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When the British Commonwealth Games were first held in 1930, at Hamilton, Ontario, under the designation British Empire Games, it was decided that these between-Olympics get-togethers of the Empire's athletes ought to be "merrier and less stern" than the Olympics and "substitute the stimulus of novel adventure for the pressure of international rivalry." Now, 48 years later, when the Olympics, the Pan-American, the Asian, the University and the rest of the world's international competitions have become ideological battlegrounds, the Commonwealth Games merrily sustain a spirit of unabashed sentimentality.
"I believe it is our common language and common heritage of British sensibilities," gushed one visitor to the opening of the XI edition of the Games in Edmonton last week. "From England herself to Papua New Guinea where chaps are eaten, the cultural differences are somewhat noticeable, but the language keeps the family together."
Not that the quadrennial reunions are all gin and watercress sandwiches and editorials in support of monarchy. The Commonwealth Games have a record of spectacular performances, particularly in track and field. The last time the Games were held in Canada, at Vancouver in 1954, they produced two historic finishes. One was by Roger Bannister, who swept past John Landy to win the "Miracle Mile" in 3:58.8. The other was that of marathoner Jim Peters, who entered the stadium with a three-mile lead and with only 400 yards to go. Heatstruck and staggering blind, Peters collapsed and struggled up repeatedly. For 10 minutes he horrified the crowd until he crossed a line and fell for a final time. It was, alas, the finish line for most races, but not for the marathon. Peters was carried from the track with 220 yards still to go, and Scotland's Jim McGhee won. Peters never raced again.
Because the Commonwealth encompasses such geographically disparate entities as East Africa, where our species first stood upright and began to run; England, where formal track and field began; and Australia, where modern training methods developed, running, particularly distance running, has a lofty status in the Games.
The 1974 Games in Christchurch, New Zealand were the finest week of distance running in history. Five of the six distances were won in times below the Olympic records, and in the 1,500 Tanzania's Filbert Bayi held off New Zealand's John Walker as both broke Jim Ryun's 7-year-old world record of 3:33.1. "That was the greatest run I have ever seen," says Bannister. Bayi's record (3:32.2) still stands and he is back to defend, but Walker (3:32.5), the Olympic champion and only man to break 3:50 for the mile (3:49.4), is recovering from surgery on his calf and is home gardening in Auckland.
Henry Rono of Kenya and Washington State, who since April has set world records in the 3,000, the steeplechase, the 5,000 and the 10,000, may provide the most excitement, however. All along, his training has been directed toward the Commonwealth races above all others. This week he will be opposed in the 5,000 by England's Brendan Foster, whose record he broke in the 3,000, and Nick Rose; Tanzania's Suleiman Nyambui; and New Zealand's Rod Dixon.
These races will inspire something akin to envy in the best U.S. runners, whose only counterpart festival, the Pan-American Games, is mushy by comparison. Thus it is strange that no U.S. television network would air any of the Edmonton show (last Sunday NBC, which will televise the Moscow Olympics, showed motorized barstool racing). Perhaps the networks were put off by the limited appeal of lawn bowling and thickets of blue blazers and bushy mustaches, but the loss to U.S. viewers is significant. Besides great running and swimming—on Saturday night 15-year-old Tracey Wickham of Australia broke her world record in the 800-meter freestyle by almost six seconds with a time of 8:24.62—we will miss seeing something even rarer: an international games free of political strife.
Thirteen of the Commonwealth nations are in black Africa. All agreed to the boycott of the Montreal Olympics in protest of New Zealand, another Commonwealth country, carrying on rugby exchanges with South Africa. How, two years later, have those recalcitrants been brought back into the fold?
The threat of an African boycott of Edmonton was not subtly presented last year when the African sports union scheduled the African Games in Algiers two weeks before the Commonwealth Games. It seemed things had been arranged so that black Africa could boycott and still have somewhere to compete, thus avoiding the tears and recriminations of Montreal. But in delicate response, an extraordinary meeting of Commonwealth prime ministers took place. They gathered at Gleneagles Lodge in Scotland in June of 1977 and were chaired by Michael Manley of Jamaica. Canada's Pierre Trudeau, Britain's James Callaghan and New Zealand's Robert Muldoon, among others, all signed an agreement that each would do everything possible to cut sporting ties with racist countries. Obviously, South Africa was the prime case in point. Canada took the strongest action, ruling that no South African can enter the country for "any sports reason." Professionals who compete as individuals, such as golfer Gary Player or race-car driver Jody Scheckter, are exempt. New Zealand has had no further rugby exchanges with South Africa.
Only two African nations chose not to come to Edmonton; a third, Botswana, could not afford to send its team and sent greetings instead. Nigeria withdrew for what seem internal reasons after a cabinet shuffle, and Uganda pulled out when President for Life Idi Amin blustered that he would not go anywhere until Israel was booted out of the Commonwealth. Canada was relieved and not just because Israel was not a member of the Commonwealth. "No country would want him to visit," said one observer. "If there were a coup while he was out of Uganda, it might have to keep him."