Michael Pavitt

An Australian cricket scandal and discussions about future editions of the Commonwealth Games may have dominated the past week but it is just a few days before sporting action gets underway on the Gold Coast.

There have been numerous team announcements in the past couple of months, with a series of star and absentees providing most headlines in this respect. Barring any further late withdrawals through injury the field appears set across the sports, so it feels like a fairly good time to assess where a couple of events are at.

Athletics has been the sport that has intrigued me most in the build-up in regard to the quality of its field. Particularly as it is the first multi-sport event, featuring athletics, since the retirement of Jamaican star Usain Bolt last year.

Bolt has undoubtedly carried his sport for the past decade with his world record feats and multiple medal success but also dramatic disqualifications and an injury-hit finale at last year’s World Athletics Championships.

He may only have a 4x100 metres relay gold from Glasgow 2014 during his participation at the Commonwealth Games but the fanfare over his participation four years ago drew significant spotlight towards athletics.

Following his retirement, it would be interesting to see whether any new athletes can really assert themselves on a multi-sport Games in the post-Bolt world.

Men’s 400m world record holder Wayde van Niekerk has been mooted as the man to fill the void, with the South African having announced his intention to compete at 100m and 200m events at the Games. Then there was Canada’s Andre De Grasse, winner of a 100m bronze medal and 200m silver at Rio 2016.

The irony is that of the three sprinters, it is the retired Bolt who will be the only one in attendance at the 100m final, having fulfilled the long standing desire of Gold Coast 2018 to have the Jamaican appear, even if it is only as a spectator.

De Grasse pulled out of the Games last month after claiming he was not fit enough, while Van Niekerk injured his knee playing a celebrity touch rugby match last October.

Sprinter-wise, the quality feels much thinner on the ground, with Bolt's former training partner Yohan Blake suddenly remerging as the athlete to watch.

Can athletics fill the Usain Bolt shaped hole during the Commonwealth Games? ©Getty Images
Can athletics fill the Usain Bolt shaped hole during the Commonwealth Games? ©Getty Images

From a local perspective, Sally Pearson has been the face of the Games but the 100m hurdlers world champion has been battling an achilles injury in the build-up.

International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) President Sebastian Coe, who will be commentating for Channel Seven here, claimed earlier this year that the Games would be a success and talked up the quality in the sport.

While the sport has been shorn of a couple of major names through injury, South African world champions Caster Semenya and Luvo Manyonga will be among the names to watch. 

Botswana’s Issac Makwala, who gained something of a cult following after he caught the norovirus and was initially barred from running in the heats at last year’s IAAF World Athletics Championships in London.

The 200m and 400m runner has claimed he can step into Bolt’s shoes, stating "My aim is to become the best, to move up, and be number one. The competition is going to be really good. It’s an exciting time for the sport."

I am sceptical, but hopefully athletics will be less about Bolt being in the stands and more about action on the track at the Games.

Given the strength in depth in British cycling, the sport may benefit from athletes being split into their home nations for the Games. 

Olympic champions Callum Skinner and Katie Archibald look set to head up a strong Scottish team with the impressive sprinter Jack Carlin, while Rio 2016 gold medallists Phillip Hindes and Elinor Barker will be representing England and Wales respectively.

Adding in that Australia opted to skip the World Championships earlier this year for focus on these Commonwealth Games, as well as strong Canadian and New Zealand squads, track cycling in particular looks one of the stronger disciplines here. 

There are also a host of riders who have just come from the Para-Cycling World Championships in Rio de Janeiro to take into account too.

Katie Archibald will be one of the British Cycling stars who are set to go head-to-head with her usual team-mates ©Getty Images
Katie Archibald will be one of the British Cycling stars who are set to go head-to-head with her usual team-mates ©Getty Images

Australia are likely to be the dominant force in pool, as with previous Games, but there is certainly a healthy split across nations. 

England will boast Adam Peaty, arguably the most dominant swimming in the world, in breaststroke competition. Canada and Jamaica have stars in the form of teenage Olympic gold medallist Penny Oleksiak and Alia Atkinson respectively.

There is also Chad le Clos. The South African will expect to claim multiple medals at the Games as he aims to close in on the record number won by an athlete at the multi-sport event.

One sport that could prove to be a standout competition at the Games is rugby sevens. 

There are the typical powerhouses in the form of Olympic champions Fiji and regular World Sevens Series competitors Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa. 

There is also the added intrigue in whether Kenya’s men’s team can build on their appearance in the final of the Vancouver sevens last month.

As well as the traditionally strong Commonwealth team sports of hockey and netball, it will interesting to see what impact basketball and beach volleyball will have, with the latter making its Games debut.

It is probably fair to say that neither of these sports feature strength in depth at world level, although Australia finished fourth in the men’s basketball event at Rio 2016. 

However, in some ways this could make the competition more unpredictable for viewers, with a perhaps less established hierarchy than other team sports at the Games. Maybe their rare appearances at the Games could help to grow the sport in Commonwealth nations. 

Who knows?

Weightlifting looks to be Oceania's likeliest chance of multiple medals at Gold Coast 2018 ©Getty Images
Weightlifting looks to be Oceania's likeliest chance of multiple medals at Gold Coast 2018 ©Getty Images

Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Nauru and Samoa were among the nations to clinch medals in weightlifting competition at Glasgow 2014 and it would seem like the sport could prove the best chance of multiple Oceanian successes at the Games.

While the sport certainly has problems it needs to tackle, particularly with the former Soviet bloc, it could do with some positive news stories with athletes from smaller nations starring at Gold Coast 2018.

Fiji’s Eileen Cikamatana, recently crowned their female athlete of the year for 2017, could be among those set to challenge for gold.

Of course, these are not the only sports and athletes set to compete over the coming two weeks. 

With triathlete Flora Duffy among the Bermudan team, they stand a chance of winning their first gold for nearly 30 years.

There should also be plenty to look forward to across badminton, boxing, gymnastics, lawn bowls, netball, shooting, squash, table tennis and wrestling also on the programme.

All that is left is for the Games to begin.