Generations of sportsmen and women can thank the Commonwealth Games for establishing them as recognised international performers.
Our own President, Dame Kelly Holmes won three Commonwealth medals before her ultimate achievement of double Olympic gold in Athens.
Think of Denise Lewis, who launched her javelin out to new territory in the 1994 Games in Vancouver to claim a gold which launched her career towards a subsequent Olympic title – not to mention a silver medal in Strictly Come Dancing…
Think of Liam Tancock, who won his first senior swimming gold at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games in the 100m backstroke and went on to take two world titles and set two world records.
Think of Nathan Robertson, whose first senior championship medals in badminton came at the 1998 and 2002 Commonwealth Games and who went on to win Olympic silver and world gold in tandem with Gail Emms.
Since 2000, however, talented youngsters within the Commonwealth have had another arena in which to establish their international credentials at an even earlier age in the form of the Commonwealth Youth Games - the fourth version of which will take place on the Isle of Man this year from September 7-13.
The first Commonwealth Youth Games were held in Edinburgh, where 733 athletes from 14 countries competed in eight sports over three days. The second edition of the Commonwealth Youth Games took place in Bendigo, Australia in December 2004 and saw over 1000 athletes and officials from 22 countries in a 10-sport programme. The third Youth Games were held in the Indian city of Pune October 12-18, 2008 where 71 nations and territories participated in nine sports.
The Isle of Man is preparing to host seven sports – Athletics, Badminton, Boxing, Gymnastics, Rugby 7s, Swimming and Cycling, the last of which will make use of the island’s unique sporting heritage with the time trial, road race and criterium routed to use part of the famous TT Road racing circuit, going past the motorcycling TT grandstand and along the Douglas promenade.
But it will be history as much as geography that will inspire the sporting protagonists between 14-18 who will embrace both the sporting and social aspects of the island, with the last day being given over to a day of Culture in Castletown where competitors will join in activities linked to their host’s traditions.
Above all, however, the youngsters will be building on a sporting history which, for all its relative brevity, is already rich in talent and achievement.
In terms of development, the Commonwealth Youth Games have been instrumental in helping a host of young competitors springboard to elite performances.
In Athletics, the first Commonwealth Youth Games 100m men’s title was won in Edinburgh by England’s Tyrone Edgar in 11.00sec. Within four years, the Greenwich-born sprinter was running for Texas A&M University, and he went on to run at the European Championships in 2006, the Beijing Olympics – where he reached the semi-finals, and the 2009 IAAF World Championships, where he won a bronze medal in the sprint relay.
Another English sprinter, Dwayne Grant, won the 200 metres and was in the British squad for the Athens Olympics two years later.
Jemma Simpson, a Millfield pupil, won the 800 metres in the Scottish capital. Two years later she was fourth in the World Junior Championships, and took bronze in the 2003 European Junior Championships. Two years after that she excelled herself by taking silver in the European Cup after coming in as a late replacement for the double Olympic champion Kelly Holmes, now Commonwealth Games England president.
Ricky Soos was gold medallist for England in the 1500 metres, and four years later he was racing in the Athens Olympics, where he reached the 800 metres semi-finals.
Nicola Sanders, winner of the 400m hurdles at the 2000 CYG in 59.19sec, and although her hurdling career took a while to take off at senior level, she missed out on a medal by just one place at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.
Later that year she switched to the 400m flat, with great effect. After finishing sixth in the European final, she became European indoor champion at the National Indoor Arena at Birmingham in 2007 and later that summer at the World Championships in Osaka she finished second behind fellow Briton Christine Ohuruougu – who had lit the blue touch paper on her own career by winning the 400m in Melbourne. In doing so, Sanders recorded a personal best of 49.65sec, making her the fourth fastest Briton of all time behind Kathy Cook, Katharine Merry and Ohuruogu.
Four years later in Bendigo, Australia, home talent Sally McClellan won the 100m hurdles in 14.11. Despite falling in the 2006 Games in Melbourne, McClellan – by now married under the name of Pearson, took the silver medal at the Beijing Games and had a very eventful Commonwealth Games in Delhi last year, where, after apparently winning the 100m title, she was belatedly disqualified for a false start, but came back to win the 100m hurdles gold.
The second-placed athlete in that 100m hurdles final in Bendigo, in 14.50sec, was an English athlete who also finished second in the high jump with an effort of 1.75m – Jessica Ennis.
Within two years Ennis won the heptathlon bronze medal at the Melbourne Commonwealths behind Britain’s Olympic bronze medallist Kelly Sotherton, and despite having to miss the Beijing Games with a fractured ankle, she has since become European, world indoor and world outdoor champion.
Another Australian winner in Bendigo, Dani Samuels – who did the double in the shot put and discus – went on to win discus bronze in the Melbourne Games, aged 17, before becoming the youngest world discus champion at the age of 21 in the Berlin 2009 championships.
A year after finishing second behind home sprinter Brendan Galic in the Bendigo 100m, England’s Harry Aikines-Aryeetey was World Youth champion at 100 and 200m, and in 2006 he added the world junior 100m title.
The outstanding athletics prospect at the 2008 CYG in Pune was the women’s 800m gold medallist, who produced a Games record of 2min 04.23sec – South Africa’s Caster Semenya, winner of the world title the following year.
Bendigo’s boxing tournament saw England’s Bradley Saunders win gold in the 63.5kg category. Three years later the native of Stockton-on-Tees won bronze in the world championships, and despite a disappointing Beijing Olympics, where he lost in the second round, he is now aiming for London 2012.
James Degale, Saunders’s team-mate in Bendigo, was beaten by home boxer Omar Shaick in the 75kg class, but in 2006 he was bronze medallist at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games and he returned from the 2008 Beijing Games as an Olympic champion before turning professional.
Swimmer James Goddard, England’s 200 individual medley winner in the inaugural CYG, won gold in the 200m backstroke and bronze in the 200 IM at the 2002 Commonwealth Games, and added golds in both events at last year’s Commonwealths in Delhi.
Four years later the Australian winner of the women’s 200m freestyle, Meagen Nay, set herself up for an Olympic appearance in 2008, where she was seventh in the final, and at the 2010 Delhi Games, where she won gold.
Britain’s cyclist Matt Crampton, who won silver in the 1km time trial and keirin at the 2004 CYG and bronze in the sprint would go on to take world bronze in the keirin in 2008.
England’s James Willstrop, part of the team which beat Australia 3-0 in the 2000 CYG squash final, has since finished runner-up twice in the British Open, and has two Commonwealth silvers from the 2006 mixed doubles and the 2010 singles.
Also taking gold from those first Youth Games was English gymnast Beth Tweddle, who won the uneven bars and overall title. She went on to become the first British gymnast to win a world title in 2006, and has added two more world titles and six European golds as she targets London 2012.
In April, Tweddle attended the Isle of Man’s annual sports awards. “Competing in the Commonwealth Youth Games was a massive thing for me and it was great to experience a multi-sport event,” she said.
“Competing in the Commonwealth Youth Games has definitely made me a better athlete. For the youngsters competing in this year’s Games it will give them a massive boost. They will get to experience a major tournament which I am sure will boost their ambitions and will give them the drive to want sporting success even more.”
The Commonwealth Youth Games. They might as well be called the Commonwealth Launch Pad…
By Mike Rowbottom