10 things to know about Commonwealth Games

00:50, Jul 19 2014
Yvette Williams
ALL-ROUNDER: Yvette Williams won gold in the discus and long jump at the same time at the 1954 Commonwealth Games.

The Commonwealth Games begin in Glasgow on Thursday, with 4352 athletes from 71 nations and territories of the Commonwealth due to take part. The Games have a rich history that - just like the football World Cup's - stretches back to 1930. Michael Forbes finds 10 things you may or may not have known about the event. 

1. The first athlete to win gold was a Kiwi: They weren't known as the Commonwealth Games back then, of course. But nevertheless, Aucklander Billy Savidan became the first athlete in Games history to have a gold medal slung around his neck when he won the six-mile event at the first Empire Games in Hamilton, Canada, in 1930. Savidan earned it the hard way too. After marching in the opening ceremony he was told to lace up for the race immediately. Unfazed by the short notice, he jumped out to such a lead that he was able to win despite stopping a lap early. The error was down to an official who inadvertently turned over two discs on the lap counter instead of one. Sports historian Joseph Romanos recalls how Savidan's body and mind basically shut down after crossing what he thought was the finish line a lap early. "He managed to pick himself up and stumble and bumble his way around for one more lap, all the while the chasing pack was getting closer and closer. He didn't win by much in the end. He called it his "lap of torture".

2.  It helps if you can multi-task.Dunedin-born Yvette Williams made a pretty good case for being the best all-round athlete in the world at the 1954 Games in Vancouver, where she won gold in the discus and long jump at the same time. Both events were due to start an hour apart but the discus was delayed thanks to the late arrival of the Duke of Edinburgh. Williams, who had already won the shot put, had to contend with the events taking place on opposite sides of the stadium. She spent the afternoon dashing back and forth, changing from discus-throwing shoes to long jump spikes each time. Her 12 trips across the stadium and 11 shoe changes resulted in two gold medals and a Games record in both events.

Neroli Fairhall
GAMES FIRST: Neroli Fairhall made history when she competed as an archer at the 1982 Games in Brisbane and won gold.

3. Lawn bowls is compulsory but cycling isn't:Seems odd to think about a Commonwealth Games without cycling, but the Scots could have punted the event this year if they wanted. The official rule book says host cities must include a minimum of 10 core sports on their programme. Those must-haves are: aquatics, athletics, badminton, boxing, hockey, netball, rugby sevens, squash, weightlifting and lawn bowls. After the core sports, the host nation can then add up to seven optional sports/disciplines. This year, the Scots opted for cycling, gymnastics, judo, shooting, table tennis, triathlon and weightlifting. Tenpin bowling and synchronised swimming were options that did not make the cut.

4. The first disabled athlete to compete at the Games was a Kiwi . . . and she was pretty handy: Neroli Fairhall carved out a slice of Games history when she competed as an archer at the 1982 Games in Brisbane and won gold. Born in Christchurch, Fairhall took up the sport after a motorbike accident in 1969 that paralysed her from the waist down, ending her promising athletic career. Not long after she picked up a bow her rivals were up in arms, suggesting she had an unfair advantage by shooting from a seated position. When asked one day by a journalist if she shared that view, she famously replied: "I don't know. I've never shot standing up." Two years after her success in Brisbane, Fairhall become the first disabled athlete to compete at the Olympics.

5. It's a bit more laidback these days: Veteran broadcaster Keith Quinn has seen his fair share of opening ceremonies, having attended every Games since Christchurch in 1974. Back in those days, the ceremonies were a touch more formal, with athletes forming lines and marching into the stadium in an orderly fashion, he says. "You don't see that any more. Nowadays they shambolically shuffle through the stadium, waving their cameras about and taking selfies." Quinn even recalls some of the female athletes circling the stadium with handbags tucked under their arms. The Royal family also made an appearance in the middle of QEII Stadium in 1974 to inspect our armed forces. Such entertainment might be considered a bit dry by today's standards.


