Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Editorial: A perfect chance to go for gold

The start of the Commonwealth Games is, seemingly inevitably, accompanied by queries about their relevance and suggestions of third-rate competition. But try telling that to the young sportsmen and women now gathered in Melbourne. For them, these Games, the 18th, are an important measure of their development and hopefully a stepping stone to the Beijing Olympics. For the first time, some will feel the weight of national expectations on their shoulders. And the exhilaration associated with meeting them.

Some Commonwealth Games do, in truth, have a rather flat feel about them. If host cities fail to embrace them, a lack of enthusiasm can pervade the whole event. The withdrawal of top athletes does not help. Already, these Games have been hit by the absence of swimming phenomenon Ian Thorpe and England's world champion marathon runner Paula Radcliffe. But Melbourne's self-proclaimed status as the sporting capital of Australia - and Australians' love of sport - ensure there will be no shortage of passion this time. These Games will be a success; that much is guaranteed.

For New Zealand's competitors, Melbourne is almost the perfect location. There can be no excuses of travel weariness, or complaints about the standard of accommodation, infrastructure or venues. The latter, starting with the redeveloped Melbourne Cricket Ground, where tonight's opening ceremony will be held, will be first-class. Indeed, the quality and size of the stadiums should put teeth-gnashing about unsold tickets firmly into perspective. Already, 1.3 million tickets have been sold, a record for any Commonwealth Games.

This is an ideal opportunity for one other reason. New Zealanders, unlike their British counterparts, do not have world-class competition virtually at their doorstep. And that makes it reasonable for New Zealand to have sent 255 athletes, its biggest team since the Games were first held in 1930.

That convenience factor applies, of course, in even greater proportion to Australia's athletes. The withdrawal of Thorpe has done nothing to dispel their supreme confidence. The Australian team manager, Perry Crosswhite, is continuing to predict that the host nation will win 208 medals, including 88 golds. Even if that target is not met, New Zealand television viewers will still get thoroughly tired of hearing Advance Australia Fair.

This country's aspirations are, of course, rather more mundane. Sport and Recreation New Zealand hopes the 45 medals, including 11 golds, that were claimed at the last Games in Manchester will be bettered. The half-century mark, it says, would represent significant progress, while fewer than 40 medals would raise serious questions about our high-performance systems.

That is an important point. This country has tried to take the best of the methods used by the Australian Institute of Sport, if in a far less extravagant way. Anything less than an increased medal haul would reflect as much on the skills and knowledge imparted by our high-performance centres as the athletes themselves.

We can, in fact, be reasonably optimistic about New Zealand claiming more medals than ever before. Best of all, New Zealand is well positioned to dent Australian pride in a number of blue riband events. In athletics, swimming and cycling, the high-performance work should bear fruit. And the netball final, the climax of the Games, should see the Silver Ferns gain the sweetest of revenge. Victory in this most Commonwealth-focused of sports would provide the icing on a successful Games cake.

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