The starkest example of the struggle the Commonwealth Games has in attracting the world’s best athletes is that Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce has come all the way to Birmingham but will not be racing.
Arguably the greatest female sprinter of all time, Fraser-Pryce won her fifth world 100m title last month in Oregon but withdrew from the athletics at Alexander Stadium.
And yet she has come all the way to the UK and was even spotted warming up. The Birmingham crowds will not see her in action though, she is one of four eligible world champions from Eugene who have decided that the Commonwealth Games are not worth their time.
So, while the likes of squash, lawn bowls and netball see Birmingham 2022 as the pinnacle of their sport, the athletics start lists are missing the world’s best women over 100m (Fraser-Pryce), 200m (Shericka Jackson), 400m (Shanae Miller-Uibo) and 1500m (Faith Kipyegon).
For athletics legend Daley Thompson, who won three Commonwealth gold medals in the 1970s and 1980s alongside his two Olympic titles, those who have prioritised other events over these Games, are missing out.
He said: “I went to three Commonwealth Games from 78 in Edmonton, then Brisbane and Edinburgh. And I was fortunate enough to do well at those. They were always the big competition in my mind because whenever you get the opportunity to compete in a major multi-sports event, that only comes along every two or three years, especially back then when there weren’t multiple World Championships. For me, in the sporting calendar, the Commonwealth Games was right behind the Olympic Games. It was fantastic.
“I think that everybody has a choice and I think back in the day, it was less about earning a living and more about glory – for yourself and your country. If there are people that want to earn a living and go and race in Zurich or wherever that might be, that’s fair enough but from my own point of view, it was only ever about winning Championships and being the best.
“Everyone is entitled to their choice. But I think the people who go for the money are missing out because it’s a brilliant place to be. (Elaine) Thompson-Herah (who won three Olympic golds in Tokyo) was running today, she’s here. If it’s good enough for her, it’s good enough for most people.”
While the absence of Fraser-Pryce and co is a blow, Birmingham 2022 CEO Ian Reid believes those athletes who have chosen to miss these Games will regret it when they see the packed stands of Alexander Stadium after its revamp.
He said: “We can’t make people come here but if Shelly-Ann was here earlier and saw the atmosphere and the full stadium, she probably regrets it. To have 30,000 people in Alexander Stadium for every session of athletics, the atmosphere it’s created, I can’t think of anywhere for these athletes to be. We have a huge number of stars, particularly the home nations stars who are all here if they could compete and were not injured. The crowd will get behind them, so we’re delighted with the athletes that have turned up. Of course, there are some others who aren’t here, but my person opinion is they will probably regret that.”
It is not just the track stars who have chosen to stay away. The Games find themselves in a difficult situation when it comes to attracting new hosts, with Birmingham having to step in after Durban pulled out.
The next Games will take place in Victoria in Australia, and Commonwealth Games Federation CEO Katie Sadleir played down fears that the absence of stars in Birmingham will put off future host candidates.
She said: “A lot of the sports here, it’s the World Championships for them. Focusing on that is important.
“We know the Commonwealth Games is growing in terms of interest in terms of the way we host. We know there are two or three countries interested in 2030 and they are interested in it for all the other things and not just those special stars not being there.
“It’s about creating an opportunity for lots of athletes to shine and not just a few. I think focusing on those that are world champions that are here is a good way of looking at it.”
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