After the hype, time to let the Games begin

MARK GEENTY IN GLASGOW
Last updated 05:00 24/07/2014
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Behind the Scenes

Weightlifting couple seek to ease heavy load The transformation of coach Gordon Tietjens Black Sticks go mental for Comm medal quest Strong bond between Kiwi triathlon twins Walsh not carried away ahead of Glasgow NZ Games sevens team short of Super-men After the hype, time to let the Games begin

Let the political posturing stop, and the Games begin.

Six weeks out from a landmark referendum over Scotland's independence, eyes will finally avert to the athletes for 11 days as the 20th Commonwealth Games kick off in Glasgow tonight.

Starting with triathletes Andrea Hewitt, Kate McIlroy and Nicky Samuels, a 232-strong New Zealand team will contest medals in all 17 sports, against 70 countries in Scotland's football-mad city where the round ball makes a rare fade to the background. Strongholds Hampden Park (athletics), Celtic Park (opening ceremony) and Ibrox Stadium (rugby sevens) receive temporary independence, too, with glamour club Celtic forced to shift this week's Champions League qualifier to Edinburgh and rugby's Murrayfield.

Now tending towards vibrant than violent, Glasgow's central city "Style Mile" buzzed with expectation yesterday and the northern summer co-operated, forecast to warm to 26 degrees for today's opening ceremony. Organisers gleefully reported total ticket sales for the Games at 1.1 million.

It's been hard to escape the political background to these Games, with Scots preparing to vote on whether to break free, and prove they can stage major sporting events just as well as big brother down the M1. The timing is glorious for Scotland's first minister Alex Salmond who proudly confirmed this Games dipped under its NZ$1.13 billion budget and would leave, to coin a familiar phrase, a "nationwide legacy". He deftly dodged an invitation to use the stage as a political soap box, when the referendum was mentioned.

Still, as the Commonwealth Games general assembly meets to consider the makeup of future editions, starting with Australia's Gold Coast in four years' time, the event continues to fight for relevance and financial sustainability amid a packed world sporting calendar.

Star power certainly helps, with Rod Stewart and Kylie Minogue the headline acts off the field, and Jamaicans Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (the fastest man and woman in the world, contesting relays only), Kenyan 800m flier David Rudisha and England's Olympic icons Mo Farah and Bradley Wiggins all lining up. Australia are near unbackable favourites to top the medal table, ahead of England.

So to the team wearing black. National funding body High Perfomance Sport New Zealand's only public medal target is to top the 36 they won four years ago in Delhi, with chief executive Alex Baumann saying they remained confident of doing so. They require 35 to reach the 600 medal milestone.

Uncertainty over the strength of opposition makes Commonwealth medal predictions fraught, and some names unknown to a wider audience will climb the podium. For the minor sports, the Games are a crucial stepping stone and HPSNZ want to see top-eight potential at the next two Olympics.

Six golds and 22 silvers were won by New Zealanders four years ago in Delhi, so an increase to a double-figure gold tally would represent a roaring success.

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Flagbearer Valerie Adams is New Zealand's biggest gold medal certainty in recent memory, while fellow shot-putter Tom Walsh is favoured to take the men's title. His growing rivalry with young buck Jacko Gill, the double world junior champion, will go up a notch with the distinct prospect of two giant black singlets on the Hampden Park podium. In the absence of most of Europe and the United States, all the throwers should prosper while Nick Willis is in form for a repeat 1500m gold with the two fastest Kenyans absent.

Coach Gordon Tietjens and captain DJ Forbes' world series champion rugby sevens team also have the right formline to achieve a remarkable five straight golds. Their toughest foes will be traditional rugby rivals South Africa, with sevens giants Fiji excluded on political grounds.

The shiny new Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome could be New Zealand's best source of precious metal, with Hoy's retirement and the rise of the sprinters to world class; Lauren Boyle is a potential golden girl of the pool while the Silver Ferns netballers and both hockey teams have those pesky Aussies as an imposing hurdle. It's the pinnacle event for netball, squash and bowls, largely contested by Commonwealth countries.

The Kiwi team range in age from 67 (para bowler Sue Curran) to 15-year-old para swimmer Nikita Howarth and gymnast Courtney McGregor, the latter seen as a strong medal hope.

Shooter Greg Yelavich, the most medalled New Zealand athlete with 12, is attending his eighth event, this time as an official, while Adams, cyclist Greg Henderson, shooter Sally Johnston, table tennis player Karen Li and hockey men Dean Couzins and Phil Burrows are at their fourth Games.

After a seemingly endless buildup, it's over to Rockin' Rod. Tonight's the night; let's see if Glasgow can wear it well.

- The Dominion Post

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