SPORTS

All that glitters

Victoria lowers a curtain on the Commonwealth Games

CHRIS WOOD September 5 1994
SPORTS

All that glitters

Victoria lowers a curtain on the Commonwealth Games

CHRIS WOOD September 5 1994

All that glitters

SPORTS

Victoria lowers a curtain on the Commonwealth Games

In her black and purple baseball cap, white T-shirt, denim cutoffs, oval wire-rim dark glasses and Doc Martens,

Stella Umeh is hard to tell apart at a glance from the young teens who flock around her for autographs. But the professionalism that the Mississauga, Ont., 19year-old has acquired after spending two-thirds of her young life as a competitive gymnast was unmistakable last week in Victoria—especially under the lights of the gymnastics arena at the XV Commonwealth Games. After promising performances at the 1992 Olympics and other top competitions, the years of training finally came together for Umeh in a dazzling gold-medal performance on the vault and a silver on the uneven bars. She also won gold in the women’s individual all-round competition and anchored Canada’s women to a team gymnastics silver—making her Canada’s biggest winner at the Games. For the five-foot, one-inch Umeh, it was a gleaming finale to her career: she announced her intention to retire after last week’s competition and is now headed to the University of California at Los Angeles to study communications. “I want to be a sportscaster,” she explained, adding, “I think I’ve pushed my career further on a little bit with Commonwealth gold.”

For the hundreds of winners showered in gold, silver and bronze over 10 days of Commonwealth Games that ended on Aug. 28, winning meant different things to different people. England’s Linford Christie appeared almost offhanded as he sprinted to the gold medal in the 100 m in a Commonwealth record time of 9.91 seconds. There was nothing even remotely casual, though, about the elated runner who followed Christie across the line and then literally rolled on the ground with excitement: Horace Dove-Edwin’s silver was the first-ever, from any major games, for his tiny, impoverished west African country of Sierra Leone and its 4.3 million people. Declared the 27-year-old sprinter: “This medal is for them.”

Among Canadians, runner Angela Chalmers delivered the goods before an ec-

static home-town crowd, winning the 3,000m race in 8:32.17, shaving six seconds off her own Commonwealth Games record. Toronto decathlete Michael Smith won his second gold in as many Commonwealth Games, shaking off two years of injury-plagued doldrums. “I came in here ranked No. 1 in the Commonwealth,” he said. “I wanted to go out of here No. 1.” Overall, Canada emerged from the Games as No. 2 in the medal tally, trailing Australia, whose athletes virtually ruled the Commonwealth pool, winning 25 swimming golds.

Such comparisons, however, seemed at odds with the relaxed atmosphere that prevailed last week in Victoria. Certainly, the crowds of up to 70,000 people who thronged into the closed-off, downtown streets

for free nightly concerts and fireworks were anything but chauvinist, cheering for all the medallists who were introduced from a stage on the B.C. legislature lawn. An appearance by Chalmers and fellow-Victorian Robyn Meagher, who took the 3,000-m silver, prompted a heartfelt, unscheduled rendition of 0 Canada. But, in a gesture in keeping with the Games’ oft-cited friendly spirit, the nightly throng saved its wannest ovation for the unassuming Dove-Edwin.

The Games themselves did have their critics. Controversy struck the boxing ring in the second week, when several African coaches accused white judges of racism in their decisions. Some people carped about the steep price of tickets to the most popular events (up to $125 for seats at the opening and closing ceremonies) or the slow delivery of competition results on the Games’ IBM-designed computer system. B.C. taxpayers, meanwhile, will have to wait until the end of the year to receive a full accounting of the $160 million—including federal, provincial and corporate contributions—spent to mount the Games.

Whether such massive undertakings are worth the public expense at any time is a subject bound to provoke debate. One answer to the question, however, could be glimpsed in the number of representatives from other cities who came to Victoria to take notes for their own plans to host similar games. Among them were officials from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, site of the next Commonwealth Games in 1998; Winnipeg, which will host the PanAmerican Games in 1999; and Quebec City, which wants to lure the Winter Olympics in 2002. South Africa’s Mluleki George, president of that country’s Commonwealth Games Association, meanwhile, told reporters that “if we do not bid for [the Commonwealth Games] for 2002, we will bid for 2006.” Canada’s Umeh, meanwhile, did not question her own decision to dedicate her adolescence to fleeting excellence. “I’ve become more of a whole person,” she said. “I’ve learned independence, motivation. I’ve gotten to travel all over the world.” As athletes from around the globe headed home after closing ceremonies, they could take with them memories of achievement and fellowship that promised to endure long after the last anthem was played and the last firework had sputtered out over Victoria Harbour.

CHRIS WOOD