GOLD COAST (AFP) – Australia will try to forget all about cheating cricketers and restore their sporting image as the Commonwealth Games got underway at a gala ceremony in Gold Coast yesterday.
Australia’s reputation for tough but fair competition took a hit when Test cricketers admitted ball-tampering, a scandal which prompted much debate and soul-searching.
But the hosts have an opportunity to repair the damage at beach city Gold Coast, where they will attempt to top the medals table, led by their resurgent swimmers and cyclists.
Dancing lifesavers and a floating white whale took centre stage at the 35,000-seat Carrara Stadium for the opening ceremony, where Britain’s Prince Charles was a guest of honour.
It heralds 11 days of competition and should soothe the trauma of the cricket row, after a player was caught doctoring the ball with sandpaper.
“Sand and sport have not been a happy combination for this country of late as we endure our national shame over the ugly fusion of cricket and sandpaper,” The Australian newspaper said in an editorial.
“Starting tonight on the Gold Coast we can flick the switch to optimism and celebration.”
Thousands of performers, volunteers and security were involved in the event, which has been years in the planning and required about 400 truckloads of equipment.
Enthusiasm was not universal, however, and Aboriginal protesters held up the final stages of the Games’ baton relay with a sit-in along its route in Gold Coast.
Indigenous activists are planning more demonstrations and have dubbed the event the “Stolenwealth Games”, a reference to Britain’s colonisation of their ancestral lands.
Australia will hope for a fast start when competition gets under way, with Olympic champions Mack Horton and Kyle Chalmers expected to star in the outdoor Southport pool.
Cate Campbell looks back in form after her 2016 Olympics flop, and South Africa’s Chad le Clos could become the most successful athlete in Games history when he takes on a Michael Phelps-style seven swimming events.
English breaststroke star Adam Peaty, who has his eye on an unprecedented sub-57 seconds in the 100 metres, is another who will try to crash the Australian pool party.
Australia will also go head-to-head with England in track cycling, where they will field a revamped line-up under the tutelage of British coach Simon Jones.
In athletics, Gold Coast’s world champion hurdler Sally Pearson is battling an Achilles’ problem but Jamaican sprinter Yohan Blake should provide fireworks in the absence of the retired Usain Bolt.
Elaine Thompson also looks set to blaze to sprint gold for Jamaica, while South Africa flag-carrier Caster Semenya is said to be targeting the long-standing 800m record.
The Games’ 4,000-plus athletes will also compete in events including rugby sevens, shooting, gymnastics, badminton, netball, boxing and beach volleyball.
Organisers insist the Games, which started life as the British Empire Games in 1930, are still “relevant” in the modern world, pointing to the move to an equal number of men’s and women’s medal events.
For Australia, displacing eternal rivals England, the 2014 table-toppers, at the top of the medals tally, would be the perfect tonic after their cricketing calamity.