The joy of the Commonwealth Games

The Commonwealth Games aren’t the Olympics Lite – they are far too eccentric and fun for that, says Simon Barnes

NEW DELHI, INDIA - OCTOBER 3, 2010: Opening ceremony of Commonwealth Games opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi , October 3, 2010. (Photo by Manoj Patil/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

From the top of the stand the bowling green seemed to stretch for ever: grass mown so close it wouldn’t hide a lady- bird, figures clad in white, the pleasant clonk of wood against wood, the occasional soft smatter of applause.

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South Africa were playing Norfolk Island in the women’s fours; Papua New Guinea were playing the Falkland Islands in the men’s triples. The bowls was in full swing and it was war to the knife down there. No: you can never confuse the Commonwealth Games with the Olympics. That’s kind of the point.

They’re not the Olympics Lite. Banish that thought before the next Games starts on the Gold Coast of Australia: 11 days of rather good sport at an event that is unique and at times ever so slightly mad.

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The Commonwealth Games is the only competition that brings together its countries by means of political history. Of the 71 nations and territories at the Games, 70 will be there because of the ambition and rapacity of the first. The Commonwealth Games were formerly the Empire Games and they still recall the time when Britannia ruled more than a few waves.

Britain wasn’t the only imperial power – and yet there’s no sporting event commemorating the empires of Spain or Germany or France.

None, for that matter, celebrating the former Soviet empire, or the Roman empire or the empires of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. But every four years, all those Commonwealth nations – each one of which might, if it chose, bear a grudge against their former ruler – get together to play bowls.

The Commonwealth Games will also bring us competitors from the youngest – step up Anna Hursey, the 11-year-old Welsh table tennis star – to the oldest, namely David Calvert, the 67-year-old shooter from Northern Ireland. Then we have Dan Halksworth, 32, of Jersey, who is at his third Commonwealth Games – competing in a third sport. He’s been a swim- mer, a triathlete and now he’s a cyclist in the road race and time trial.

Perhaps every four years, he looks at the Commonwealth Games programme, says “I could do that” – and does. Then there’s Valerie Adams, a shot putter from New Zealand who gave birth in October. And Robert Whittaker, an Australian martial arts fighter who is taking part in the wrestling no doubt asking himself, “How hard can it be?”

The schedule includes bowls, netball and squash, none of them Olympic sports. Further defining characteristics come from the islands taking part: the British Virgin Islands, Falkland Islands, Guernsey, Isle of Man, Solomon Islands, Nauru, Niue, Turks & Caicos.

There will be a decent athletics meet and a good swimming gala. The rugby sevens should be excellent, and I hope every good patriot will join me in shouting for Fiji. There will be plenty of serious sport: it’s just that the whiff of eccentricity and ’ave a go enthusiasm never quite leaves the event.

So brace yourself for the struggles on the netball court, where England hope to break the duopoly of Australia and New Zealand, who have contested the past ve nals.

Eccentricity should rightly imply a certain breadth of outlook and generosity of spirit: and the Commonwealth Games – unlike any other major Games – has para sports as part of the main event, with the same medals and glory.

So if anyone tries to hype up the Common- wealth Games by telling you how massively and earth-shakingly important it all is – very nearly as good as the Olympics – then just politely tune out. The Commonwealth Games are great precisely because they’re not the Olympics: splendid, slightly weird, nothing less than boggling to the rest of the world – and never without that generous sprinkling of eccentricity. Let the Games begin!

The Commonwealth Games begins with the Opening Ceremony on Wednesday 4th April at 10:30am on BBC1