It was shortly after 7.30pm in Delhi this evening when a proud and excited Nathan Robertson led nearly 300 English athletes and officials into the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium for the Opening Ceremony of the 19th Commonwealth Games.
The 33-year-old badminton star held the flag of St George before him as members of the largest ever England team at an overseas Games marched into the arena behind him.
For Robertson, a world and Olympic medallist, it was “one of the highlights of my career” as he led his compatriots on a circuit of the arena greeted by the cheers and waves of 60,000 spectators come to celebrate the first act of what is only the second Commonwealth Games ever to be held in Asia.
“I’m just really excited now,” said Robertson, who was watched back home by his 12-year-old daughter, Neve, and parents, June and John, who enjoyed an aptly Indian-themed afternoon in England, complete with curry.
Robertson had worried before entering the stadium that the flag might be too heavy for him to hold. But he waved it with carefree abandon, enjoying every minute.
“What an amazing experience,” he said. “I can’t wait to get started.”
Wearing white linen trousers and shirts, and red linen Nehru sleeveless jackets, embossed with a golden lion, the English contingent took its place in the stands alongside competitors from the 70 other Commonwealth nations who have gathered in Delhi.
For the next two and a half hours, athletes, spectators and dignatories – IOC President Jacques Rogge and Indian Congress chief Sonia Gandhi among them – were treated to a pulsating showcase of Indian heritage and culture based around the concept of ‘the wheel of life’ or Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, an ancient Sanskrit phrase meaning ‘the whole world is one family’.
The colourful, vibrant display of music, dance and song encompassed aspects and influences from all corners of the sub-continent. There were fireworks, flashing lights, snake charmers and giant puppets, not to mention a floating oval screen, known as the aeroflot.
In one segment 800 drummers and a child prodigy tabla player beat out their celebration of Indian rhythms, while others highlighted Indian hospitality, music and the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ – the ancient tradition of passing learning from guru to shishya.
There were shows of classical dance from Andhra Pradesh to Kerala; a mass demonstration of yoga position; a giant ‘coiled’ body and its rising chakras; and an evocation of great Indian train journeys past all the country’s multi-ethnic peoples in their rich variety of activities.
‘Father of the Nation’ Mahatma Gandhi appeared out of sand before Shiamak Davar sang the official 2010 Commonwealth Games anthem – ‘Jeeyo; Utho; Badho; Jeeto’ (live, rise, move, win) – composed by Oscar winner AR Rahman.
The Queen’s Baton entered the stadium at the end of its 180,000km journey through all 71 nations and territories of the Commonwealth, before the Prince of Wales, Prince Charles, read the Queen’s message and officially opened the Games. He was followed by Indian President Pratibha Patil who welcomed the athletes and declared: “Let the Games begin”.
England’s 359 athletes now face 11 hard days of competition across all 17 sports to be contested in the Indian capital. Described by Chef de Mission Craig Hunter as “a great and dynamic team”, they carry high hopes of again featuring near the top of the overall medal table by the time of the Closing Ceremony on Thursday 14 October.
Having finished second behind Australia in 2002 and 2006, England take to the field of play over the next two weeks of action with a team said by Hunter to be “a combination of champions and younger talents”.
“Our aim is to be the best we can be,” he said. “Every nation is a challenge in every event, but I know we’ll figure strongly.”
Among those aiming for the top of the podium is double Olympic swimming champion Rebecca Adlington who could become England’s first medallist when she goes for gold in the women’s 200m freestyle on Monday afternoon.
Following her into action over the coming days will be veteran shooter Michael Gault, looking to make Games history as the most decorated Commonwealth medallist ever; world champion diver Tom Daley, eager to make his Games debut; Paralympic champions Danielle Brown and Sarah Storey, poised to make history in archery and cycling respectively; and world number one squash player Nick Matthew.
From among the English ranks will doubtless emerge new champions and new names for whom these days will just be the start of a journey across the international sporting stage.
“Let the Games begin,” as the president said.