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Island athletes keep medal streak alive as Ozzy drops curtain on 2022 Commonwealth Games

Second tier doesn’t mean second rate as Birmingham puts on first-class show
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Fireworks go off during the closing ceremony for the Commonwealth Games at Alexander Stadium in Birmingham, England, on Monday. Jacob King, PA via AP

BIRMINGHAM, England — It seemed perfectly logical to give England’s second city the second-tier Games after posh big brother London staged the 2012 Summer Olympics. But Birmingham proved second-tier doesn’t mean second-rate as it put on a splendid show a decade later that was Olympian in ambition, if not scope, with more than 50 Island or Island-based athletes taking part in the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

Iconic West Midlands band Black Sabbath, led by singer Ozzy Osbourne, closed out the Games on Monday night by singing Paranoid at Alexander Stadium. It was literally spine-tingling. The closing also heavily touched on the region’s history as the home of the Industrial Revolution and the Forge of Empire, and the immigration from Commonwealth nations India, Pakistan and Jamaica that has transformed the region, with Red Red Wine performed by UB40 and Bangra music by Punjabi MC.

Comedian John Oliver once described the Commonwealth Games as the “off-Broadway Olympics.” But what’s wrong with that? Isn’t off-Broadway where you go to improve to get on Broadway? Where else are athletes who competed here — such as Victoria diver Renée Batalla, 15, rugby sevens semifinalist Krissy Scurfield of the University of Victoria Vikes, 19, gold medallist swimmer Nicholas Bennett of Parksville, 18, silver medallist hammer-thrower Ethan Katzberg of Nanaimo, 20, or Victoria-cyclist Riley Pickrell, 20 — going to learn about multi-sports events before the Olympics or Paralympics if not at the Commonwealth or Pan Am Games?

It’s no different than second-tier TV comedians like Oliver working on their craft to join the big money-makers like the Fallons. Each Games has its niche, historically like the Commonwealth Games or regionally like the Pan Am Games, which detractors can never seem to understand.

“Each Games has its own unique place in the continuum and they each have their use,” said Diving Canada chief technical officer Mitch Geller, who founded the Victoria Boardworks Club, which had three athletes diving for Canada in the Birmingham Games.

“There is so much history to the Commonwealth Games and they have a storied past. There was a strong field in these Birmingham Games. It was a really impressive competition.”

The Island kept alive its remarkable record of producing medallists in every Summer Olympics, Commonwealth Games and Pan Am Games since Los Angeles in 1984, with the exception of Seoul 1988.

The Island total of three medals in Birmingham was very much on the light side in comparison with past Games. But there were 19 Island top-five finishes when you factor in the 12-player Langford-based Canadian women’s rugby sevens semifinalist team and the four Island players on the fifth-place Canadian women’s field-hockey squad — with both teams up against world-class fields in these Games — diver Celine Toth’s two fifth-place finishes and Adam Keenan’s fifth place in the hammer.

On a comparative Games level, Island athletes won 17 medals in the 2019 Lima Pan Am Games, 20 medals, including 13 gold, at the 2015 Toronto Pan Am Games and 21 medals at the 2011 Guadalajara Pan Am Games.

These things tend to ebb and flow, but usually point in a positive direction as Island athletes have won 28 medals at the Summer Olympics from Barcelona in 1992 to the delayed Tokyo Games last year. (Island athletes have also won four medals, including three gold, over the past three Winter Olympics).

Yet some people question the relevance of the Commonwealth Games, as if a halfway checkpoint to the next Summer Olympics isn’t of value to athletes. It is, including for Barbados, which won gold, silver and bronze in the Birmingham Games. How is that possible after that nation ditched the Queen this year? Because Barbados didn’t ditch the Commonwealth, which is a purely voluntary association of multi-hued nations that share a history and want to remain connected, if only nominally. From Nehru to Mandela to Barbados, it’s the brown and black nations that have kept this going because they see value in it. It wouldn’t work if it was led by the U.K. Nobody is coercing anybody to be here, which seems to bewilder so-called anti-colonialists because it is beyond their world view to understand it.

Canada was in its traditional third place in the Commonwealth Games overall medals table with 92 behind Australia’s 178 and England’s 176. India with 61 and Scotland on 51 rounded out the top five. Rounding out the top 10 were New Zealand on 49, Nigeria 35, Wales 28, South Africa 27 and Malaysia 23.

Meanwhile, one of the few remaining records from the 1994 Victoria Commonwealth Games was washed away over the weekend when Jareem Richards of Trinidad and Tobago won the men’s 200 metres in 19.80 to eclipse Namibian and four-time Olympic silver medallist Frankie Fredericks’ venerable former Games standard of 19.97 set 28 years ago at UVic’s Centennial Stadium.

The 2026 Commonwealth Games are in Melbourne, Australia, with Hamilton, Ont., poised to host in 2030 on the 100th anniversary of the first Games in 1930 in the Steel City. Those will be the first Commonwealth Games hosted in Canada since Victoria.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com