Victoria’s staid Empress Hotel. The following day, the tact-challenged Aussie’s remarks dominated an otherwise routine news conference with officials of the Commonwealth Games Federation. Pressed by reporters to denounce Tunstall, retiring federation chairman Sonny de Oliveira Sales of Flong Kong asked in exasperation: “What would you like me to do, shoot him?” As it turned out, Tunstall himself defused the issue without resort to firearms when he issued a page-long written apology. The next day, Australian officials pointedly placed three wheelchair athletes at the front of their team as it paraded into the opening ceremonies.

JEFF VINNICK/REUTER

By contrast, the once diplomatically shunned South Africans returned to the Commonwealth Games positively radiating medal-quality graciousness. The hastily assembled South Africa team of 112 athletes and coaches may have been strikingly pale in complexion: only

seven athletes and three coaches were from the nation’s black majority. But athletes and officials alike insisted that the imbalance was not out of step with their country’s rejection of its racist past. South African Sports Minister Stephen Tshwete, while blaming the discredited policy of apartheid for the team’s skewed demographics, nonetheless insisted that the squad had been selected strictly on the basis of merit. Added Tshwete: “We have no apologies for the composition of the team as it exists.” The South Africans team’s (white) captain Marian Kriel, who was to compete on the weekend in the 100-m backstroke, echoed Tshwete’s theme when she told reporters: “We’re trying to make changes in South Africa and this is a start. We are looking past race in our country, and we would appreciate it if everybody else would.”

Other troubles that have dogged previous versions of the Commonwealth Games, as well as the larger Olympics, were happily all but absent from the first week of the Victoria Games. Although hundreds of RCMP officers—on foot, in cars, on horseback and on a large, high-speed power boat—provided a visible security presence, one feature of most recent Olympics was refreshingly absent: except at the entrance to the Athletes Village, no one entering Games’ sites was obliged to pass through a metal detector. At the same time, while this week’s competitions held a continuing potential for infractions, by week’s end only one athlete—Nigerian sprinter Udeme Ekpeyong—had violated rules against the use of performance-enhancing drugs. And he never even entered Canada: after customs officers found banned steroids in his luggage, Ekpeyong went straight home.

Meanwhile, Victoria swung into the spirit of the Games in ways ranging from the spiritual to the downright bawdy. At Christ Church Cathedral, flowers overflowed the nave and vestry in a special display mounted for the occasion by southern Vancouver Island’s avid gardeners. The estimated 60,000 extra tourists who are visiting the city for the Games could catch a display of another sort down the street. There, a blonde with the stage-name of Roxette, who beat out 34 other strippers last June to seize the title of Miss Nude Commonwealth—a demonstration, not a medal event—strutted the stage nightly at Monty’s Showroom Pub.

But the real focus of off-field festivities was the city’s busy downtown waterfront, where crowds began gathering at dusk for a series of free concerts set against the sparkling backdrop of the g provincial legislature outlined in lights. Headlining g the opening night’s show was Vancouver-born 1 country singer Lisa Brokop. For all the Nashville jt stylings in her music, the dark-haired singer holds " strong views on the family of nations whose quadrennial Games she helped to celebrate last week. “Nowadays,” she said before her performance, “it is kind of a crazy world out there. With the Games, there will be so many different people from different countries and cultures here, I feel it’s a way of bringing our world together.” Canadian flag-bearer Chalmers had much the same thought when she added a small postscript to her remarks. Citing a native saying and speaking first in Sioux and then in English, the willowy runner exhorted all competitors at the Games: “Everybody, play happily.” With a few exceptions, it was a message that most people in Victoria seemed to have taken willingly to heart.

CHRIS WOOD