Living in Australia at the time, I was lucky enough to be in Melbourne for the 2006 Commonwealth games. The city embraced the event wholeheartedly and with iconic venues like the Melbourne Cricket Ground and the Rod Laver Arena pressed into action, combined with a sport loving public it was a great place to be.
The pool at the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre sits in the middle of the formula 1 circuit in Albert Park and was housed in a giant tent for the games, allowing two huge temporary stands to take the seating capacity to around 9,000. That still made tickets hard to come by though, and initially I only had seats for one session of finals.
Luckily I was able to come by some more via a friend on the Scottish team staff, although I’m sure the sight of tickets being pushed through the perimeter fence was frowned upon by security. That got me in for a second night of finals, and saw me sitting with the families of the Scottish team. As an Englishman there was of course some gentle ribbing, but by the time the racing started I’d been adopted as an honorary Scot compete with Saltire – it was hard not to get caught up in their enthusiasm!
And what a night of swimming it turned out to be. Leisel Jones was majestic in the 200m breaststroke, worrying her own world record in a commanding display that dragged Scot Kirsty Balfour to a British record that still stands, and sent my immediate neighbours into raptures.
But even that paled into insignificance when the men’s 4 x 200 freestyle relay came out. Australia is always strong, but England had two medallists from the individual event in their team, Ross Davenport the champion and Simon Burnett, while Scotland had two individual finallists, including the 400m champion David Carry. It had all the ingredients to be a superb race and that was exactly what it was. The three teams were never separated by more than a few feet throughout the whole 800m and it looked at one point that Scotland would upset their more favoured rivals with a determined anchor from a young Robbie Renwick, until a phenomenal finishing burst from Davenport stole the gold at the death. The noise in the pool, not least from the Scots I was with, was just incredible as everyone willed their teams on – to this day it remains my favourite swimming moment.
Away from that night, it was a great meet. I remember the disbelief of the Australian media as their men had failed to win a gold medal in the pool as the last session came to a close – the joy of Papua New Guinea’s Ryan Pini as he took the 100 fly title was the perfect counterpoint along the way. That left them with just the medley relay to atone, but England had 3 individual champions in their team and started favourites. The relief amongst Australian fans was palpable when they put in a storming performance to rescue gold at the last opportunity.
Everyone had been shocked earlier in the competition by Caitlin McClatchey’s defeat of local star Libby Trickett (then racing under her maiden name of Lenton) in the 200m freestyle on the first night. Certainly most commentators had already hung the gold around the Australian’s neck, even if Libby herself never painted it like that. It was also the event where local media most came in for criticism for their parochial coverage. Of course they would support their athletes, but when Australian TV cut away from the medal ceremony after Trickett got her silver, leaving out McClatchey’s gold, there were grumbles all round.
But that didn’t detract much from the competition itself. The quality in the pool at the London Olympics may have been higher, and the atmosphere at the peak may have been better, but for a sustained buzz you couldn’t beat Melbourne. Even with a tented roof, the noise in the pool was deafening and with so much friendly rivalry between the teams, the atmosphere generated was superb. And that’s what makes the Commonwealth Games special.