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From Bolt to unknowns, games united Commonwealth
Amid rare spotlight for tiny islands, Bolt elevated status of Commonwealth Games with debut
By ROB HARRIS
Associated Press
2014-08-04 03:01 AM

GLASGOW, Scotland (AP) -- They traveled in search of recognition, knowing they were unlikely to return with medals.

At the Olympics, Norfolk Islanders must settle with being part of Australia's vast team. But the Commonwealth Games, which end Sunday night, offered the tiny south Pacific outpost a platform to stand proudly on the world stage, competing under its own flag.

It hardly matters that the island has now collected just one medal from eight trips to the multisport event for former British colonies -- bronze in lawn bowls in 1994 -- because their hunger for competing is no less.

"It's very important for national pride," Norfolk Island Sports Minister Tim Sheridan told The Associated Press. "It's the pride we are doing it representing the island instead of Australia."

Sheridan -- a direct descendent of Fletcher Christian, the ringleader of the 19th-century HMS Bounty mutineers who settled on Norfolk -- has not just been in Glasgow as a government figurehead. He was on the bowling green as one of Norfolk's 23 competitors here.

The island, which is 1,900 kilometers (1,180 miles) northwest of Sydney, was one of 71 teams from the former British Empire competing in the Commonwealth Games -- disparate lands united by the link to British monarchy.

"It's a chance for the lesser territories to show what they have," Sheridan said. "It's great to have the opportunity to play against the best in the world. The Olympics might be the world but at the Commonwealth Games we are one family."

It's a family that has presented itself as more united in sports than at the most-recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting that was boycotted by many leaders because of host Sri Lanka's human rights record.

"The games really galvanized the strong sense of community within the Commonwealth," said David Grevemberg, who becomes chief executive of the games movement after running the Glasgow event. "There is a real connection."

There are the stirring stories from the smaller teams -- from a first-ever games medal for Kiribati when David Katoatau won weightlifting gold to Sharon Firisua being cheered by the Hampden Park crowd on Saturday as she finally crossed the line in the 10,000-meters final after being lapped twice.

"My aim when I was here was to see the queen," said Firisua, one of 12 Solomon Islands athletes now preparing for a four-day trip home. "I am really glad and so privileged to have been able to have lunch with her."

Queen Elizabeth II displayed her appetite for merriment in Glasgow, beaming into the camera as she "photobombed" a selfie being taken by Australian hockey players.

But the games required a global star to elevate not just the status of the competition within the Commonwealth but its relevance far beyond. And Usain Bolt was an electrifying presence at his first Commonwealth Games.

The world's fastest man arrived to hero worship and brushed aside a media storm over reported disparaging comments about Glasgow before enchanting spectators with theatrics and speed as Jamaica's 4x100-meter relay team was anchored to glory.

"The Commonwealth is special," Bolt said. "Every experience is different, every city is different, and competing is what I love ... even though it's been a little cold."

In the medals standings England finished top for the first time since 1986 with 58 golds to end Australia's 20-year supremacy. Unlike at the Olympics, the home nations of the United Kingdom compete under their separate flags at the Commonwealth Games. But by the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Scotland could be going it alone on the Olympic front also.

With Scots voting on Sept. 18 on whether to break off from the rest of Britain, the referendum has dominated the national conversation but the games provided an escape from the political squabbling.

After New Delhi was beset by building delays and organizational chaos for the 2010 Games, Glasgow delivered a trouble-free games that leaves no "white elephant" venues while reinforcing Britain's aptitude for staging sporting festivals two years after the London Olympics.

"Scotland in this year of all years has demonstrated we can host huge international events," said Scotland's pro-independence First Minister Alex Salmond.

The games were not without controversy. There were two doping cases: 16-year-old weightlifter Chika Amalaha was stripped of her gold medal for using diuretics and masking agents, and former 400-meter world champion Amantle Montsho tested positive for the banned stimulant methylhexaneamine. Australian weightlifter Francois Etoundi ended up in a criminal court where he pleaded guilty to head-butting a Welsh competitor.

But with good-natured spectators and happy athletes, the 20th edition of the so-called "Friendly Games" largely lived up to their billing.

"It's one of the best things going for us in that sense of being an identity in our own right in the Commonwealth body," said Sheridan of Norfolk Island, which funds the trip through cake-sales and raffles. "It's one of the best things in sport."

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Rob Harris can be followed at www.twitter.com/RobHarris

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