Usain Bolt
FASTEST IN THE WORLD: Usain Bolt will be at the Commonwealth Games but will watching from the sidelines.

6.  All Blacks were competing at the Games long before rugby sevens was included: Before big, burly Manawatu prop Gary Knight started throwing opposition players around a footy field for the All Blacks, he was throwing opponents around a wrestling mat, earning a bronze medal at the 1974 Games in Christchurch. Peter Henderson was another All Black to taste success on the Games stage. The winger came home from the ill-fated 1949 All Blacks tour to South Africa having lost all four tests. But he managed to pick himself up and get straight into some serious sprint training ahead of the 1950 Commonwealth Games in Auckland, where he picked up a bronze medal as part of the men's 4 x 110 yard relay. Henderson also competed in the 100 yards that year, where he placed fifth in the final.

7.  The Games can be difficult to watch at times: Two of the most agonising sporting moments this country has witnessed took place on the Commonwealth Games stage. At the 1970 Edinburgh Games, Kiwi middle-distance runner Sylvia Potts managed to open up a narrow lead in the home straight of the 1500 metres, only to collapse two metres from the finish from sheer exhaustion. "It was a great tragedy but she said at the time she had nothing left to give," Romanos says. The nation was similarly horrified in 1998 when Craig Barrett collapsed towards the end of the 50km walk at the games in Kuala Lumpur. With a gold medal in sight, Barrett succumbed to the extreme humidity with about a kilometre to go. His legs turned to jelly and he began staggering all over the road. He tried to soldier on until chef de mission Les Mills stepped in to remove him from the race and end the torture for those watching at home.

8.  The fastest man and woman on the planet will be in Glasgow, but will watch the 100-metre sprint from the stands: Track and field fans will, understandably, feel a little shortchanged this year with Jamaican sprint stars Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce set to sit out the glamour 100m sprint in Glasgow. Both have been included in Jamaica's athletics squad but are expected to compete only in the 4 x 100m relays after missing the recent Jamaican championships - the selection meeting for the Glasgow Games. Six-time Olympic gold medallist Bolt, the world record holder in the 100m and 200m, had earlier said he was not interested in racing in Glasgow, before having change of heart last week and signalling his readiness to compete. But he decided not to take a spot off a Jamaican athlete who had already earned selection in the 100m. Fraser-Pryce, the world and double Olympic 100m champion, had a string of poor results before pulling out of the trials for medical reasons.

9.  Athletics is difficult when you don't have any shoes: Rod Dixon had plenty of success in his athletics career, including a bronze medal in the 1500m at the 1972 Olympics and victory in the New York marathon of 1983. But he also had a few famous near misses. One infamous occasion was at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton where some nefarious character pinched his gear bag, including his running shoes, just before the 5000m final. Quinn, who was commentating that day, recalls how Dixon hastily borrowed a pair of hurdling shoes, which were of little use because of their high spikes. At the time, Dixon was in the form of his life and expected to dominate the race, but with his concentration thrown he could only muster seventh place. As he came down the home straight you could see the disappointment etched on his face. "His palms were upturned and his arms were raised, and there was a look of exasperation on his face as if to say it was hopeless," Quinn says. "We went down into the dressing room afterwards and there was Dixon, looking really distraught . . . he was a mess all right."

10.  It's a bigger deal than just us, the Brits, the Aussies and Canada: Despite the British Navy's best conquering days being well behind it, and the Queen being little more than a figurehead these days, the empire's property portfolio is still in pretty good shape. The Glasgow Games will see 4352 athletes from 71 nations and territories of the Commonwealth take part, compared with just 400 athletes from 11 countries at the first event in 1930. These Commonwealth nations are home to just under a third of the global population today. For the record, New Zealand has attended every Empire/Commonwealth Games since 1930, as has Australia, Canada, England, Scotland and Wales.

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