By Greg Stutchbury
GOLD COAST, Australia (Reuters) – As a popular holiday destination, the Gold Coast is a pretty vibrant place for most of the time, but throw a big sporting event in a country obsessed with athletic pursuits into the mix and the buzz around the place is almost tangible.
Regardless of criticism over the level of competition in some events and no shows from plenty of big sporting names, Australians have flocked in their droves to Commonwealth Games venues during the last nine days.
Canary yellow and green polo shirts, tank tops and shorts, along with the obligatory beach footwear — ‘thongs’ in the local vernacular — have been the uniform de jour for the thousands packing stands to cheer on their beloved “‘straya”.
The level of support has come as no surprise to former Scotland rugby sevens captain Colin Gregor, who competed at the last Commonwealth Games held Down Under in Melbourne in 2006.
“You realize how crazy Australians are about sports and how it creates such an amazing atmosphere around the Games,” he said.
“I think (in 2006) Scotland were playing Barbados in basketball and there was 5,000 people in to watch. I don’t think we’d get 5,000 people in Scotland watching Scotland play Barbados in basketball.
“I think Australia and the Commonwealth Games are well suited for each other.”
Chief organizer Peter Beattie said on Friday that more than 1.2 million tickets had been sold heading into the final weekend of the Games, with team competitions hugely popular.
Organizers had forecast that about one million people would attend competition in 18 sports but not everyone has been happy and some local businesses cannot wait until they can resume normal trade without disruptions to local transport.
Some of their missing customers can be found cheering on the Green and Gold at venues around the sprawling strip of a city, or lining the routes of the road cycling or race walking events.
NOT MISSING OUT
Australian athletes are convinced the noisy support has played a part in the host nation’s utter dominance of the medals table, having won more golds than the second, third and fourth most successful nations combined by the end of day nine.
Dane Bird-Smith, who won the first medal on the athletics program in the 20km race walk, recalled coming into the final stretch of his race.
“The crowd just went bloody ballistic,” he said. “The last 500 meters hurt so much but I had everyone behind me which made it so special. It was unbelievable, an unreal feeling.”
The attraction of miles of sandy beaches and the bright blue Pacific Ocean that laps up to them cannot have hurt some make up their minds to head to the Gold Coast, but there was also a sense on not wanting to miss out.
“We knew the Commonwealth Games were on and when we got here we got caught up in all the hype so just thought we’d get tickets,” said Susan Cooper, who was visiting from Cairns, some 1,800 km north at the top of the state of Queensland.
“It was pretty easy. My parents went to the lawn bowls on Monday. My son went to the athletics on Tuesday and we have come for the netball,” she said.
“It has been good.”
Even the loss of local world and former Olympic 100m hurdles champion Sally Pearson, who was forced to withdraw on the eve of the Games because of an Achilles injury, appears to have had little or no impact on the popularity of the event.
“In a way she was the face of the athletics but there are a lot of others in that team that are not as well known because they haven’t been as successful,” Brisbane university student Alexandra Lloyd told Reuters outside the netball venue.
“But the other sports, particularly the netball, they’re successful in their own right. Everyone knows who they are.”
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by John O’Brien)