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A colonial relic or a nostalgic trip?

A colonial relic or a nostalgic trip down memory lane? Take your pick, the jury is still out and in no rush to deliver a verdict.

india Updated: Mar 06, 2006 16:54 IST

A colonial relic or a nostalgic trip down memory lane? Take your pick, the jury is still out and in no rush to deliver a verdict.

No one really quite knows what to make of the Commonwealth Games anymore. The critics, and there are plenty of them, dismiss the Games as little more than an imperial anachronism that has no place in the 21st century.

But the supporters, and there's lots of them too, argue the Games are more relevant than ever before.

In an age where most major international sporting events have been swamped by crass commercialisation, the Commonwealth Games offer a refreshing alternative.

Which is not to suggest the competition is anything other than world-class. It is, but for every Ian Thorpe, there's plenty Eric the Eels lurking in the shadows.

"I know this sounds like a cliche, but that's just part of the whole appeal," Perry Crosswhite, chief executive of the Australian Commonwealth Games Association told Reuters in an interview.

"This is a diverse group of countries and people from all around the world who share common values, and that's the beauty of it.

"This is not the Olympics, and no-one's pretending it is. Ninety-nine percent of the athletes really are just amateurs who play sport for the fun of it."

Nowhere will this paradox be better seen than in Melbourne, which will play host to the 18th Commonwealth Games from March 15-26.

Opponents say they are a frivolous waste of public funds; supporters insist it is money well spent.

The cost of staging the Games has blown out to an estimated figure of A$1.1 billion ($827 million), but does not include the escalating price of security, which is being borne by the federal and state governments.

The total bill will probably never be known.

One thing that is known, however, is that the Games are getting bigger, not smaller.

The next Games, in 2010, have already been award to New Delhi and the bidding is fierce for the right the host the 2014 Games.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

Today's version is a far cry from the humble beginnings of the inaugural British Empire Games.

Held in Hamilton, Canada in 1930, in the middle of the great economic depression, there were just 400 competitors from 11 countries contesting six sports.

But in Melbourne, under the newer guise of the Commonwealth Games, about 5,000 athletes from 71 associations will compete in 16 different sports.

More than one million tickets have already been sold and the global television audience is expected to top one billion.

About 5,000 media will cover the 11-day event and tourism officials expect about 90,000 visitors to Melbourne.

These include Queen Elizabeth II, who will officially open the Games on March 15, at the spectacularly refurbished Melbourne Cricket Ground, which was also the centrepiece of the 1956 Olympics.

It promises to be a grand occasion, if for no other reason than the great rivalry that exists between Australia's two biggest cities.

When Sydney hosted the Olympics in 2000, the outgoing IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch declared them the best ever. The Melbourne taxpayers will demand no less for their Games.

"I think these will be the greatest Commonwealth Games ever," Perry said.

"So there's no China or America or Russia or Germany or Japan, but this is still a significant worldwide event for a lot of countries.

"We all understand the debate about the Commonwealth Games, but the fact remains that the Commonwealth Games matters to a lot of people in a lot of countries and is here to stay."

MOST GOLDS

Australiaare the most successful country in Commonwealth Games history.

Australia topped the medals count at each Commonwealth Games since 1990, and have captured a staggering total of 646 gold medals since the Games began in 1930, well ahead of England with 542 and Canada on 387.

New Zealand, South Africa and India are the next most successful nations, but Kenya, Nigeria, Jamaica and Malaysia also have impressive records.

Only four sports, athletics, swimming, boxing and lawn bowls remain from the original schedule of 1930.

Cycling was included in 1934, weightlifting in 1950 then badminton and shooting in 1966 and gymnastics in 1978.

The remaining sports, hockey, netball, rugby, squash, table tennis and triathlon, are all new additions, introduced in 1998 and 2002. Basketball will make its debut in Melbourne.

The programme is an unashamed attempt to modernise the Games while reflecting the eclectic range of interests in the Commonwealth, although the main attractions are still the marquee sports of athletics and swimming.

The Commonwealth can rightfully boast many of the world's best athletes, including the fastest man of all time, Jamaican Asafa Powell, the graceful Kenyan middle-distance runners and women's marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe.

And with Thorpe at the helm, the Australians have a swim team that may eventually ensure that these Games will forever be remembered as another golden time for sport.

Let the Games begin.